Portland is no rookie in the vegan cuisine realm, with everything from radical fine dining to barbecue. That makes it a tough market to please — but that didn’t stop the Canadian pizza artists at Virtuous Pie. After wowing folks with its luxuriant pies and ice creams in Vancouver, B.C., executive chef Jim Vesal and co-founder Lia Loukas opened a second location in Portland in June 2017, charming locals and nabbing Eater Portland’s Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant of the Year in 2017.
“Portland felt like the right next step and the right first US location,” says Loukas. “Vancouverites have always adored and envied Portland for its similarities to Vancouver: love for the outdoors...food, music — but Portland’s always done it just a little cooler.”
Still, Virtuous Pie blends in with style: The shop draws heavily from nature, from the cafe counter crafted using reclaimed Douglas Fir to the communal-style picnic table by Portland’s Reed LaPlant. The airy space, which gets plenty of light on sunnier days, is also complemented by a variety of indoor plants perched throughout the restaurant, giving it a cozy vibe. And as the pies arrive, topped with buffalo cauliflower or house-made dairy-free cheeses, vegans fawn again and again, from Yelp to Facebook.
So how did Virtuous Pie cause such a stir in Portland, a city already well-established as a vegan mecca? It seems the company has figured out the formula: tasty food that’s both healthy and environmentally conscious, while also appealing to a variety of people, including those who are often quick to shun the v-word.
Virtuous Pie sticks to nostalgic favorites, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant plays it safe. “Virtuous Pie was conceived from wanting to create a vegan restaurant that was approachable for everyone,” Loukas explains. “Two of the most enjoyed foods globally are pizza and ice cream, and no one was doing those two things [for vegans]. So the idea bloomed from there.” Determined to reinvent the wheel rather than imitate, Virtuous Pie brings its unique flavors together with well-balanced compositions. Consider the white pie, a medley of creamy cashew sauce, almond ricotta, cashew mozzarella, fresh oregano, olive oil: While the cashew accoutrement remain closely tied to the original inspiration, crushed red pepper lends just the right amount of zing. It also manages to satisfy junk food cravings with options like “Stranger Wings,” a pie sprinkled with creamy cashew sauce, buffalo cauliflower, fried shallots, scallions, and a tangy soy/tahini-based blue “cheese.” And as polarized as Portland’s dining market may be, Virtuous Pie makes it a point to hit all those marks with both mock meat options and playfully designed veggie pies.
“We’ve spent a lot of time creating and evolving our own recipes, and having that control over your food quality and taste is essential to us,” Loukas says. “We work hard to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome, no matter your dietary preferences (or) age.”
Not Your Hippie Aunt’s Fake Cheese
Most everything on the menu is made in-house, which means prep labor goes into every dish. This includes cheeses like cashew mozzarella and truffle almond ricotta, as well as sauces like the arrabbiata, made with San Marzano tomatoes, onion, fennel, and a touch of cherry peppers for added heat. While the restaurant prefers to highlight vegetable toppings over mock meats, the house meatball made with soyrizo, red wine, gluten free flour, and nutritional yeast helps appease folks looking for a meatier counterpart. As for the pie crust, which is made in-house using flour sourced from Shepard’s Grain, the toothsome texture is achieved by way of a three day preparation process.
“We try to avoid copycatting meat-heavy classics like pepperoni pizza because it’s always going to fall short of expectations. While we do make some mock meats in house, like meatballs and sausages, we want to showcase how vegetables speak on their own terms” says Portland’s head chef Justin Kay.
Yet, it’s not just the pizza alone that draws herds of people over here: Virtuous Pie also has a thoughtfully-hatched line of house-made ice cream made from a mix of coconut milk and cashew milk, two ingredients that give it that melt-in-your-mouth velvety texture. “The ice cream here is pretty rich, so people seek it out because there’s no cholesterol involved like in traditional ice cream,” adds Kay. There are usually around eight to 10 different flavors to choose from the rotating menu at any given time, such as standard vanilla to more experimental offerings like coffee and donuts.
While the pizza may be the entree at Virtuous Pie, ice cream is certainly not an afterthought; the company offers not just pints, but ice cream sandwiches, house-made waffle cones (including a gluten-free option), an affogato, and kombucha floats. In keeping with Portland’s hyperlocal mores, Virtuous Pie has made it a point to partner with a number of local vendors as well, like Heart Roasters and Petunias Pies and Pastries.
“The food and vegan food scene in Portland is one of the best in North America,” Loukas says. “If we could make it in Portland, we could make it anywhere.”