Little Bean knows you're skeptical.
Hanging high on a white brick wall in the gluten-free bakery and ice cream shop, a blue neon sign reads: "Chickpeas? Really?"
It's a question people have been asking since Micah Camden, the mastermind of Little Big Burger, Blue Star, Boxer Ramen and Super Deluxe, announced his next venture would make ice cream from chickpea milk. It began last summer as a small cart that handed out free samples of tart, quirky flavors like Szechuan strawberry, and finally opened in the Pearl District this spring.
In grocery stores across Portland, you can get ice cream made with soy, coconut or just about any nut you'd like. But Little Bean takes the dietary specificity a step further, and fills the niche of baked goods and ice cream for the nut, dairy, gluten and soy intolerant. On top of that, it aims for moral high ground by forsaking the GMO stigma of soymilk, getting its chickpeas from Washington and adopting a plant-based version of nose-to-tail cooking's "waste not, want not" ethos: The chickpea mulch left over from squeezing out the milk is used to make flour for the bakery.
In Little Bean's high-ceilinged cafe, you get the sense that the novelty is its impetus, and everything else is the justification. Instead of substitution, Little Bean is going for spectacle. The pastry counter is packed with colorful, cutesy treats, the ice cream comes in vibrant, earthy hues and the long white tables overlook a bustling open kitchen.
If the point is just to prove that chickpea ice cream can be done, Little Bean is a success. The ice cream—or bean cream or ice bean or whatever—has a texture so thick and creamy, it could almost be mistaken for gelato. All the flavors are heavily potent (single scoop $4, double scoop $6). The cherry chai is sharply spiced. The blackberry basil tastes as if it could have come from your garden, the pungent taste of raw basil acting as a refreshing counterpoint to the tartness. The strong cold brew coffee is the most traditional offering, and the orange caramel, which tastes like a creamsicle, is the most likely to satisfy a severe sweet tooth.
Many of the baked goods succumb to the dry, crumbly fate of gluten-free treats, but Little Bean's chickpea flour bread is remarkably soft, moist and chewy. The charcoal-colored pumpernickel ($10 a loaf) is worth going back for, regardless of your dietary restrictions.
Still, Little Bean banks on a hazy distinction between "healthy" and "healthier." Another one of Little Bean's slogans, emblazoned on the bright teal awning of its ice cream cart that's now parked out front of the brick-and-mortar, is so subjective it's basically meaningless: "The only way to make ice cream better was to make it healthier." Once you adjust to the fact that chickpea ice cream is at least kind of normal, it begins to feel stuck in the purgatory of substitutions that are maybe slightly healthier but still not exactly good for you—the kind of thing that exists to diminish rather than fulfil a craving. The ice cream's farm-fresh flavors are refreshing, but not exactly decadent.
But ultimately, the real genius of Little Bean is its location. Just around the corner from REI, Title Nine, a gym and two juice bars, it's in an ideal position for Pearl District and wellness industry foot traffic. The "Chickpeas? Really?" sign is clearly visible from the sidewalk along 13th Avenue and the nearest intersection. There will always be more skeptics to bait.
EAT: Little Bean, 1241 NW Johnson St., littlebean.com. 7 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 7 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.