Portland is a liberal, health-conscious town with a comparatively large number of vegetarian and vegan restaurant options for a city of our size. Despite this fact, some of our restaurant options show the usual hallmarks of being part of a new industry segment: inconsistent food and service, unrealistic pricing and a minimal grasp on how to offer nutritional meals for people on non-standard diets.
A large amount of technical skill and experience is required to get the proper mix of colors, textures, flavors and nutrition in a dining experience, as well as the ability to concentrate on a good number of fine details all at the same time. Cooking is a performance art, and like any art, when you restrict your medium or technique, it means that you have to pay more attention to that detail.
There is a basic set of standards to use when evaluating any cooking, but especially vegan and vegetarian food. One can treat most meats with a certain amount of disregard and be fairly sure of an excellent result, but the same is not true of vegetables, which will yield vastly different results from fairly similar preparation techniques.
Good quality ingredients: ordering seasonal foods
The Willamette Valley is paradise for plants of all types – we are lucky that it takes effort for restaurants around here to get bad produce from the farmers. However, it is mostly the non-local and un-seasonal produce that seem to form the backbone of some otherwise terrific restaurants. Portland State’s own Food For Thought Cafe is an excellent example of this. While very real efforts are made to keep the menu as organic and otherwise sustainable as possible, there haven’t been any serious, long-term attempts at local sourcing. Cucumbers and tomatoes on winter’s sandwiches and salads are flown in from California or Mexico. There are local, organic greenhouse tomatoes and other vegetables available through the year in Portland that are sadly prohibitively expensive in the winter. To keep prices low, second-rate ingredients are often used in many vegetarian kitchens and it is impossible to make high-quality meals out of low-quality foods. I suggest being obsessively seasonal when ordering, and don’t be afraid to ask if they use canned sauces or non-local ingredients.
Vegetables tend to be much more versatile as a culinary tool than meat. Ever tried riced parsnips? A sweet-pea granita on a hot day can give you new reasons to live. Another great thing that happens as you branch out is that you gain additional skills in cooking the old standbys. In community-centered restaurants, the people who work in the kitchen are from a diverse range of culinary backgrounds. Your food is equally likely to be prepared by persons with fine-dining experience as by those with absolutely no experience at all.
The Red and Black Cafe, at 2138 S.E. Division St., often fluctuates in the quality of the food, with the tempeh often leaning on the salty side. But when they do get it right, it can be out of this world. I have had some amazing salads in the summer, with ingredients provided, at least in part, by the nearby People’s Food Co-op. They also feature fair-trade coffee, craft-brewed beers and live music at night. It is always worthwhile to ask for a recommendation from the counterperson. With a little asking around, you get a good idea of the food quality in no time.
Nutrition and flavor
A lot of different kinds of dishes can pass as vegetarian. Pan-fried noodles in coconut oil: vegetarian? Sure. Healthy? Not by a long shot. Beware of starch-and-sugar superbombs! Tofu and noodles is no more of a balanced meal than a hamburger, minus a little saturated fat. Diets focused on a small set of ingredients will never be balanced diets.
The Vegetarian House, at 22 N.W. Fourth Ave., is an excellent example of vegetarian food that can get you into trouble. Their menu features an almost unbelievable range of faux-meats. Ever wanted to go vegetarian but worried you couldn’t get chicken nuggets any more? Have no fear. If formed, pressed veggie protein is your idea of paradise, this is the place for you. If, however, you want a balanced, flavorful, nutritious dinner, this probably isn’t the place for you unless you order the straight veggie plate. Additionally, the mildly creepy quasi-religious vegetarian apologetics extends to a quote from some kind of “master” placed lovingly into each fortune cookie.
The Paradox Palace Cafe, at 3439 S.E. Belmont St., better explores the possibilities of vegetarian food. It can be a bit on the bland side (salt is on the table, you can ask for Bragg’s) but it always includes a variety of vegetables of various sorts and always comes in satisfying large portions. I was out with a group of regulars who happened on one of the waitresses. She was excited to see them and to have a conversation – so there is definitely a strong community feel, like in the best restaurants.
I am a strong believer in advocacy dining. I think one of the best ways to learn more about a community is to find out where they eat and share a meal with them. One of the best things we can do to help our communities grow is to have the best food possible. If we want to have sustainable food that is also high quality, the time to begin asking for it is now.