The third part of this series on our vegan vacation to Portland, OR (aka PDX) is about the places we didn’t like as much, plus a general overview of our trip including a great We Like Cats record release party. Click back to part one (on Portland food carts) and part two (on 100% vegan restaurants and vegan treats) for more info about Portland vegan food.
Portland Vegan Dining Lowlights
We did have a few less-than-stellar meals in Portland. These three in particular left me feeling like I wasted a dining opportunity.
Pok Pok (barely vegan friendly)
Our friends had heard a lot about Pok Pok, in particular about how authentic their Thai food was. We took a quick glance at the menu online before going to see if there were vegan options, but should have looked closer.
While our friends delighted in the non-vegan options, there were only five “available vegetarian” items on the menu, with half being mushroom dependent (and I’m anti-mushroom). We ordered two of them: Papaya Pok Pok and Khao Soi Kai. The Papaya Pok Pok was a generic papaya salad that wasn’t too different from what we can get at various places in Phoenix. The Khao Soi Kai was a tasty coconut curry noodle soup that reminded me of something I get at Wagamama – yasai itame. It wasn’t too spicy but they provided chili paste on the side so that you could heat it up to taste. I would have liked more veggies in it beyond the few uncooked shallots and mustard greens you could add-in.
I’m not sure what was in their “secret curry paste” but whatever it was messed with my stomach something awful, and I was out of sorts starting from the drive back to the hotel and lasting for more than 24 hours. Truth be told, I’m still not in great digestive shape since that meal! In short, I’d much rather go to our favorite Thai restaurant near our house in Phoenix.
Papa G’s Deli (vegan, 100% organic)
It probably isn’t fair to call Papa G’s a lowlight. I just ordered wrong. Papa G’s offers a traditional/stereotypical “healthy living through vegetarian food” dining experience. They have a rotating daily menu of three or four main hot bar items that can be served as a bowl or plate, plus a few sandwiches, sides and a soup and salad bar. You can try anything before buying, which is what I should have done before ordering their vegetable curry bowl with rice.
It was about as bland as it looks. The tofu was fresh and interesting, but overall it reminded me of the free vegetarian meals I used to get from the Hare Krishnas on the Plaza at the University of Florida. However, I had tried the lentil soup and it was great. I have no idea why I didn’t order it, other than a food-fried brain that was past the point of making good decisions.
My husband ordered the Reuben sandwich.
It was about what you’d expect from a vegan Reuben – nothing special. At least Papa G’s didn’t leave me in pain like Pok Pok did!
Taqueria Los Gorditos (vegan friendly)
We had been warned that Gorditos had “gone downhill” but since I live in Phoenix, I had to try Portland’s attempt at vegan Mexican food. The full vegan menu had me overly-excited. Unfortunately the quality of the food was a major let down.
We started with chips and salsa.
The salsa was pleasant/fresh made, but the chips were fresh from a bag. Blah.
My husband ordered a vegan tamale and a Soyrizo taco.
The tamale was stuffed with what seemed to be Green Giant spring mix frozen vegetables and a generic red sauce. The taco was a little better, but still barely worth eating.
Silly me ordered the three enchiladas platter.
I selected one each of cheese, Soyrizo, and soycurls. The soycurls (which is apparently the most popular meat substitute aside from sausage in Portland) one was okay, the Soyrizo one was almost bitter tasting and fairly inedible, and the Follow Your Heart “cheese” one was absolute, unequivocal fail. The cheese didn’t even attempt to melt. It was like thin slices of cold plastic inside a lightly cooked soft corn tortilla. Portland… learn to use Daiya! The beans and rice were actually pretty good. I should have just stuck to a bean burrito like I usually do.
We really enjoyed our vegan vacation in Portland. I know it’s hard to believe, but we didn’t spend every second of our visit eating. We went to the coast for a day, and went up the Columbia River Gorge historic highway and over to Mt. Hood. I wanted to make it to Mt. Saint Helens too, but it would have been too much driving for one trip. The rental car place ran out of the cheap compact car I reserved and gave us a VW Beetle instead, so we fit right in with the Portland crowd (and its size made street parking very easy!). My husband posted some random pictures from our explorations in and out of town if you’d like to check them out.
We even got extremely lucky in the music department. A day or two into the trip I connected a dot that one of my favorite experimental/avant-garde musicians lives in Portland – Adam Forkner (of too many bands to list but White Rainbow is the main one now I think). We looked him up and discovered he was having a record release part for yet another new musical venture called We Like Cats while we were in town. And one of my absolute favorite musicians, Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, K Records), came down from Olympia to spin dub discs at the party. It was a great scene, although we were too old to last much past midnight.
The first few days we were there were overcast and slightly rainy, but it eventually turned sunny – almost too sunny for me! From the way the locals reacted, I think it was the first sunny day all year. We did a lot of walking, so I took time out for a reflexology appointment for my bum ankle at The Dragontree day spa. I don’t think I would have made it through the rest of the trip without it!
On the food front, our assessment is that most of the food we tried is “for hipster kids” (street food, junk food, fun food) but it sure would be nice to have at least a third of what’s available for vegans in Portland here in Phoenix. Especially Sweetpea. I also would like to send sample packs of Daiya to every restaurant that wasn’t using it yet.
We didn’t get to try two of my favorite cuisines – Indian and Ethiopian food – mostly because I had to stay away from the heavy spice/gut bombs after Pok Pok. That’s a reason to go back sometime, right?
Ultimately, we didn’t find a true “gourmet” vegan experience of the level of Blossom or Candle Café in New York, Millennium in San Francisco or Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles, but I think Portobello and Blossoming Lotus are headed in the right direction.
Our list of restaurants to try was twice as long as what we were able to do in the time available. Let us know if we missed the best ones in case we make it back some day!
Much thanks goes to the Stumptown Vegans blog for helping us chart our path through Portland’s vegan dining experience.