If the city of Portland had an official food product, a case could be made for it being the soy curl.

The long, brown shreds of soy protein were invented nearby, in Grand Ronde, Ore., by family-owned Butler Foods, and local vegans can't get enough of them.

Ask for them almost anywhere else, though, and you might be met with a raised eyebrow.

"It's actually hard to find the soy curl outside of Portland," says Tal Caspi, owner and head chef of plant-based Middle Eastern restaurant Aviv.

In Portland, though, they're everywhere, from the shawarma fries at Aviv to the vegan bowls at Los Gorditos to the faux-bacon that tops the mac and cheese at VtopiaEver. They're on the menu at vegan brewpub Modern Times on Southeast Belmont, and chef Jesse Moore says he's looking to incorporate them even more.

"It's local, which in Portland is especially important," he says.

For decades, chefs and food developers have tried to re-create the taste and texture of meat products for those seeking an alternative. Soy curls, which resemble pulled chicken, are among the best substitutes—and easier to master than tofu or seitan.

The key, says Caspi, is their versatility.

"They're really like a blank slate—a canvas that you get to paint yourself," he says. "Customers often have a hard time believing they're not meat."

32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)
32 Reasons to love Portland (wesley Lapointe)