Battle of the Southern California-based Vegan Fast-Food Chains!
In this corner, we have veggiegrill. Based in Orange County, the Portland outpost opened downtown on SW 5th this summer.
In this other, suburban corner over here, we have Native Foods Cafe. Originally from Palm Springs, it opened up a branch in Tualatin’s Bridgeport Village mall last year.
So both of these places serve very similar food. If you took a TGI Friday’s menu, put quotation marks around all of the meat/foul/fish words, and replaced all of the rice with quinoa and lettuce with kale, you’d basically be looking at the menu for either VG or NFC.
The Oregonian just did an editorial piece where they picked the best 10 vegan dishes in Portland, and they included VG’s “wings” on it. They also included NFC’s Oklahoma “Bacon Cheeseburger” in the honorable mentions. I was naturally skeptical of these selections because:
1. The Oregonian is the USA Today of Portland. Would you trust USA Today to tell you where to get good vegan food? If you would, then no offense, but you probably consider TGI Friday’s to be an acceptable casual dining option. And by “no offense” I actually mean: HEAPS of offense. The hell are you eating at TGI Friday’s for?
2. If someone were serious about putting together a list of Portland’s best vegan dishes, that person would just list the best ten items on the menu at Portobello on SE Division. Because everything they serve is better than everything at every other restaurant in town. That’s not a put-down of other restaurants; that’s just how good Portobello is. Only one dish on The O’s list is from Portobello, so clearly this list is not to be taken seriously.
But so I figured I should probably check these places out anyway, at least to say that I had.
I went to veggiegrill first, because I can walk to it from work.
Atmosphere: Bright, day-glo colors everywhere. The tables and chairs were probably from Ikea. It’s that cheerily-modern upscale urban diner look. I hope you guys know what that means, because I can’t really describe it better than that, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures in a crowded eatery. B+
Service: The entire staff here looked like they’d been designed specifically for C-M UU diner work. Early 20s, earnestly attractive, big wholesome smiles, a few token piercings and tattoos for edginess’s sake.
The kid at the order counter was patient and friendly. The kid who brought me my food was aggressively attentive. (When he noticed that I’d forgotten to grab a fork from the utensils station, he insisted on getting me one even as I was standing up to get it myself.)
They also sent a kid around to try and sign me up for their birthday club. After I politely declined the first time, he kept pushing for about 30 more seconds. I’m not sure what the best circumstance for reminding a man he’s getting older is, but I can say with certainty that having a 20-year-old accost him while he’s eating by himself at a crowded restaurant is not it. C+
Food: They were out of the wings, so instead I ordered the Santa Fe’ Chickin’ sandwich with a side order of cauliflower mashed potatoes (the side was not included in the price of the sandwich).
The overall texture of the sandwich was great: super-crunchy breading sealing in juicy chikin’ that was firm but not rubbery. (The site says they make it with a proprietary blend of veggie proteins and wheat flour, so…seitan, basically). The avocado spread was cool and creamy. The breading was slightly spicy, which was nice. The chikin’ didn’t have a ton of flavor on its own, but real chicken doesn’t have that much of a flavor, either. So I guess they get points for verisimilitude, even though I would have rather had something that tasted less real and more delicious.
The cauliflower mashed potatoes came with a rosemary gravy, but it still required several vigorous shakes of salt and pepper to get it out of bland territory. The combination of potatoes and mashed cauliflower (rather than just doing one or the other) made for a confusing texture. It was good served piping hot, but I have a feeling it would have turned gluey and stringy after 5 minutes or so.
Overall, food gets a B-.
Cost: The sandwich was $9, plus an extra $2 to upgrade the side from cole slaw to the cauliflower potatoes. For the amount of food I got, that was about $4 too much. C-.
I made the trek down to Native Foods on a Sunday afternoon, figuring it wouldn’t be too crowded then. I was wrong.
