It turns out that one of the great things about opening a restaurant, particularly one with an unusual (to some) menu, is that it requires a fair bit of research. And research, it turns out, is a tax deductible business expense! So, we were off to Portland for the 2nd annual Vegan Beer & Food festival featuring 30 restaurants serving vegan food.
I’ve not spent a lot of time in Portland. In fact, I was there for just a couple of days when my son looked at two colleges in the area. I got a much better feel for the town this time. We stayed at an AirBnB in the Brooklyn neighborhood of SE Portland. Easy access using public transport with the MAX Orange line. Definitely in walking/biking distance of a lot of interesting stuff in SE Portland, including a very vibrant vegan scene. Contrary to the Twin Cities, where vegan dining is basically non-existent, it’s a thriving culture in Portland. I don’t know how many vegan only or very vegan friendly restaurants there are, but I’d guess there must be at least 40. Obviously we didn’t try them all, but I will share what we did try if you find yourself in the area.
- The Loving Hut in downtown Portland
- Portobello Vegan Trattoria, SE Portland
- Junior’s Cafe, SE Portland
- The Sweet Hereafter, SE Portland
- Sweetpea Baking Company, SE Portland
- Veggie Grill, downtown Portland
- Burgerville, PDX
- And, of course, the Vegan Beer & Food Festival
The Loving Hut is world-wide vegan chain with a several stores in the US. It was unpretentious, inexpensive and delicious. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in downtown Portland. It seems that most of the Loving Hut locations have their own menu, so I can’t speak for other locations, but if you’re in Portland, definitely give the Black Pepper Wonder a try. It is listed as “spicy” and really wasn’t, but the flavor and textures were amazing.
Portobello was very nice for dinner. Heather Klein, another local Twin Cities vegan chef who was in Portland for the festival, went for brunch on Saturday and was not as pleased as we were. Maybe the most surprising thing was the fact that the restaurant personnel seemed genuinely surprised that they were busy on a Friday night with the big influx of vegans for the festival on Saturday. Since we were there for the tail end of the asparagus season, we enjoyed the asparagus “fries” with cashew cream sauce. Definitely worth an order if you’re there in season. The gnocci and cauliflower manicotti were both good eats, although I would have made some changes. I’ll cut them a little slack in that they were obviously much busier than they expected and sort of struggling with the crowds.
Vegan breakfast is probably the most overlooked segment of the market. There are so few places that do a good breakfast, as if vegans don’t like to go out for breakfast like everyone else? Junior’s did a decent job; good enough that we tried to get breakfast there on Monday, but they were closed because of the owner’s birthday the day before. Major disappointment. Twin Cities readers take note, we will definitely be doing a kick-ass vegan breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. Details to follow.
The Vegan Beer & Food festival was fun. It was held at Zidell yards on the banks of the Willamette. Can someone please explain to me why that’s not Will-a-mette (just like it’s spelled) and not Wil-lam-et (as it is not spelled). Are Oregonians descended from Wisconsin (home of the emphasis on the second syllable)? I digress. The only downside to the locale was that it was a bit windy (can’t change the weather) and incredibly dusty. Seriously, we’re talking dust bowl dusty. The kind that takes two weeks to get out of your shoes, nostrils and hair. The festival was nicely set up, with a stage for bands at one end and the food at the other. That way you could eat without having to shout at each other over the music. Down by the stage end there were a number of booths for non-food, non-drink vendors (t-shirts, jewelry, etc.). The beer/cider was across from the food. The organizers should take a page from the Beer Dabbler playbook and let the beer vendors use their own tents. That way you could tell what you are in line for before you get up to the pouring station. Being the Pacific NW, every brewery featured their IPA. Many also had a fruited wheat beer, oddly many of them with watermelon, not a combination I favor. As you might have guessed, the beer part of the festival was not the highlight, although it was amusing. Centered between the beer and the food was the square Kombucha area. I admit I am a relative newcomer to the drink, but there must have been at least 50 different varieties to choose from and we tried to sample many. If you are out in Portland and looking for a tasty Kombucha, try the Humm brand coconut-lime flavor. Pretty much hands down the favorite.
Then there was the food. By far and away, the Twin Cities own Herbivorous Butcher was the most popular food tent. They were serving up a variation of Chicken and waffles, with a piece of fried seitan (I believe) based chickin’, mashed potatoes, gravy and a splash of syrup in a waffle bowl. The line to pick that up was at least 30 people long all afternoon.
I had the good fortune to meet up with Laura VanZandt, the social media director for the Herbivorous Butcher, on Sunday evening at the Portland premiere of the movie “Everyday Vegans” and she said they made twice as much as they thought they’d need and sold out! Bravo!
Upton’s Naturals from Chicago was there with chipotle jackfruit nachos that were very tasty. Watching everyone lick the cheaz sauce from their fingers, I’d say they nailed that part of it. Also several good vegan pizzas. If you’re looking to try a non-dairy cheese sauce for nachos and are not adventurous enough to make it on your own, we sampled some from Heidi-Ho Organics that is now available at Whole Foods. Definitely worth a try if you’re aching for a nacho. Hint: look for some very tasty nachos over in St. Paul later this year! 😉
Later we ventured over to The Sweet Hereafter, a busy SE Portland (dive?) bar with an all vegan menu. The place was busy, chaotic, noisy, and some of the most interesting people watching around. The drinks were decent, but if you find yourself there, I’d strongly recommend the Buffalo Sub. Of course, I’m thinking you don’t have to travel all the way to Portland to enjoy something so tasty, right? That would be silly!
Sunday we biked over to the “vegan mall” on Stark Street. The Sweetpea Baking Company is right next to Herbivore, a vegan dry goods (clothing) store, which is next to Food Fight!, an all vegan grocery and then a vegan tattoo parlor. (I didn’t realize that non-vegan tattooing was a thing, but apparently there used to be some animal products in tattoo ink. Of course, we also used to light our homes with whale blubber. Almost all tattoo inks are now plant-based, mostly because they’re a lot cheaper and work better). It was pretty cool to have 4 vegan shops in a little block area. The day was beautiful, Mt. Hood was visible, and vegans were swarming around the area eating delicious sandwiches at Sweetpea Bakery and soft serve ice cream from Food Fight!That evening we ventured over to downtown Portland to visit the Veggie Grill. As the most successful vegan fast-casual chain in the country, I felt an obligation to see what the fuss was all about. It was fine. And I mean that in the most Minnesotan female way possible. Seriously, it was just like going to Noodles & Co. with garishly colorful furniture. The food was prompt, well prepared, and tasted good. The people working there were very friendly, but the place had no soul.
After our unsuccessful attempt to get breakfast at Junior’s again on Monday morning, we had to hustle over to PDX for our flight out. Turns out the MAX and all public transport was very delayed that morning because of the Rose Parade (apparently Portland is the City of Roses). Thank goodness for Über! We just had time to grab a bite at the airport and found Burgerville PDX right next to our gate with a promising sounding Anasazi bean burger. Getting them to make it without the mayo and cheese was a bit of a hassle. Do yourself a favor and skip it; it’s definitely not worth it.
This weekend off to Chicago for the Chicago Vegan Food and Drink Festival at Butler Field. For those of you familiar with Chicago and Grant Park, it’s just north of the Buckingham fountain and south of the amphitheater and Maggie Daley park.