We vegans aren't exactly known for our culinary achievements. We're better known for bland salads or strange approximations of meats and cheeses that seem designed to prove that vegans aren't deprived, instead of to actually taste good.
That's slowly beginning to change in Portland. A new wave of restaurants treat vegan food less like a novelty and more like a cuisine of its own. Last year, that could be seen in vegan Israeli restaurant Aviv and Kati's aromatic, meat-free Thai food. More recently, the trend has taken shape at Tiny Moreso and the new Rabbits Cafe location.
Rabbits has essentially built a menu from perfecting kale salads, and Tiny Moreso is the new home of a raw cheesecake maker that's become a Portland institution. Instead of trying to warp vegan food into what it's not, these counter-service restaurants have homed in on what makes plant-based dishes sing.
Sanjay Chandrasekaran is behind some of Portland's freshest and most flavorful vegan restaurants. Chandrasekaran owns the Sudra, an Indian-influenced restaurant that manages to make kale salad a menu highlight, and Aviv, where spiced vegetables pack big flavors and come topped with rich hummus and tahini. Recently, Chandrasekaran opened a second location of his breakfast-and-lunch spot, Rabbits Cafe. Now, in addition to a bustling stall in Big Pink, Rabbits has a small but airy restaurant just off East Burnside Street.
About half the eastside menu is made up of highlights from the westside—salads and bowls that provide heaping mounds of vegetables smothered in creamy housemade sauces. Despite its health-conscious menu and white-walled, naturally lit interior, Rabbits Cafe is totally unrefined. Flavors and textures are heaped together with wild abandon. The Zia ($6, $9) is one of the most enthusiastic salads you'll ever eat—barbecue soy curls, green chiles, beans and corn, on top of the crunchy, tahini-smothered kale perfected at the Sudra. Barbecue sauce and tahini are an unlikely combination, but the result is rich and fatty. The tahini dressing pools at the bottom of the bowl, and the soy curls make ideal mops.
The Burnside cafe provides another outlet for Be Sweet, the vegan ice cream created by Aviv chef Tal Caspi, which Rabbits sells in milkshakes, floats and to-go pints. But the biggest addition to Rabbits' new menu is the waffles. They're gluten-free, dense and a little rubbery, but the chewiness prevents them from becoming soggy underneath the insane amount of toppings. The most decadent is the Texas red waffle ($12), which comes loaded with soy curls, sharp tofu scramble, potatoes, black beans and two types of creamy cashew sauces. It's a heap of gooey comforts, the kind of hangover-food monstrosity that either is your thing or isn't.
Rabbits is sort of like the crunchy vegan version of a kid who can't help but dump every topping onto his ice cream sundae. Occasionally, it overdoes it with the flavors. The barbecue bowl ($10) is an overwhelming mix of sweet barbecue soy curls, a cashew-based "nacho" sauce, and jarringly tangy banana peppers. It's almost a relief the brown rice is bland.
But even the bowls that just miss the mark are saucy, cheap and totally satisfying, which is more than you can say for most meal-sized salads.
If you want to get a sense of what Tiny Moreso cafe is about, the avocado wallpaper is a good place to start. So is the sign in the restroom that reads "Feminist" backward, so it shows up correctly in your mirror selfie. The vegan, gluten-free dessert cafe is twee, slightly minimalist and very wholesome.
The Cully neighborhood spot opened back in January as the retail outlet for Rawdacious, a raw cheesecake company that has long been a staple in vegan restaurants and bougie supermarkets around the city. Along with desserts, Tiny Moreso also serves a modest menu of gluten-free sandwiches stacked with fake meat, toast stacked with avocado and a smoothie menu that successfully experiments with slightly strange ingredients like yam and jalapeño.
But Tiny Moreso's pride is clearly the brightly colored, sometimes elaborately piped, cashew-based "cheesecakes." Rawdacious' treats ($5 for a slice, $4 for a round mini cake) take up a the majority of the dessert case. The rotating flavors range from basics like mango or coffee, to less expected flavors like fig with almond. Occasionally, the vanilla cakes are decorated with a tuft of rainbow icing and a fondant unicorn horn.
The airy, cashew cream filling is closer to a cream pie than a cheesecake. But the almost mousselike texture is pillowy and addictive. It sticks to the qualities vegan and gluten-free desserts can reliably get right—rich and creamy.
Most of the non-Rawdacious desserts Tiny Moreso serves also avoid traditional baking, which is what arguably makes it the city's most successful vegan and gluten-free dessert producer—the cafe eliminates the potential for crumbly pastries and dry cakes by forgoing them altogether. Topped with a chocolate drizzle, the peanut butter rice crispie ($4) is a hearty brick of creamy, crunchy goodness. Only about half the height of the brownie ($4) is actual brownie. The rest is a silky chocolate icing somewhere between a ganache and a mousse.
Outside the vegan and gluten-free niche, it's difficult to see where Tiny Moreso fits in. Even though everything there is satisfyingly sweet and surprisingly filling, the desserts aren't particularly healthy or overly indulgent. But if you want to atone for your dessert with a fiber-rich smoothie or salad, Tiny has you covered.