I’ve been a vegetarian for 23 years but I’ve never wanted to be vegan; even less so as we travel and it’s hard enough avoiding meat and fish, let alone dairy too. It was on a last minute whim that I decided to go vegan for our nine days in Portland, Oregon. While researching vegetarian restaurants in this alternative city it seemed that veganism was widespread. There were tons of options and I thought it would be a good way to start a healthy eating kick, after a rather unhealthy few weeks of chocolate, cheddar, and chips in England.
The Vegan Experiment
I don’t plan to turn vegan permanently, but I thought it’d be an interesting experiment in one of the easiest places in the world for vegans. I don’t like eggs, milk, butter, and cream anyway, so the main things I had to avoid were my beloved cheese and hidden dairy products in things like pastries and cakes. Going vegan seemed like a great way to avoid these temptations, although it turns out there are plenty of vegan treats in Portland.
My breakfasts and lunches didn’t change much. In the morning I ate my usual fruit and muesli (I’ve never eaten them with milk); and I replaced the cheese in our salad sandwiches with hummus or had a salad for lunch. Eating out was easy as there are plenty of vegan options in Portland. I did have to change some eating habits—when Simon picked up pastries from the bakery I had to skip them (no bad thing really), and it made it more difficult to share meals, which we often do, as Simon had no interest in giving up cheese.
We were surprised by how much we loved Portland. At first it didn’t seem a particularly attractive city, with no outstanding architecture and lots of boxy buildings, but its charm crept up on us.
We stayed just off SE Hawthorne and spent most of our time in the eastern neighbourhoods, occasionally venturing to the small downtown. The neighbourhoods are quiet suburbs of wooden detached houses with porches and vegetable gardens, old trees draping across the streets. It’s a pleasant place to wander and amongst the residential areas you’ll suddenly come across a street of independent businesses—vintage clothes shops, art galleries, funky cafes, vegan bakeries, and the ubiquitous food carts.
We loved the small town feel—it’s friendly, walkable, and laid-back, but with an alternative vibe and so much good food. Yes, Portland is hip—you’ll come across sights like moustached hipsters riding unicycles—but it feels very down to earth, not pretentious.
It also helped that the weather was fantastic. Apparently it rains most of the year, but the summers are hot and sunny, and it was around 30ºC for most of our stay in mid September.
Portland is an easy place to be vegan. There are plenty of vegan or mostly vegan restaurants, and even meat-focused restaurants usually offer vegan options—they aren’t always listed so it’s always worth asking.
Most of the places we ate at were casual eateries where you order at the counter and pay in advance, either at food carts or small cafes/restaurants. There’s no sales tax in Oregon and you also save on the big tip needed in table service restaurants. This makes it very affordable and we usually spent around $15-20 for a meal for two, although we had a couple of splurges.
Here’s the day by day breakdown of my vegan experiment in Portland:
After a night in the airport hotel I skipped the not vegan friendly hotel breakfast and stuck with the granola bars we had. Some contained milk powder which I avoided, but I did eat one with honey in it, which although isn’t technically vegan I don’t mind eating, and we had nothing else.
After moving to our Airbnb apartment we had lunch at Harlow, a stylish vegetarian cafe that’s gluten-free and mostly vegan.
I had the kale salad, a huge bowl of kale, spinach, beans, avocado, and lovely smoky tempeh. It was filling, healthy, and delicious.
Simon’s chilli mac and cheese was just as good—creamy, tasty, comfort food—and he didn’t even miss the cheese.
Portions were huge and good value at $9, especially as we probably could have shared.
A great start to the vegan experiment.
Harlow: 3632 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portobello Vegan Trattoria
Portobello is a vegan Italian trattoria. We found the food nice but not spectacular, although if you are vegan I imagine it’s a welcome change being able to eat Italian food without worrying about hidden dairy.
We had the beet tartare, a dip of beets and cashew puree on bread; a beet burger which was just OK (we might be spoilt by Roam in San Francisco); and the gnocchi with marina which was our favourite—the gnocchi were lovely and fluffy. Did we miss parmesan on top? A little bit…
Portobello Vegan Trattoria: 1125 SE Division St.
NE Alberta Street is a cool street in a leafy northwest neighbourhood with plenty of vegan options including the vegan bakery Back to Eden which we managed to resist. We were there for upmarket vegetarian restaurant Natural Selection—a splurge but well worth it. It did lead to my first slip off the vegan wagon…
Natural Selection offers a four course menu for $45, plus $25 for wine pairing (which we shared). For each course you have two choices from the seasonal menu. I was planning to choose all the vegan options, but there was no vegan dessert listed, and I admit I really wanted to try the heirloom pepper soup. I’m sure I could have asked for a vegan dessert option, but I felt weird asking for special treatment as I wasn’t really vegan. With Simon as the devil on my shoulder I decided that as the meal was expensive we should make the most of it and share everything on the menu (all vegan except the soup and desserts).
I felt guilty at first but that passed as soon as I tasted the rich pepper soup.
