I remember when most vegetarian restaurants seemed to be run by hippies and/or affiliated with cults. I’ve eaten many a good meal in such establishments, but it’s nice that excellent mainstream veg restaurants now thrive in some of our bigger cities. The Santa Monica-based chain Veggie Grill is one such place. You can bring your carnivorous suburban relatives here and it will probably take them a few minutes to realize they’re in a meat-free zone.
I ventured into the downtown Portland, Oregon, Veggie Grill to try their just-released winter menu items. I brought my gluten-free boyfriend to provide a second opinion. So here’s the rundown of VG’s five new items.
Start with Apps
Let’s start with appetizers, or “snacks and shares” as they’re termed on the menu. The new crispy portobellos were awesome. “I mean, how could you go wrong?” my boyfriend said of the hot, spiced, slightly oily fried mushrooms accompanied by small containers of ranch dressing and roasted red pepper sauce. We could have eaten multiple orders. But at times like this one must remember that just because a restaurant is vegan doesn’t make everything it serves healthy.
Our second side, kale and white bean braise, was considerably healthier and much, much less delicious. The main flavor was bitter kale, the veggie broth little more than hot water. “That’s pretty gross,” my boyfriend summed up as I tried another spoonful of the sad concoction, in case I’d misjudged.
However, the Sonoran winter bowl is a winner: healthful and tasty. It starts with a quinoa pilaf with dried grapes and almonds, then drops scoopfuls of black beans, fire-roasted carrots, avocado, jalapenos, tortilla strips, red pepper sauce and salsa on top. The carrots and red pepper sauce made the dish.
Banh mi and More
The glazed tofu banh mi sandwich also made me want to return to Veggie Grill this winter. This Vietnamese sandwich features the perfect mix of basil, cilantro and mint. I liked the flavor and the extra-firm texture of the five-spice tofu. My only complaint was I got shortchanged on the chargrilled eggplant. One little piece hid at the bottom of one half of my sandwich, while the other half lacked eggplant completely.
The other new dish, chargrilled veggie and penne, had me wondering if VG was experiencing a dire eggplant shortage. My serving was heavy on the escarole (a type of endive) and very light on the eggplant. Since it’s mostly penne pasta served on a bed of kale, that many greens were overkill. The best parts were the few chunks of roasted sweet potatoes and the citrus vinaigrette, which enlivens a type of pasta that can be dull and heavy. Overall this dish was pretty good, but not as successful as the other two new entrees.
I feel lucky to have three Veggie Grills in Portland (there are 26 on the west coast). We’ll see if this vegan chain can make its way eastward to penetrate markets that still think all vegetarians belong to cults. Meanwhile we Portlanders will spend the rainy season in clean, well-lit veg restaurant, eating Sonoran winter bowls, banh mi sandwiches and portobellos and wondering what new items VG will unveil in spring. – story by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor, Photos by Gideon Parque