It's a success story straight out of Horatio Alger: Two emigrant musicians land in Portland from Chicago and decide to open a food cart dedicated to vegetarian and vegan fare. Their cramped little cart becomes a sensation, with lines forming down the block even in rainstorms, so the two emigrants open a spacious cafe that's more narrowly focused on vegan cooking. When this, too, takes off, the two find themselves on the verge of launching a sandwich line, while entrepreneurs pound on their front door to talk with them about "expanding the brand." Can fortune, Reader, be far behind?
If there's any justice, it should be soon. Veganopolis, the brainchild of Chef to Go duo George Black and David Stowell, adds luster to Portland's reputation as a center for carnage-free cuisine. The couple's new downtown space, sandwiched next to a Subway, is a bright, airy room that was once part of the old St. James Hotel lobby. Service is cafeteria style, with the simpler items on the menu being prepared at the front of the restaurant, while the more complicated orders are slung in the open back kitchen.
For those of us who were stalwarts of the cart, many favorite items make up the backbone of the Veganopolis menu. There's the gooey, pizza-like roasted-eggplant sandwich on a baguette ($5.50 with chips or slaw), the almond-pâté sandwich, for which no goose has been garroted (also $5.95), and the daily line of made-from-scratch soups ($1.75 a cup, $4 a bowl). Some items have actually improved, like the organic roasted potatoes ($2.75, $1.75 as a sandwich side), which have benefited from a closer proximity to a real kitchen rather than the old cart's hot-plates.
Veganopolis' daily specials are also worth trying. On a recent visit I ordered the delicious (and generously portioned) white lasagna ($7.50), with its delicate layers of pasta strips filled with spinach, spicy Gimme Lean soy sausage and a surprisingly flavorful béchamel sauce. This lasagna is one of those dishes vegan missionaries could use to convince carnivores that offal, bloodshed and mammary secretions aren't necessarily the last word in taste.
Breakfast at Veganopolis is a city of choices, with a savory tofu scramble, the house potatoes, and crêpe-thin blueberry pancakes served with real maple syrup, all served by the pound for $6.50. The fresh-baked goods are equally grab-worthy, especially the carrot pineapple raisin muffin ($1.75). If there's one dish that hasn't quite achieved stature yet, it's the vegan biscuits in gravy, whose mushroom gravy is more like a good sauce that never quite achieves the rich piquancy of the Paradox's almond gravy.
The success of Black and Stowell almost makes you a believer again in the America's myth of progress: a quality in little evidence on the streets, but one that's alive and well at Veganopolis.
Veganopolis' art gallery, V-Gun, has become a popular stop on First Thursdays. Still, it's the food that attracts the crowds.
412 SW 4th Ave., 226-3400, www.veganopolis.com . 8 am-6 pm Monday-Saturday.