PORTLAND — It’s a little bit silly, a little juvenile, and frankly not in keeping with one major thesis of this article, but I have to say it was the goddamned hamburger that got my attention.
I had come to Portland to while away a few days sampling the city’s much-hyped abundance of vegan restaurants and generally trying to live veganishly: bring the cloth messenger bag and the nylon belt, ditch the usual rainy-day-Northwest leather work boots for canvas Chuck Taylors, etc.
Gimmicky? A little, I guess. But I wasn’t there to prove a point — just to try doing things differently for a while. See how it felt.
Shortly after I arrived, local vegan food writer Waz Wu explained the city’s scene had matured since she arrived from New York City in 2016.
“Moving here, I found a lot of vegan junk food, a lot of fried food,” she said. “In the last two years or so, it’s been nice to see Portland branching out. There’s nothing wrong with using vegan meat or cheese alternatives, but a lot of places are now heavily focused on using vegetables as vegetables.”
Makes sense. Why euphemize? Beyond Burgers and legume-based chickens make nice training wheels (after reportedly selling 1,300 pounds of vegan orange chicken in a single day, Panda Express is rolling out the experiment to 10 states), but if we’re moving toward a more plant-based future, let’s be grown-ups, scrap the magic-meat tricks and face facts: vegetables as vegetables. Right?
But still — that burger.
It was a little slider at The Belmont Fermentorium brewpub, the kind of tender puck Seattle people might recognize from Dick’s: buttery bun, pickle and minced onion, an exceptional yellow mustard (just what you want from an all-American yellow mustard, but with some extra flair, as if its turmeric or vinegar had been specially sourced), a cheese made from coconuts and a patty that turned out to be pea protein.
I took a bite and couldn’t believe my senses. Some professional food-tasters might sniff at my feelings about a pea-protein patty, but no matter. I don’t pretend to be a gourmand, and haven’t kept up with the latest mock-meat technology, so I was properly, late-to-the-party shocked: The vegans had cracked the code.
The days to come would bring other pleasant surprises, but of the more sophisticated, vegetables-as-vegetables variety: luscious, slow-cooked mushrooms with made-to-order tortillas at the sleek Republica; a deeply satisfying plate of dosa (like a crêpe, but made with a fermented batter of rice and lentils) with black-eyed pea korma at The Sudra; a semispicy jackfruit banh mi at Mama Dut that I approached with great skepticism but finished with delight.
The pea-patty slider may have caught my attention, but the jackfruit banh mi has more sticking power in the mind: the crispy crust and light center of the fresh baguette; the mellow jackfruit earthy but vegetal, like an artichoke heart; the bright flavors of a creamy vegan sauce. As one recent Yelp reviewer chirped: “This is the kind of place that makes me think I could go vegan!”
That could characterize the whole town — my vegan sojourn in Portland was not an exercise in deprivation.
There seems to be a high-quality vegan analogue for most omnivore cuisines: rightfully raved-about sushi at Mitate, gooey empanadas at Epif, even cheesesteaks (cheesesteaks? Yes, cheesesteaks) at Buddy’s Steaks. You want hole-in-the-wall street food? You got it. You want an industrial-swank dining room with exposed ductwork, iMinimalist décor and double-digit prices on every menu item? Done.
Even more impressively, the ambitious omnivore restaurants seem to be taking their vegan options seriously. “The most successful vegan restaurants are attracting omnivores,” Wu said. “And good omnivore restaurants serving vegan food are doing a great job.”
The merry contempt of Anthony Bourdain’s famous snarl — “vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit” — didn’t ring true here.
America’s Veganist City?
Seattle vegans have known this for ages. A few in my circle talk about Portland like it’s Food City: They keep lists, trade tips, even did some light fretting over how to winnow down suggestions for my trip.
“I’ll leave it there,” one friend of a friend wrote in an email after recommending 17 vegan restaurants — plus what to order at each — and short obituaries for a handful of favorites no longer with us. (His partner followed up with a list of 50 places in two categories: “tried it” and “want it.”)
“There are SO many great vegan options in Portland,” the friend of a friend wrote. “Really puts Seattle to shame.”
I was beginning to see what the fuss was about.
But people who live deep in Portland’s vegan scene say its reputation as the Veganist City in America might be a little overblown — that perhaps the relative smallness of its overall population (around 650,000) makes the density and visibility of its vegan community look more intense by comparison.
Emiko Badillo, who co-founded the now-iconic vegan grocery store Food Fight! back in 2003, says veganism is well established and growing in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, and elsewhere. (In 2020, some vegan news outlets listed Chicago, New York and even Dallas and Houston over Portland in their year-end, top-10-veganist-cities lists.)
“Even my hometown of San Antonio is blowing up, veganwise,” Badillo said. “So by default, that’s mostly Black- and Chicano-led vegan stuff, and that’s just awesome.”
Also awesome: Badillo, Wu and others point to a recent surge in Portland chefs of color opening vegan restaurants — Mama Dut (Vietnamese), Dirty Lettuce (Southern), Plant Based Papi (tacos, mac and cheese, other comfort food) — helping break the popular misapprehension that veganism belongs to white people.
“Living in a city like Portland and being involved with veganism, both so dominated by whiteness, was a huge struggle for me,” Badillo said. In 2013, she co-founded Portland Vegans of Color, though she says the core group never got much beyond a half-dozen people.
“But seeing how it is now, with so many vegan restaurants opening that are BIPOC-led, with more Black and brown customers coming into our store, has given me so much more life,” she said. “It’s really been a driving factor in me still liking being here.”