It was an incredible meal. Everything sounds simple but nothing is what you expect. They take vegetables to a new level with intense flavours and interesting combinations, creating dishes with careful thought and experimentation—these aren’t meals you can easily recreate at home.
The melon and mustard greens salad turned out to be a delectable mix of sweet melon, salty olives, vinegary pickled purple beans, and bitter mustard greens in a tangy lemon dressing.
I admit being happy to be temporarily unvegan as I ate my favourite dessert—a gorgeous apple, nectarine, and huckleberry crumble with lemon verbena ice cream. Oh so good.
It was a very special meal and well worth the money. I’m sure they could accommodate vegans if you asked.
Natural Selection: 3033 NE Alberta St.
Back to being a proper vegan again…
Luc Lac is a very popular Vietnamese restaurant downtown. We arrived at 11.30am and still had to queue for 15 minutes. Vegan options are marked on the menu. I had tofu and vegetable pho and Simon had the peanut curry stir-fry with tofu. The food was delicious, the portions enormous, but it wasn’t the most relaxing experience with loud music and people standing next to us waiting for a table.
Luc Lac: 835 SW 2nd Ave.
Buckman Farmer’s Market
There are many farmer’s markets in Portland and we went to this small one around the corner from our apartment. We bought some organic but pricey vegetables and a couple of Missionary vegan truffles ($3 each). The rich chocolate was so good you’d never know they were vegan and we picked up a box for our friend later (you can also buy them at New Seasons for slightly less).
Buckman Farmer’s Market: SE Salmon St & SE 20th Ave.
The Hotlips pizzeria was just around the corner from our apartment and surprisingly they had two vegan slices (there are even more options if you order a whole pizza). I got a slice with mixed vegetables and daiya vegan cheese ($4).
Pizza is one of the hardest things to give up so I was happy that I really enjoyed my slice. The vegan cheese was OK but tasted like processed cheese, which it is, and I wonder if regular cheese would actually be healthier. The next time I went back I had a slice without the cheese and preferred it.
Hotlips: SE Hawthorne & 22nd, and other locations.
Salt & Straw
Our main reason for being in Portland was to attend XOXO, an experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology. At the opening party there was a barbecue but the vegan food options were disappointing—baked beans and watermelon.
I made up for it with a visit to the Salt & Straw ice-cream cart. They had one vegan option—coconut with Petunia’s salted caramel bars and swirls of chocolate ganache. It was rich, creamy, coconutty and in no way seemed vegan.
Salt & Straw: 3345 SE Division St, and other locations.
It was a day that proves being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy and that vegan treats can be just as good.
I had a slice of Hotlips pizza—focaccia with vegetables and no cheese for lunch.
In the evening we were at the festival which had a number of food carts. Simon had a wood-fired margherita pizza which looked amazing and I admit I was a bit jealous. You could substitute vegan cheese but it was $3 more and I didn’t like it enough to have a pizza dominated by it.
Instead I went to Pok Pok’s food truck. People rave about this Thai restaurant so I was keen to try their coconut curry with mushrooms over rice noodles. It was nice but I wasn’t blown away and it felt overpriced at $10 for a small bowl.
As the vegan meals at the festival were disappointing we headed to this vegan cafe for dinner which has a small, healthy menu of bowls, salads and smoothies. The outside tables were perfect on a hot evening.
In Portland vegan eating seems very focused around the bowl—a mix of grains, protein, and veggies. Simon had a tasty Bangkok bowl with avocado curry, red curry peanut sauce, brown rice, aduki beans, broccoli, red cabbage, kimchi, and black sesame seeds.
I had the walnut taco salad (see top photo) which was like a deconstructed taco on a bed of leaves. It included walnut taco crumbles, mixed greens, pico de gallo, avocado curry sauce, carrots, cashew nacho spread, and avocado. It was unique and delicious, and as always, the portions were so huge I had enough left for lunch (although it wasn’t as good the next day)—great value at $8.
Canteen: 2816 SE Stark St.
I had the leftover salad for lunch and cooked pasta with tomato sauce for dinner at our apartment.
As the end of our Portland trip approached we had to step up our eating game to fit in as many of the city’s vegan eats as we could—for research purposes of course…
The Whole Bowl
This popular food cart (with five locations) only makes one thing—a comforting vegetarian bowl of brown rice, beans, avocado, cilantro, olives, salsa, and their tasty lemon and garlic Tali sauce which makes it taste different from a burrito. They usually add cheese and sour cream but you can ask for it vegan. It was delicious, healthy, filling, and very affordable at $5.50 for a bambino bowl (or only $0.50 more for a big bowl).
The Whole Bowl: 4411 SE Hawthorne, and other locations.
Blue Star Donuts
After running 10 miles along Portland’s river and then hiking in Mount Tabor park I felt I deserved a treat. Voodoo doughnuts are considered a must-eat in Portland, but we heard some locals preferred Blue Star, who also make vegan donuts. I had to ask for the vegan options as they weren’t labelled and I had the choice of pumpkin spice, blueberry bourbon, and the raspberry, hibiscus and pistachio that I went for ($2.25). It was wonderful—fruity, and rich but light. These are high quality donuts using the best ingredients including fresh organic fruit.
