Don't think for a minute that a Communist revolutionary can't sell a burrito.
When a Fourth of July hot dog hangover led me to veg haven Laughing Planet, I didn't expect a political awakening. I just wanted something healthy.
But like Jordan to Wheaties or Tiger Woods to Buicks, I found that an Argentine doctor-turned-Cuban-revolutionary has become the spokesperson for...tempeh?
Yeah, I'm talking about Che Guevara, poster child for college-age rebellion and the most worshiped political icon in the Latin world. His mug is used to peddle T-shirts from Boston to Barcelona. But here in Portland, Che's immortalized by tempeh, brown rice, plantains and sweet potatoes in a whole-wheat tortilla at Laughing Planet (3320 SE Belmont St., 235-6472, and other locations).
That's right, Che is a burrito.
Of all the local chain's menu items, the Che Guevara isn't my favorite. The tempeh-sweet potatoes remind me of a vegan potluck where I offended everyone by referring to the alt-butter spread as margarine. Still, Planet's Belmont location—the chain also just opened a mega-outpost on Southeast Woodstock Boulevard—sells about 25 a day at $4.50 a pop. That equals about six months' pay in Havana.
The theme continues: The Zapatista Salad celebrates Chiapan agrarian reform with black beans and corn chips. There's also a César Chávez salad and a "Chairman Meow" Rice Bowl.
Laughing Planet co-owner and Bolivia native Franz Spielvogel says it's all in good fun. "We're just trying to keep things light while being conscious...and we're fans of Che."
Maybe the rhetoric floats because of the revolutionary spirit inherent to vegetarianism. The Red and Black Cafe (2138 SE Division St., 231-3899) steers clear of the workers' party nomenclature, but as a collective, employees become part owners and share in all decision-making. "You get to be more than a wage slave," says former employee Kat Atkinson.
What's more, anger employees at a vegan restaurant and they might shut you down. In 2004, Atkinson and her co-workers took offense at some shady managerial moves by Craig Rosebraugh at his upscale vegan restaurant Calendula, and went on strike. That probably wouldn't happen at an Outback Steakhouse.
So it's no surprise that Che can sell a politically conscious ingredient like tempeh—just like American flags can sell corn dogs, fireworks and mud flaps.
Not that veggie joints have the market cornered. Remember Freedom Fries? Blueplate (308 SW Washington St., 295-2583) sells a soda called the Karl Marx. Downtown coffee counter Half & Half (923 SW Oak St., 222-4495) recently featured a pork sandwich with pickled onions, aptly named the Fidel, alongside an asparagus concoction called Liberty Salad. The tiny cafe has also named sandwiches after Dick Cheney, Halliburton and even tire mogul Les Schwab. "We want people to have fun with their lunch," says Half & Half owner Robin Rosenberg.
It's not just a P-town thing. The Mount Pleasant 'hood in Washington, D.C., is home to The Marx Cafe, while Cafe Trotsky anchors a busy corner on New York's Houston Street.
Back to the Che burrito. I felt silly asking for it, but maybe that's the point. You can't take a place called Laughing Planet too seriously. A rugged, meat-loving Argentine guerrilla, Che didn't eat tempeh—Argentine beef consumption is among the highest in the world. So what combo would most accurately represent Che? "Maybe roast beef with chimichurri sauce," says Rosenberg. She's dead right, but that would hardly seem as revolutionary.