These Chefs of Color Decolonize Portland’s Vegan Food Scene – Food & Drink Guide 2021: Eating Sustainably
Dirty Lettuce vegan food can satisfy any KFC craving.
courtesy of Dirty Lettuce
Surrounded by a virtual Instagram grid of perfectly prepared street tacos and behind-the-scenes cooking videos is an image of Walter Mercado, a beloved Hispanic astrologer, standing in an embellished pink cape with his hands outstretched as if presenting the superimposed text: POC eats free.
It’s a policy that speaks to the heart of vegan taqueria Mis TaconesThe mission to make Portland’s predominantly white vegan scene more welcoming and accessible to working-class queer brunettes.
“I’ve always seen veganism through the lens of privilege,” said Polo Bañuelos, chef and co-owner of Mis Tacones. “And when I see a privilege, I see an inaccessibility to other communities. It doesn’t need to be unreachable.
While Portland is hailed as a vegan paradise, it is a paradise that only exists for some. Although the plant-based diet has ancient roots in several cultures, the recent vegan movement often focuses on whites, whether due to PETA roughly compares animal farming to slavery, the emergence of vegan stores like Whole Foods being signifiers of gentrification, or the fact that large, predominantly white cities like Portland lead the charge in herbal restaurants per capita. As a result, veganism can be unwelcoming and inaccessible to non-white people – and at a time when beef production alone accounts for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food production, making vegan choices more accessible to everyone is beneficial.
For many Portland vegan chefs, making veganism more accessible to communities of color means departing from capitalist values, embracing community, and honoring the food that raised them.
Bañuelos and their partner Carlos Reynoso launched Mis Tacones in 2016, with the aim of bringing the energy and “pulse” of street food from Los Angeles and Baja California to Portland. As their pop-ups filled the taco void of Portland’s vegan food scene at the time, Bañuelos and Reynoso also wanted to bring working-class brown people to Portland’s predominantly white vegan spaces.
Mis Tacones’ first residency at Food Fight Grocery, an organized vegan market, in 2016 gave the couple the opportunity to start carving out that space for themselves. For Reynoso, it was “an honor” to serve the needs of their community in a heavily gentrified area of Portland. At the time, Food Fight was located in Southeast Portland, one of the city’s many neighborhoods that saw a rise in luxury apartment complexes and boutique cafes that priced Portlanders low. income over the past two decades.
Mis Tacones serves vegetalized versions of familiar taqueria staples, like tangy and spicy asada tacos. Isabelle Garcia
“We wanted to bring the brown working class people [to the area] who were also vegans, but who may have felt culture alienated, ”Reynoso said.
Mis Tacones tackles this alienation by serving up vegan versions of familiar taqueria staples, like tangy and spicy asada tacos and velvety refried beans made with vegetable shortening instead of traditional lard. The Bañuelos make their own seitan – a gluten-based protein that can mimic the chewing and texture of meat – and flavor it with spices and herbs from their family’s meat recipes.
“Watching my brother on the grill pour beer and lime all over the asada, making it crispy – these are just very traditional ways of making carne asada that I incorporate,” Bañuelos said.
Focusing on faux meats is a common theme among Portland chefs creating vegan versions of traditional dishes. Cyrus Ichiza, owner and chef of a pan-Asian vegan restaurant Kitchen Ichiza in northeast Portland, considers Mock Meat as the “Ibiza trope,” featuring them in more than half of the dishes on its menu. For Ichiza, it’s about maintaining a relationship with the food that raised her – the spicy black vinegar chicken adobo of her childhood and the dumplings that marked special occasions – without the animal products.
“Especially in a vegan lifestyle and constantly forced to be healthy and eat whole foods, I wanted to create a menu where people could still have their cultural culinary memories, which are so deeply rooted in us,” said Ichiza. “It’s not just me who grew up on this food, it’s so many other people.”
Adopting the tasty and nostalgic meals of the house also disrupts the perceptions of bland, textureless foods that hit the early days of vegan cooking. Before opening up the southern vegan food cart phenomenon Dirty Lettuce in northeast Portland in early 2020, Alkebulan Moroski tried to incorporate vegan dishes at his family’s restaurant in Mississippi. The plant-based food actually scared off customers who viewed these dishes as a sign that the whole menu was bad.
