A couple years ago, I was faced with a problem—a food geek friend of mine went vegan.
Rishi had been a vegetarian since he was a kid, and under those restrictions, it was never too difficult for us to share a good meal—paneer tikka masala from Dil Se, hazelnut gelato at Pinolo, margherita pie at Apizza Scholls. We once tried every biscuit in Portland, nearly all made with or slathered in butter. I did not miss the meat in our meals.
But his veganism—or rather, my omnivorism—was starting to make hanging out more difficult. I've found that most vegan restaurants in town try to emulate meat and dairy dishes without much success, or serve cheaply made slop for a clientele that puts price before quality.
Then the impossible happened—or, rather, the Impossible Burger.
In 2018, the faux-meat industry began producing a patty that put to shame the pasty black bean and dry, grainy vegan patties of the past. It had been nearly a decade since I made my BurgerQuest for Willamette Week, sampling over 70 of Portland's best cow burgers. So earlier this year, Rishi and I set out on a new journey: to find the best vegan burgers in the city.
Of the 40 or so we tried, these are the best of the best. Sure, you will not get the same juiciness as you do with actual meat, and if you taste the patties side by side with real beef, it's easy to guess which is which. But I'd put the five below over many, maybe even most, of the cow burgers in this town.
1. Modern Times
630 SE Belmont St., 503-420-0799, moderntimesbeer.com. $12.50.
When this California transplant—an employee-owned brewery with an all-vegan menu, a bar tiled with retro floppy disks, and a giant Randy "Macho Man" Savage piñata hanging from the ceiling—first opened, I wanted to hate it, but damn if the burger doesn't rule. It starts with two Beyond Meat patties, well-crusted with gooey coconut cheese, and tart pickles. A shallot jam lends a ketchuplike sweetness to the burger, and smoked mushrooms add a rugged umami, giving the illusion of outdoor grilling. Housemade vegan Thousand Island dressing and shredded iceberg keep it moist. On the first visit, the juice was running down Rishi's arm, the sandwich threatening to fall apart in his hands. Having been a vegetarian his whole life, he'd never had to deal with a truly juicy burger before. Due to the double patties, it's also one of the most meaty and balanced of the burgers I tried, which is why it's No. 1.
2. Bam Pow
5211 NE 148th Ave., 6035 NE Halsey St.; bampowburgers.com. $14.
With one cart located in the Barley Pod next to Baerlic Brewing and another near Gresham at the Level Beer brewery, vegans out in the Numbers have some great options for pairing beers with meatless eats. Bam Pow's vegan burger uses the Impossible patty, which has the beefiest flavor of any vegan patty on the market. But it's the harmony of flavors—sweet, spicy, tangy, crunchy—from the sauce, vegan pimento cheese, crisp housemade pickles and raw onion, all held in a soft but sturdy potato bun, that puts Bam Pow above the rest.
3. Slow Bar
533 SE Grand Ave., 503-230-7767, slowbar.net. $13 with fries.
This small, dark inner-eastside bar is well known for its beef burgers topped with onion rings, winning several "best burger" nods locally and even opening a family-friendly spinoff. Slow Bar could just drop pre-made frozen garbage in a fryer and probably make more money, but its food is actually quite good, from the top of the menu to the bottom. The vegan burger starts with a fat and surprisingly juicy Beyond Meat patty on a well-toasted and soft bistro bun. It is then topped with fresh tomato, pickle, sliced red onion and lots of shredded lettuce and vegan burger sauce. It's one of the juiciest and messiest burgers on this list, even without vegan cheese.
5339 SE Foster Road, thunderbirdbarpdx.com. $7 for two sliders.
This mostly vegetarian and vegan bar on Foster just expanded to take over the Foster Burger space next door. It has a patio out back, a huge line of picnic tables out front, and unexpectedly delicious no-proof drinks and vegan poutine inside. While it serves full-size burgers, the sliders are the way to go—and they come two to an order. The ratio of "meat" to bun and toppings is just better. They're juicy even if you leave the herbaceous and tart Thunderbird sauce on the side, though you really shouldn't. Just dip and bite. The best burger is the House Impossible, with an Impossible Burger patty and the Chao cheese upgrade, lettuce, onion, house pickles and artisan bun.
1440 NE Broadway, capitolpdx.com. $14 with chips.
This sleek, vibrantly colored Irvington bar serves an all-veggie and vegan menu perfectly suited for soaking up mass quantities of alcohol. The Capitol Burger has a classic diner flavor, with pickles, raw red onion, shredded lettuce and lots of burger sauce. On first visit, the burger used an Impossible patty, which was beefier and got a nice dark brown crust. Next time through, Capitol had switched to Before the Butcher, which lost the crust but improved the juiciness. Both were great, a testament to the power of burger sauce and classic burger toppings. (A word of advice, though: Skip the Chao cheese add-on. The thin slice adds nothing.) The only things missing are shoestring french fries and a vanilla milkshake.
Honorable Mentions: DC Vegetarian, Keys Lounge, Nepo 42, Next Level, Veggie Grill, Victoria.
Nick Zukin is owner of Mi Mero Mole and the newly opened Zapapizza.