In June 2019, Jewan Manuel, a sports model from Michigan, set up his first taco pop-up in front of Workshop Vintage at the Williams District Night Market; eight people showed up. A lot can change in a year, however: Manuel’s entirely vegan comfort-food pop-up, Plant Based Papi, has become an outright phenomenon. When the chef announces a menu on Instagram, customers set alarms on their phones to remind them when preorders go on sale. Online orders consistently sell out, sometimes in under 10 minutes. This summer, Plant Based Papi celebrated its one-year anniversary with a taco pop-up at Poa Cafe that drew a socially distanced line that wrapped around the block.
Now, Manuel is taking the next step: Plant Based Papi — known for its towering jackfruit nachos, truffle mac and cheese, and spicy fried “chicken” — will open its own restaurant on Morrison Street at the end of December. Taking over the former Floyd’s Coffee Shop space, Plant Based Papi will begin selling pasta, tacos, and everything in between shortly before Christmas.
The name Plant Based Papi started as a joke among friends — Manuel has been vegan for nine years and is a big fan of Drake (whose Instagram handle is champagnepapi). Manuel’s food — which ranges from pastas to tacos to vegan takes on seafood — is definitely heavy on comfort, but Manuel doesn’t see his food as soul food. “When I say comfort food, because I’m Black, people think soul food,” Manuel says. “That’s what Dirty Lettuce does, and I love that. It’s one of my favorite places, but that’s not what I’m doing.”
Just like the pop-ups, the restaurant menu will be ever-changing, but customers can expect to find certain foods on specific days. On Tuesdays, tacos loaded with truffle mac and cheese, spicy shredded jackfruit, and beer-battered portobellos will make an appearance. Vegan takes on seafood and pasta dishes — like fettuccine in creamy white-wine alfredo sauce with seared king oyster mushroom scallops and house-made cashew Parmesan — will take center stage on Saturday for late lunch and dinner service. On Sundays, the chef plans to serve brunch, including a vegan fried chicken French toast sandwich that he tested recently.
What sets Plant Based Papi’s menu apart from many other vegan comfort foods in Portland is that Manuel doesn’t use faux meats. “When I first started using meat alternatives, for me, my body couldn’t process that,” he says. “Why not try to make everything out of plants?” Jackfruit, chanterelle mushrooms, and banana blossoms are regular meat substitutes on the menu. The chef has been developing a house-made burger patty with mung beans and walnuts rather than using seitan, a typical base for vegan burgers. He makes as much as he can from scratch, using ingredients like cashews and tapioca starch, rather than buying vegan products. “Never say never, but for the time being, I’d rather just use plants,” he says.
Plant Based Papi will join other notable vegan businesses on that block, turning Morrison into something of a vegan restaurant row. “I’m super excited to be in the community in that specific area, knowing that Fermenter was right there and coming from the same infrastructure as Thuy [Pham of Mama Dut], from pop-up to restaurant,” Manuel says.
While Manuel attributes his success to his rotating menu of “good vegan food” — Plant Based Papi’s slogan — he speaks highly of members of the Portland community who offered guidance and opportunities along the way. Hosting his first taco pop-up in front of Workshop Vintage, with the support of owners Audra Santillo and Nate Moore, propelled the dream of sharing his food forward, despite the low turnout at that first event. Manuel is a regular at Akadi, where he learned the ins and outs of running a food business and how to navigate the challenges of the pandemic from mentors Fatou Ouattara and George Faux; he orders Akadi’s spicy spinach and okra stew at least twice a week. The chef admires Mama Dut, his neighbor on Morrison, as a business that paved the way from pop-up to restaurant. “Thuy is a huge inspiration, to have her as someone to watch and learn from,” Manuel says. “To gather an audience first, then translate to a restaurant, it’s unorthodox.”
The chef has popped up at several restaurants in Portland, but Manuel is especially grateful to Janice Grube of Poa Cafe, the venue for many of his most successful events. “Poa Cafe felt like home,” he says. “It was organic, so divine. When I first met Janice, she immediately just trusted me. She was looking for her kitchen to be transformed [after the cafe closes at 2 p.m.].” There, Plant Based Papi thrived, as if the kitchen were Manuel’s own, not just a space that he was utilizing for a few hours. When Poa Cafe temporarily closed its doors due to the pandemic, another opportunity fell into his lap: Jessica Smith of Bushel and Peck invited Manuel into her kitchen, where he learned to adapt his food business for the COVID era. Grateful for all the support, Manuel plans to open his doors to others to host pop-ups in the space and establish themselves. “That’s what got me here: people offering me opportunities,” he says. “I’m excited to offer that to someone else.”
As one of the few Black food creators in Portland, Manuel feels that he holds a certain responsibility “to be a notable Black business, for other Black people to come and enjoy,” in his words. “Being Black in the vegan space, it’s very diluted in the culture,” he says. “It’s comfortable to see someone who looks like you do something. I want to expand with the community and be my own separate entity.”
Originally from Flint, Michigan, Manuel had his introduction to the culinary world in high school, when he started taking college courses at the Applewood Cafe culinary program. There, his capstone project — inspired by The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho — was a restaurant named Santiago. He went on to work at restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, to pay for college classes; he never expected to enter into the food industry again.
In January 2016, Manuel left a corporate job in Los Angeles and moved to Portland for sports modeling. On the side, he began developing vegan recipes. “With sports modeling, even if you book four gigs a month, you’re only working four days,” he explains. “I wanted to find something I was passionate about. I never want to work for anyone else for the rest of my life.” As Plant Based Papi took off, he continued to bounce back and forth between the two cities, but eventually settled in Portland, where he had found a supportive community.
Before October, Manuel didn’t have plans to open a restaurant, but it was clear that the pop-ups were a tremendous success. “I had no more steps to go,” he says. “It was kismet the way the owner of the building offered this opportunity.” With access to a full kitchen of his own, the chef is excited to ramp up production and cut wait times. Manuel intends to shoot content in the space, because customers often ask about his made-from-scratch techniques; he also has ideas for a cookbook. Although Plant Based Papi could have opened as early as December 1, the chef chose to invest some time into transforming the coffee shop into a commercial kitchen. “I want to make the space mine before working out of it,” he says.
Plant Based Papi opens later this month at 1412 SE Morrison Street and will offer takeout three days a week: Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Follow along on Instagram for opening and menu announcements.