A vegan version of Chef Cyrus Ichiza’s spicy black vinegar chicken adobo from childhood. courtesy of Cyrus Ichiza
“I felt that one big thing that is preventing a lot of people from embracing vegan lifestyles more fully, and what I feel a lot of people in the vegan field don’t really like to recognize, is that, honestly, a lot of vegan foods don’t taste as delicious as their meat-based counterparts, ”Moroski said. “I wanted to show people that it was possible to cut animal products out of your diet and not have to sacrifice the sheer dopamine rush of a good meal.”
For Moroski, who moved Dirty lettuce at a brick and mortar restaurant in the Rose City Park neighborhood in May 2021, that means serving silky Mac & Cheeze, smoked barbecued ribs, and crispy fried seitan chicken that can actually satisfy a craving for KFC.
At the same time, offering vegan options doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel. The plant-based diet has roots in South and East Asian cultures that predate the “vegan” label. While Ichiza grew up eating traditional meat recipes, vegan meals were also common when they attended Buddhist temples or celebrated the Fall Moon Festival. For him, the word ‘vegan’ has colonial roots that impact vegan spaces, including his own restaurant.
Ichiza has built her menu to reflect her own multicultural identity, with Chinese, Filipino and Japanese dishes marking her own upbringing. But, when people see his Japanese surname, they can begin to vet the authenticity of his menu, noting that it is not real Japanese cuisine and criticizing his versions of traditional dishes. For Ichiza, it’s not just a judgment on her cooking, it’s a search of her identity.
“I have been in an identity crisis because of other people, not necessarily for myself,” Ichiza said. “When I was young I wasn’t dark enough to hang out with cool Filipino kids and I wasn’t white at all. I’ve never had the opportunity to be on one side or the other, so I’ve always been on the outside, and I’m going through the same shit at 38.
This is why Ichiza renamed the restaurant Jade Rabbit at the end of October, in an effort to give the multicultural restaurant a more ubiquitous Asian name and to protect her own identity from the perpetual grip of colonization.
Indian Vegetarian Restaurant Maruti offers Indian dishes with an emphasis on sustainability. Isabelle Garcia
Despite these challenges, Ichiza saw a change in Portland’s vegan food scene, noting that more and more chefs are bringing their own cultural dishes and culinary stories to the city.
For Maruti, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, embracing their culinary history means offering Indian staples with an emphasis on sustainability. Maruti owner Falguni Khanna, who grew up in western India, where vegetarian diets are most popular in the country, is passionate about using organic, non-GMO and derived ingredients and materials. from sustainable sources throughout the restaurant.
“I will not serve you something that I will not eat personally, and that has always been my philosophy,” Khanna said. “If I eat organic at home, then I cook organic in a restaurant. If I don’t like what I eat, I won’t serve it to you.
Providing sustainable, local food comes at a higher cost – the organic safflower oil that Maruti uses for frying, for example, is seven times more expensive than more common canola oil. Everything from finding local suppliers for eco-friendly take-out containers to selectively choosing non-GMO ingredients has slashed the restaurant’s profits, but for Khanna, Maruti is not a capitalist business.
“I feel like food is a form of love, and when you feed people it only nourishes not only their stomachs but their souls,” Khanna said. “What we’re doing is worth doing, and that means there isn’t enough money in our bank account, but we’re happy and we’re thankful.”
The community-centered approach is a common theme for Portland chefs aiming to make veganism more accessible. While the restaurant industry can be competitive, with restaurants competing for the same customers and trying to find their market share, Mis Tacones’ Reynoso celebrates every new POC-owned vegan restaurant as an ally, not a competitor.
“I don’t like to think of Mis Tacones, or our business model, as being capitalist, because honestly, I fuck capitalism,” Reynoso said. “When I see [other POC-owned vegan] companies, that makes me happy and I also want to support them. We’re all brown people trying to forge our culture, make space, and create a new culture here in Portland.