Blue Star Donuts: 3549 SE Hawthorne and also downtown at 1237 SW Washington Street.
You won’t find your usual Indian restaurant menu at Bollywood Theater—they serve Indian street food which brought back fond memories of our time in India.
You have to ask what’s vegan and there aren’t a huge amount of options, but it was enough to keep us happy. Sadly I couldn’t eat the samosas, so we had the aloo tikki instead—spicy potato patties with a chickpea curry; bhel puri, a crunchy, tangy mix of potatoes, onions, cilantro, peanuts, spices, and puffed rice, with green and tamarind chutneys; and some pappadums and chutneys.
It was all very good and reasonably priced at around $6 per dish.
Bollywood Theater: 3010 SE Division St and also 2039 NE Alberta.
Salt & Straw
The Salt & Straw store was just a few minutes away so we popped in for dessert. There were two vegan options—plum sangria sorbet and the coconut caramel one I’d had before and couldn’t resist having again. We found the $3 kids cones big enough.
Salt & Straw: 3345 SE Division St, and other locations.
On our last day in Portland we finally visited this legendary doughnut shop. The flavours on offer are extensive including plenty of vegan doughnuts. I had chocolate coconut ($1.25) and Simon actually preferred it to his non-vegan chocolate one. Vegan win!
The doughnuts were good but we preferred the gourmet flavours and higher quality at Blue Star.
Voodoo Doughnuts: 22 SW 3rd Ave and other locations.
Tidbit Food Farm & Garden
Our final meal was a classic Portland experience.
Portland’s food carts congregate in permanent pods throughout the city. Tidbit is a new pod with plenty of carts, a nice atmosphere, and seating in the centre. There are lots of vegan options including Mexican, Mediterranean, Hawaiian, veggie burgers, Belizean, waffle sandwiches, ramen, Thai, and more.
We had Indian and shared two vegetable curries and rice for $6 (the naan that usually comes with it is not vegan). We were going to share something else, but I wasn’t that hungry and Simon really wanted a burrito with beans and cheese.
Tidbit: SE Division St and SE 28th Place.
Am I Staying Vegan?
I enjoyed the experiment and it definitely forced me to choose healthier options (most of the time). It was easy being vegan in Portland but elsewhere in the world is much more challenging. As nomads we often travel to countries where it’s hard enough being vegetarian, let alone vegan. As bloggers who love to write about food, being vegan would make it even harder to find local food that we can enjoy and write about; cutting ourselves off even more from the local food culture. I also missed being able to share meals with Simon.
We’re currently in San Francisco and I’ve decided to continue the vegan experiment for the month we are here, although I have given myself the option of one cheat day a week. Surprisingly it has been much more difficult here than in Portland. Yes, there are many vegan restaurants in the city but not near Lower Pacific Heights where we’re staying. We’ve also been eating out with meat-eating friends and in many restaurants vegan options are limited or non-existent. Sure, they could always make me something up but I’m not keen on paying $20 for a half-hearted meal.
I’m getting tired of having to ask a million questions to determine if a dish is vegan or not—at Roam I had to check whether the veggie burger, bun, jalapeño relish, and caramelised onions were vegan—I was that person holding up the queue.
And yet I feel drawn to carry on eating vegan. I haven’t taken advantage of my cheat day yet. I’m not tempted by the cheese in the fridge. I like that I’m eating healthier—choosing a salad over a grilled cheese sandwich; skipping the cookies Simon buys. I even resisted the incredible looking chocolate cake everyone else ate at dinner last night.
I’m not committed to being vegan permanently, but I’m going to see where the experiment takes me for now.
Vegan Portland Map
Here’s a map of the Portland vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants mentioned in this post. Note that many places have multiple locations in the city, so check out their websites to see if there’s a branch closer to where you are staying.
- We recommend staying in one of the leafy neighbourhoods rather than downtown. We stayed in a beautiful, spacious Airbnb apartment surrounded by trees just off SE Hawthorne where we felt so at home we didn’t want to leave. It’s a cool area and only 40 minutes walk or 15 minutes on the bus to downtown. Sign up to Airbnb using this link and you’ll get $25 credit.
- Portland has the cheapest airport transport of anywhere we’ve been. For $2.50 you get a two hour ticket on all local public transport. You can take the red line on the MAX light rail to the city centre (40 minutes) and transfer to a bus out to the neighbourhood you are staying in.
- Getting around the city is easy. We walked most places and got the bus occasionally. It’s a very bike friendly city but we didn’t think the rental rates were worth it. We loved being able to buy bus tickets with the Trimet Tickets app, and used the PDX bus app to check times.
- If you love books don’t miss Powell’s City of Books, a humungous independent bookstore and a local legend. It made us sad that we can’t buy books anymore.
- If you like retro video games head to Ground Kontrol, a classic arcade and bar.
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