As with tobacco, liquor and lottery games, no one ever went broke making vegan junk food. Next Level Burger, a Bend-based chain that opened its first Portland location inside the old Pita Pit on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, is in no danger of failing to attract a loyal clientele with its plant-based burgers, dogs and BLTs.
But owner Matt de Gruyter, a former private equity executive, hasn't been quiet about his goal of going national. To get that far, I think Next Level needs to make some changes.
Not to the grilled cheese ($5) and tomato soup ($2.50). That plate was the best thing we had—the soup was fresh and spicy, with a salsalike kick. The sandwich has a cheese that's more gooey than flavorful, but benefits from the inclusion of fresh tomatoes and onions.
The burger patties come in six styles. I've had four in my three visits, and none managed to transcend the supermarket Gardenburger. The house's soy-based burger patty is dry and cooked cleanly, in a manner that leaves you without much to remember it by. The raw, sliced onions and yellow mustard overpower what's there—grilling the onions would go a long way on this burger. The "tangy" tempeh burger ($6.75), meanwhile, has almost no tang and is loosely pressed and textureless, most of its flavor coming from a very good vegan mayonnaise.
When it comes to dairy replacements, Next Level is doing pretty well. A coconut milk-based chocolate shake and a soy-based pumpkin spice shake were both good, if just a little chalky, and a plate of chili cheese fries with three-bean chili was exactly the sort of comforting, classic junk-food dish I could imagine vegans searching out. There are a lot of them, too—which bodes well for Next Level, even if omnivores might demand some tweaks.
EAT: Next Level Burger, 4121 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 719-7058, nextlevelburger.com. 8 am-9 pm daily.