Clay's Smokehouse was a landmark. For nearly 20 years, the barbecue pit stood in a ramshackle red building on Division Street that looked like it'd been decorated by Keith Haring's country cousin.
Clay's witnessed a sea change in the neighborhood and the city's food scene during its run—and not without comment. Owner Mike Slyman, self-identified "restaurant scum" from an era when the business was dominated by "ex-cons, dropouts, pot smokers and drifters," famously voiced his displeasure with the city's "too cutesie" food scene by erecting an anti-small plates sign on the sidewalk.
Last summer, Clay's vacated the space. The replacement? Kati Portland, a rustic vegetarian Thai spot from newcomers Nan Chaison and Sarah Jansala that combines soy and unusual salt blends to recreate the flavor of fish sauce in dishes like their excellent pad cha, a stir fry with green peppercorns, pumpkin, kaffir lime leaves and Thai eggplant.
"We had some customers who stopped by and said, 'I've lived in this neighborhood and never stepped foot in here because I'm vegetarian,'" says Chaison. "When we moved to Portland, we had no idea that there was going to be a big population of vegetarians. We just knew that we're right down the street from Pok Pok and other Thai places, and we did not want to compete with anybody around us. We want to just be us."
As it turns out, there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans in Portland—it's the second most vegan-friendly city in the country behind New York, according to PETA. But 2017 was the year they asserted themselves in the city's restaurant scene.
Not only has Portland seen an influx of a half-dozen notable veggie-centric openings this year, from tiki bars to emo-blaring coffee shops, but our restaurant scene has seen a sharp uptick in the quality of its plant-based cuisine.
It's a trend we're excited about, and proud to recognize in the space we annually give to the our Restaurant of the Year runner-up.
Pressed to identify the major catalyst for foodies taking plant-based cooking more seriously, I'd point to Tusk.
Tusk's impressive selection of vegetable dishes and its stylish dining room have made it the city's hottest reservation for the past year—if you haven't Instagrammed one of their vividly colorful, nut-speckled salads, you're not living your best life. Though the restaurant does serve some meat, the Mediterranean spot from Ava Gene's alums Joshua McFadden and Sam Smith captured the city's imagination with its whipped feta, technicolor carrots, exotic grains and puffy pitas.
"The first restaurant I learned to cook in was a French place, Pif (in Philadelphia). The whole menu was like, rillettes, foie gras, steaks, mashed potatoes," says Smith. "The things that interested me more were cooking the green beans, potato purée, beets—I was more interested in those than the meat."
Smith's moment of clarity came while he was working at Oliveto in Oakland.
"I was working, watching the farmer come in with a case of chicories," he says. "She grew and harvested them, and when we tasted them, it was the best chicory I ever had. It was an eye-opening moment to see that connection with the person who grew it."
Smith started at Ava Gene's, where he designed the restaurant's stellar menu of vegetable dishes, or giardini. When it came time to launch the follow-up, he and McFadden tapped two things Smith was very familiar with: Mediterranean flavors and vegetables.
Smith is an alum of Philadelphia's standard-bearing Israeli restaurant,
Zahav, where he worked closely alongside chef Michael Solomonov. Though Smith says the restaurants are very different, he also says "Tusk wouldn't exist without my time there."
At Ava Gene's, he began working closely with Oregon farmers. He's since gone deep, following farmers on Instagram so he can line up great fresh produce. He's also involved with the Culinary Breeding Network, which connects farmers and seed breeders with chefs for a yearly showcase of innovative new veggie dishes.
"I saw that farmers dedicate their life to doing something really special," he says. "I was thinking, 'What's the next
thing for me, how can I highlight what farmers do, but with my own voice?'"
Though they don't eat much meat, Chaison and Smith aren't vegetarian.
Neither was Tal Caspi. But when Caspi opened his new vegan Israeli spot, Aviv, Caspi decided he needed to immerse himself in the community by giving up all animal products.
"I am 100 percent vegan. I have been vegan on and off for about a year and half, but when we decided to open the restaurant I decided that if I was going to be a member of the community I needed to really do it, I should really be a member of the community…I just jumped right in."
Caspi says it's "a little bit of a spiritual thing" and came from a moment where he had a realization about the interconnectedness of beings. At Caspi's food cart, Gonzo, he served shawarma. But while planning Aviv, which won our hearts with its eight-deep lineup of crazy good hummuses, he got rid of all of his leather.
"As much as I ate meat—and at this point have very meat-centric tattoos on me—I never felt right about it," he says. "I would often discuss it and argue veganism while having friends over to barbecue. They'd be like 'You're cooking meat right in front of my face!' And I'd be like, 'Yeah, I'm cooking meat, but I don't think it's right.'"
He's now planning to get his butchery-themed tattoos incorporated to a new design. "It's just not part of my life anymore," he says.
Caspi points out that the culinary scene's renewed focus on vegetables isn't a Portland thing. The number of vegans around the world has shot up in the past few years. According to a food trend report, the number of American vegans has exploded by 500 percent in the past four years, and six percent of the country is now vegan. Caspi notes that Tel Aviv has more vegans per capita than any other city in the world.
In Portland, that's meant that Caspi pretty much now only eats at other vegan restaurants. It's just easier, he says, and it's a way of supporting his new community. Limiting his dining to vegan spots hasn't been a problem. Thanks to a rash of new openings, Caspi can start his day with doughnuts from Doe and coffee at Jet Black, then grab pizza at Virtuous Pie or samosa chole at Maruti and drinks at vegan tiki bar No Bones Beach Club.
"The big difference is you can get great vegan or vegetarian stuff, whereas back in the day there were not a lot of great options. I don't know what happened, because we didn't discover something that didn't exist," he says. "A lot more people have adopted a plant-based diet, so there are a lot of chefs out there who are eating that way and just making that food. There are a lot more options, a lot more people involved, so the level has just gone up."