Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite places in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant’s ethos, sharing fun personal takes, and fostering a community spirit. Know of a chef you’d like to see featured? Let us know via our tip line.
Dirty Lettuce really is a one-of-a-kind spot in Portland, a soul food destination on Northeast Fremont that happens to be entirely vegan. Such a twist was essentially sacrilege in chef and owner Alkebulan Moroski’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, where the cuisine’s animal products reign supreme. “Southern food is very meat-oriented,” he says. “All the fried stuff has egg wash, all of the veggies have ham hocks cooked into them, and of course everything has butter. ‘Cause it’s butter.”
However, after being drawn to the plant-based metropolis of Portland in January 2020 (“A hell of a time to move here. Perfect timing,” they joke), Moroski’s cooking was quickly embraced.
“I feel very fortunate about how supportive the vegan community is here. And not just the vegan community. A lot of people who come in here just want Southern food, and I jumped into that union,” he notes. “A lot of the things I make, it’s pretty much the same exact thing. Most of my sides are almost identical to the non-vegan version.” Think: okra etouffee, cajun-spiced hushpuppies, mashed potatoes, and fried pickles with ranch dressing. After all, do fried pickles really need to not be vegan? We caught up with Moroski to discuss everything from their favorite Thai comfort food to Dirty Lettuce’s plans for the future.
Eater Portland: Can we talk about the name of your spot? It feels daring to use the word “dirty.”
Alkebulan Moroski: In the South, where I grew up, everybody’s idea of veganism is just eating lettuce and celery and carrots. This is the dirty version of stereotypical vegan food, even though I don’t have any lettuce on the menu.
Which is fine. I don’t think of going to a Southern place and getting a salad.
I figured. People aren’t coming here for that. Coleslaw is a kind of salad, I guess. Collard greens are a very wet salad. Hot, wet salad.
Since you’ve been in Portland for a couple of years, have you been able to make friends in the industry?
The timing of when I got here made the socialization aspect kind of tricky. A lot of the friends I made were in a little vegan food court called Shady Pines. I’ve found a lot of the best food is at carts, because it’s more likely that the person running the show, whose heart and soul is in the business, is actively engaged in the cooking. You know what’s on the plate is exactly what the person intended. I met a lot of cool people in that pod. A lot of the people I met there I still hang out with really regularly.
Where are some of the places you like to go?
This tiny little spot called Thai Me Drunken Noodle on 82nd. I discovered them like two months ago and have been going there a lot.
Another Thai spot that always pops into my head is Kati down on Division. That’s usually my go-to if I just want tasty, delicious comfort food. I’m obsessed with their crispy basil tofu and pad see ew.
When I go out somewhere, I tend to make it all about the food and eating, so I don’t want distraction. I know that sounds obsessive, but, it’s like, I’m feeding the body.
Totally. Portland’s a good town for solo eating.
I’ve noticed there are a lot of places where you just walk in, sit down at a table or counter, and it’s not strange to people. I don’t always want to eat with a big group of people. Eating’s my personal ritual.
Where are some of those places you like to go solo, maybe as a hideaway?
A spot I’ve really been liking is Mirisata on Belmont. I go for those little noodle disks, string hoppers. You can get dhal and they do this incredible marinated coconut slaw, pol sambol. That’s what I always think about.
The Bulgogi in Hollywood, they’re right between my restaurant and my house, so if I’m heading home at night and don’t wanna cook anything, I grab some dumplings there.
That’s the kind of place I love in these interviews, because it’s not a name-y thing you see on a list of “best restaurants.” They’re working hard and putting out great food, even if they’re not getting coverage.
And it’s one of my favorite restaurants in the whole city.
How about spots here on Fremont?
Pretty much all of the businesses on this strip have really cool people, like happyday, the little juice bar down there. Those are some really awesome folks and they have really, really good juice. Jim and Patty’s, too, that’s where I usually go for my coffee.
Do you have any plans for the restaurant in 2023?
The big thing that I’m working on right now is getting my OHA license so I can start packaging up my foods and offering them at different grocery stores. That’s the major project that’s in the works right now.
Amazing. Let’s go take some pictures. You completely turned a look, which I am very happy about.
I love my flowy stuff.