Is that because of vegans? I don't think so. Actually, I'm not sure I've ever seen a known vegan eating a vegan bowl.
Vegan bowls are for the rest of us, people who spend a week eating various forms of pizza-based foodstuffs and end up craving a nutrition-dense, one-plate meal that's got lots of good stuff, and barely any bad stuff, in a well-balanced assortment of protein, fiber and fat, hopefully with a tasty sauce to sew things together.
We got: Southern bowl and Portland bowl (each $8).
There's a fine line to walk in a vegan bowl: You want it to be filling, rewarding and maybe even a little rich, without overdoing it. You want a symphony of textures, without chopping everything into a slurry or requiring endless mastication of the greens. Based on our survey, it's not an easy task. But Canteen nails it.
This sparse "Shaker-inspired" space on Southeast Stark—they play drone music and have gallon jugs of amino acid—makes the best bowls in town.
My favorite is the Southern bowl, which features a heap of barbecue-flavored soy curls that have the consistency of slow-smoked pork butt, plus soul-warming collard greens, black-eyed peas, coleslaw and an earthy cashew ranch dressing. It's pretty much everything lovable about Southern cuisine in one bowl. We're bowling 300 here.
The Portland bowl is also tasty, a base of quinoa and hearty black beans, plus maple-kissed tempeh and a bowl of rough-chopped local hazelnuts.
Possible ethical dilemma: Overt merchandising and branding of basic nourishment in the form of stylish trucker hats and T-shirts. Is this really so far removed from Coca-Cola polar bears or Disneyland's Monsanto House of the Future?
The Whole Bowl
Restaurant location at 4411 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 753-7071. Carts in the Pearl, downtown and on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. thewholebowl.com.
We got: The Big bowl ($6). The only other menu items are the Bambino bowl and a baggie of tortilla chips.
The secret to Tali Ovadia's mini empire of bowl spots is the dark-yellow mustardy, garlicky, lemony, yeasty sauce that bears her name. That Tali sauce ties everything else in these perfectly appointed bowls together. There is but one recipe—two if you count leaving off the dairy to make it vegan instead of vegetarian—with hearty helpings of mostly inexpensive and nutritional foodstuffs. Other than the sliced avocado, this is peasant food: rice, black beans, red beans, cilantro, a dollop of sour cream and some shaved Tillamook cheddar. It's pretty much perfect for what it is, which is why there are four locations in town serving one Tali-topped bowl.
Possible ethical dilemma: Even at the brick-and-mortar restaurant, you're eating from disposable paper bowls. Yes, they're compostable, but using actual dishes would be much more eco-friendly.
8638 N Lombard St., 445-2007, propereats.wordpress.com.
We got: Tabouli bowl ($7), pesto and veggie bowl ($9).
This grocery/restaurant brings organic, vegan fare to blue-collar St. Johns. The dessert case is stocked with cannolis filled with coconut cream, and the back counter has housemade cranberry kombucha in jugs. Everything here is mindful, down to the Portland-made Thai and True hot sauce.
Bowls get only a small part of the menu, but the three on offer include some interesting components. The tabouli bowl is sort of a reverse of the familiar Lebanese recipe, with a base of bulgur accentuated with bits of parsley. It's topped with a ladleful of hummus and a few olives. The pesto bowl, on the other hand, has big chunks of tempeh, carrot strips, leafy kale, and pesto made with hazelnuts. Both bowls had a nice lineup of ingredients but suffered from not having a sauce to bond things together.
Possible ethical dilemma: They played a huge amount of Van Halen, a hyper-misogynist "cock rock" band, which might make someone feel unwelcome.
Native Foods Cafe
12130 SE 82nd Ave., Happy Valley, 654-1212, nativefoods.com.
We got: Bangkok curry bowl, Rockin' Moroccan bowl (both $9.95).
"America's premier fast-casual vegan restaurant" started in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1994 before spreading to higher-end suburban malls such as Clackistan Town Center, where it sits under Chipotle Mexican Grill. Inside, a crew of boisterous staffers is aggressively interested in your contentment. The music that is not Christian, but sounds like it. The bowls are heavy on roasted vegetables (onion, zucchini, broccoli) and 6-inch strips of seared tofu. The Moroccan bowl is very sweet and accentuated by thin-sliced almonds and raisins. The curry bowl suffers from lack of heat.
Possible ethical dilemma: Well, this is a chain restaurant inside a shopping mall in a conservative suburb. But, actually, it's kinda cool that it's embedded right in the middle of consumerist hell.
4233 N Mississippi Ave., 330-7616, thenativebowl.com.
We got: Hollywood bowl and Burnside bowl (each $8).
There's a reason bowls are called bowls: They are best served in bowls. This Mississippi cart has strayed from its roots with tall and narrow Chinese-style takeout containers, which are a terrible way to serve something that needs to be blended. As a result, our Levantine-style Hollywood Bowl turned into a messy archeological dig through sharply acidic tahini into sharply bitter purple cabbage, then into green, powdery spices that looked like shake weed. An entire farm of green onions and discordant pepperoncinis totally overpowered.
The Burnside bowl was better, with a little char on the tofu, earthy black sesame seeds, a mild and smoky red hot sauce, and a bright slaw of red peppers.
Possible ethical dilemma: A white man serving food in Chinese takeout boxes could be seen as cultural appropriation.
Not So Good…
3632 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-255-0138, harlowpdx.com.
We got: Chipotle chili bowl ($9.50), Nor'easter bowl ($9).
The sister restaurant of the Pearl's Prasad, Harlow is known for its gluten-free focus and wide menu of pastas and salads. It's a nice place, with three Pfriem beers on tap, four gluten-free taps, vintage piano jazz on the speakers and tasty smoothies served in Mason jars. Just steer clear of the bowls.
The Nor'easter was the worst thing I've eaten all year, a mess of chunky potato chowder served over black quinoa, which they try to balance out with acidic lemon and lightly steamed and densely leafy greens. Nothing works, and the whole mess ends up tasting like the water left in the pot after you boil greens, but with a little nori tossed in for fishiness.
The chipotle chili bowl was better—tons of guacamole, fat rice kernels, a piquant chimichurri, and a fibrous and smoky bean chili—but the rest of the menu is much more promising than the bowls.
Possible ethical dilemma: Food waste.
Bye and Bye
1011 NE Alberta St., thebyeandbye.com.
We got: BBQ Brussel bowl and Eastern bowl (each $9).
This large and popular bar on Alberta has a nice cocktail menu, a hip crowd and a huge beer list in addition to its vegan menu.
These are the A.1.-soaked steak and potatoes of vegan bowls: big, one-note piles of protein and starch that will put you into a food coma. There's probably a place for that. If you're abstaining from meat and want to experience the sauce-splattered, gristly bliss of spareribs, then something like the BBQ Brussel sprouts bowl swimming in tangy sauce might get you there. And the Eastern bowl certainly packs more tofu than anywhere else in town.
But these were the only bowls we left unfinished—no nuance, no variety, just a big ol' pile of saucy slop.
Possible ethical dilemma: Why is so much of Bye and Bye's beer imported from Belgium, Japan and Germany? That beer has an unnecessarily huge carbon footprint. Also, are those candles vegan?