Atmosphere: Before we consider the actual atmosphere inside the restaurant, we have to discuss the setting. Not because it will help you understand better, but because I am still pissed off about the experience and need to vent. Bridgeport Village is one of those fancy outdoor faux-main-street shopping plazas, like The Forum in Atlanta and Streets of Tanasbourne in Portland. It is also a clusterfuck of a parking situation. There’s a huge lot filled with cars, and then a 4-story parking deck filled with more cars. Even on a raining Sunday afternoon, there were only a few spots open on the very top deck. It took me 20 minutes to reach the top, because it’s laid out like a labyrinth, and because suburban drivers cannot handle parking decks, apparently. They will stop for no apparent reason, pull out in front of you with no warning, and basically drive like they only just now got their learner’s permit. It was all excruciatingly stressful, and confirmed my suspicion that Tigard & Tualtain and the whole Pacific Highway corridor in general are some of the most wretched places in the entire state.
So when I finally got down to the restaurant, which was slammed, I had already decided that I was getting my order to go. Anything to get out of that rat maze and back to Portland.
Which is a shame, because the restaurant’s interior is lovely. They’ve kind of got this hippie-commune-farmhouse vibe. High ceilings, white walls, stone floors, dark wood tables with benches. Again, you either know what I’m talking about here or you don’t.
The only annoying part was that they insisted on posting all of these signs talking about respecting the earth and changing the world and healthy food for healthy people and nourishment and think globally/act locally and we are the world and YEAH, WE GET IT: you want to pretend that you’re social activists instead of entrepreneurs who are running a business. And I’m perfectly willing to let you indulge in your little fantasy, even if all of your hippy-dippy signs are cluttering what would otherwise be a really nice, minimalist decorating scheme — on the one condition that you do not send a barely-legal goon out here to shake me down for my DOB and contact information, capiche? Cool.
Anyway, B+ for the atmosphere in the restaurant itself, D- for the surrounding atmosphere. Weighted average is a C-.
Service: Efficient and polite, though not terribly warm or friendly. I was only there for 5 minutes, but it was a welcome 5-minute oasis sandwiched between two 20-minute blocks of hell. B.
Food: Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger and the Butternut Polenta Bites.
The Cheeseburger was pretty damn good. Instead of trying to simulate the round patty aspect of an actual burger, they just use a stack of thinly sliced seitan. The effect was more club sandwich than hamburger, but I was fine with that. The tofu bacon was fantastic: a little sweet, a little smokey, very salty; it’s the truest bacon facsimile I’ve ever had. It would have been nice if it were a little crisper, though. I sincerely appreciated that they used a cashew-based cheese substitute (made in-house, according to their menu) instead of that Daiya shit. I don’t care how well it melts; Daiya has this awful plasticy/chemical tang, and I will not eat it.
But the real standouts on the OBC were the fried pickles. The rich, sweet breading was wonderful against the cool, sour crispness of the pickles. Delightful.
The polenta bites were a tad too salty, but nicely crisp and chewy. The butternut squash hash was about as close to likable as squash ever gets for me.*
Overall, foods gets a B+.
Cost: $10 for the sandwich, $5 for the polenta bites. Huge portions of both. It ended up lasting for 2 meals, but $10 is a lot for a sandwich no matter what, and I know for a fact that polenta is dirt fucking cheap. B-.
You know what, you guys? Just go get a tofu sandwich at Sweet Hereafter. It’s better food at a better price, they serve liquor, and it’s right there on easily accessible and congenially hip Belmont Street.
I hate to be all down on fake meat, and I don’t have an issue with it in principle, but I always feel greasy and over-salted after eating it. There’s just better vegan food out there these days.
But if you’ve really got a fast-food craving that you just can’t beat, Native Foods is the best choice. Just try to go on a weekday afternoon when it’s (hopefully) less of a pain in the ass to get in there.
*I’m just going to run through the whole squash debate right quick here before someone goes to the trouble of trying to convince me in the comments that I’m wrong to dislike it:
“Oh, you’ve just never had it prepared the right way.”
There is no right way to prepare a vegetable that is 90% slime and 10% seeds.
There! All done. Now let it go.