My recent whirlwind 24-hour trip to Portland with Jud left precious little time to do all the eating we wanted to do, but in addition to lots of snacking, we managed to hit two restaurants that were new to me and a third that I’ve enjoyed before.
Jud and I rolled into town just in time to pick up my sister and her boyfriend to get lunch at Brass Tacks, which I’d actually learned about by cruising the Merc Perks site to see what vegan delights I was missing out on down south.
Storefront of Brass Tacks, a casual sandwich shop with tasty vegan options
Brass Tacks has only been open a matter of months, so even my vegan, food-loving sister hadn’t made it there yet. It’s within an easy walk of the vegan strip of Alberta if you want to hit one and then the other. The menu includes both meat and vegan options, very clearly laid out:
You can also build your own sandwich by marking up those handy menu cards, which I find much more pleasant than staring at a wall menu and trying to articulate what I do and don’t want.
Conveniently, there were four of us and four menu items, so we divided, conquered, and shared. Each sandwich comes with a generous pile of potato chips; you can order sides like their house-made garlic pickles.
The “Salome,” with spicy, sun-dried tomato vegan salami on a French roll.
The “Captain Nemo” meatball sub, the favorite in our group.
We all liked all four vegan combinations, but the meatball sub came out on top. The house-made meatballs are moist, tender, flavorful and also hold together well, which I’ve found to be a rare convergence of virtues in vegan meatballs. Then again, with Portland’s plethora of vegan meatball sub offerings, maybe there are more good ones to be had. But the one at Brass Tacks is really very good, and I’d love to have one all to myself.
We enjoyed the other three sandwiches (second favorite seemed to be the Velveeta Underground, with a nice, smoky cheez sauce) and the casual, bright space with friendly staff. Earning more props, the restaurant does not offer a garbage can, instead providing places for recycling, compost and reusables. The sandwiches seemed a tad small for their price of $7.99 each, though given our eating plans we were glad not to be stuffed when we left. If you want to fill up you’ll probably want to add a side (all soups, salads and condiments are vegan).
In order to hit as many places as we could, we visited some bakeries (see Alberta post plus one yet to come about the Cravin’ Raven) and took a very nice walk in Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge before tackling dinner. My original goal of trying Natural Selection was foiled by my not making reservations early enough, and Portobello was also warning us of a multi-hour wait, so we went instead to an old favorite: Van Hanh on Division and 82nd.
Van Hanh isn’t exactly known for stellar service. Some reviewers on Yelp report good results from investing a little effort to push past the language barrier and reserved demeanor of the main server, a Buddhist nun who has worked there for a long time. Others on Yelp, however, echo the experiences my sister and I have typically had, of slow and rather terse service. No matter: we go back without hesitation because the food’s excellent, the prices are very reasonable, and speaking for myself, I don’t need to be best friends with a server anyway. For what it’s worth, this time we had a different server, who was friendly though did bring one wrong dish based on mis-hearing what we’d ordered. It was promptly replaced with the right one, with no fuss.
Of the whole menu, the thing you want to make sure you order at Van Hanh is the lemongrass tofu sticks.
Tofu and thin, clear noodles wrapped around stalks of lemongrass. Sounds and looks a little odd; tastes fantastic! Tender, moist and flavorful.
We also got the Green Beans Combo (green beans with a mixture of all of their mock meats and tofu, in a delicious sauce), the Broccoli Combo (same thing with a different vegetable, and different spices in the sauce), and the Curry Vegetables Combo (shown below, with a light yellow curry sauce infused with fresh lemongrass flavor). I would enthusiastically recommend every one of those dishes. The vegetables are cooked just right, and their mock meats and tofu are all quite good.
Curry Vegetables Combo at Van Hanh
The next morning we hit Portobello right when they opened to make sure we got into their second week of offering brunch (they accept reservations for dinner, but not for brunch). Unexpectedly, we hit some hiccups in service there, too. Although the line of people who had showed up before they opened only filled about half the restaurant, we had to wait for seating because, oddly, there weren’t enough menus to go around. There was complimentary coffee available to sip while we waited, but all of us would have much preferred water to be available, which was not offered. This proved to be a theme for our meal, as our four-top table received only a little half-liter carafe of water to split, even though there were larger bottles sitting on nearby two-top tables. Our request to the server to keep the water coming met with limited success as well.
All of that said, we were all overwhelmingly happy with the brunch. Here’s what we got:
Roasted sweet potato, rootbeer, rum waffle with soy-free earth balance, Kraken rum & maple syrup macerated orchard fruits
Jud never misses a chance to try a Bloody Mary. This one used heirloom tomatoes that appeared to have been juiced raw (thus the unusual color, and a nice, fresh flavor), but the spicing was underwhelming. The mimosa I had was delicous, though!
Foreground: Spicy squash homefries with summer squash, roasted corn, and hot pepper homefries, cilantro-pistachio pesto & smoked paprika cashew crema; Middle: Farmer Mel’s autumnal green salad, a mix of brassicas, purslane, and calendula with vinaigrette; Background: Ota tofu frittata, an Italian-style baked vegan vegetable omelet with tomato sauce
Savory cornmeal waffle with spicy red beans, cashew ricotta, red onion agrodolce, roasted corn, and tomato sauce
The savory waffle was what I ordered, and as much as I really enjoyed all of the other things on the table, I must say that this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. The variety and balance of textures and flavors was truly impressive, and each ingredient was prepared in such a way to maximize its flavor contribution to the dish. If this is on the menu when you go (since Portobello uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients, they do change their offerings frequently), I urge you to make sure someone at your table orders it. Both the savory waffle and the spicy squash homefries were gluten free.
As you can see, the presentation of the dishes is gorgeous, and the space is very pleasant as well, with plenty of reclaimed wood, high ceilings, and a wall of windows in the front to maximize natural light. I’m glad we got in while people were still discovering the brunch since I’m sure this will soon draw the long lines that afflict nearly every Portland brunch venue. Still, I’ll go back even if I have to take a book for the wait.