Why are so many chefs of color opening vegan restaurants now? Badillo thinks it’s fairly obvious: “There’s been a lot of momentum recently in the decolonizing movement, in all sorts of ways, and food traditions are a big part of it. It’s a worldwide thing happening. Of course veganism is going to be affected by it as well.”
Thuy Pham of Mama Dut is one of those chefs. She immigrated to the U.S. as a child in 1982 and eventually became a hair stylist — when COVID-19 shut down that business, she fooled around with making vegan pork belly on Instagram Live with her daughter. Her DMs lit up with people wanting to buy it. “I actually Googled, ‘How do you start a food business?’” Pham said, laughing. “It said I needed a commissary kitchen, so then I Googled, ‘What is a commissary kitchen?’”
One thing led to another, and Mama Dut is now working on a second location.
Like Badillo, Pham talks about the weight of whiteness in U.S. veganism — and also sees that changing. “Vegan cuisine was not invented by white Europeans,” she said. “Flour washing, mock meats, lentils and root vegetables — those things come from China, Africa, India, Latin America. But more cultural vegan food and vegans of color are coming out, and that is just so beautiful to me.”
This month, New York City elected Eric Adams — a Black man, and former Brooklyn borough president — as its first vegan mayor.
On parallel tracks: Portland and the vegan movement
Between vegan meals, I cruised around Portland, visiting other attractions: the great Mississippi Records, where you can find all the albums you didn’t know you needed (Ethiopian jazz, Australian garage rock, soul compilations devoted to the sounds of Miami and East L.A.); Portland’s large, excellent complex of Japanese gardens (somehow, I can’t be bothered with English or French or Chinese gardens, but am a total sucker for the Japanese variety); the new bloody Bond movie at the McMenamins Bagdad Theater (hold the butter, please).
As I moved through the city, paying more attention to restaurant signage than usual, I kept seeing advertisements for “plant-based” food: not vegan, but plant-based.
“I think it’s a marketing thing,” Pham said. “For many people, ‘vegan’ has become a four-letter word.”
That analysis tracks with some surprising numbers. In 1999, a Gallup poll calculated that 6% of the U.S. population identified as vegetarian. How many people identified as vegetarian in 2018, the last time Gallup asked? Five percent. In 20 years, and countless celebrity conversions later, the number barely budged. (Between 2012 and 2018, the number of self-identifying vegans grew from 2% to 3%.)
Meanwhile, the plant-based food industry has become a rocket ship. Along with Panda Express, Starbucks, Jack in the Box, A&W, McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s and other fast-food chains are testing vegetarian and vegan menu items. A Burger King in Spain, the land made of ham, went meatless in October. In the first quarter of 2020, Beyond Meat — for example — reported a 141% year-over-year increase in net revenue.
To Pham, the conclusion is obvious. Masses of people aren’t becoming vegans — they’re just eating like them.
“I get a lot of omnivores coming into Mama Dut saying, ‘I’m an omnivore but I love your food,’” she said. “As vegans, we need to stop shaming people who are omnivores and allow them to embark on their own journey just as we did.”
But “plant-based” provokes ambivalence in some old-school vegans like Badillo — to whom there is a difference between being a vegan and eating like one. When she went from what she calls “a sleazebag, don’t-care-about-anything punk” to a vegan (in Austin, Texas, in 1997) that came with a set of ethical and political implications: against animal testing; against capitalist exploitation of people, animals and land; for indie, low-impact, DIY living.
Badillo and her partner Chad Miller opened Food Fight! shortly after moving to Portland, partly because they were tired of squinting at labels in the aisles of multiple grocery stores to keep their pantry vegan. What if vegans could shop in one store, where everything on the shelves was fair game? They started sourcing mock meats from Asian markets and importing treats like gelatin-free Skittles from Egypt. Their rent was $600 a month.
“That’s how Portland was at the time,” Badillo said. “You could just take a chance, before Portland really became a thing or veganism became so mainstream.”
In 2007, Food Fight! teamed up with a vegan clothing store (Herbivore), a vegan tattoo shop (Scapegoat, which eschews inks that contain animal products like gelatin and bone char) and a vegan bakery (Sweetpea, which makes great strudel-like pastries) to open what the press started calling “a vegan mini-mall” in the Buckman neighborhood.
“As Portland became more popular, a tourist destination, so did the ‘vegan mini-mall,’” Badillo said. That was also around the time the kinds of large food conglomerates Badillo avoids (Unilever, Nestlé, etc.) began snapping up small vegan businesses and carrying “plant-based” products.
“It always surprises me how the developments of Portland and veganism are so parallel,” she said. Both are dramatically more visible — and both have lost some of the low-to-the-ground, DIY principles and budgets that used to be their defining characteristics. They’re more “plant-based.”
“Honestly, I don’t even know what ‘plant-based’ means except maybe a way for people to be vegan without the politics and accountability?” Badillo said. “That level of veganism is not the norm now — we’re just old, ‘these-kids-nowadays’ vegans, you know? But I’m trying to be understanding and appreciate some aspects of the mainstreaming of veganism. It’s all very bittersweet, like everything.”
And like most things, veganism becomes more complex the longer you stare at it.
On the train ride home, I considered what veganism isn’t: not asceticism (at least not in Portland), not necessarily moral (exploitative jerks sell dairy-free mayo, too), definitely not the property of dour white hippies. And in a sea of vegan options — and, admittedly, with enough cash to eat out a lot — it didn’t feel like that big a struggle. I hadn’t had a conversion experience, but I hadn’t pined for fried chicken, either. In fact, shopping for a train lunch a few hours earlier, I’d instinctively sought out falafel instead of a deli sandwich.
Maybe that’s what change looks like.