VITA CAFÉ Lori Lucas

Portland has always been fortunate enough to have plenty of dining choices for the highly mysterious and growing sect known as "vegetarians," many of whom haunt their favorite spots like pale, hungry ghosts. But which of these meat-free restaurants are actually worth haunting, and which are exploiting the fact that their earth-friendly clientele have no other recourse? We sent vegetarian convert Lance Chess to check in on some of the more long-standing, established darlings of the lentil set.

VegeThai

3272 SE Hawthorne, 234-2171

VegeThai is mindful of shrimp paste, fish sauce, and all of the other true vegetarian pitfalls encountered in Southeast Asian cuisine. In fact, most of their menu qualifies as vegan. I really like that they're not afraid to use fruit in dishes, like the tasty pineapple curry, which is a slightly spicy dish prepared with red curry paste and coconut milk. They frequently use mango for their specials as well, with amazing results. The Pad Ki Mow is also spicy and akin to the Drunken Noodles served elsewhere. With fresh basil and robust grilled noodles, it's one of my favorites for lunch. VegeThai has also recently made the jump to retail with their own peanut sauce, which is better than anything else (in a jar) I've been able to find, and a steal for $3.

Vita Café

3024 NE Alberta, 335-8233

This beloved (by HIPPIES) veggie-friendly joint was hit-and-miss when I started frequenting it a few years back, largely due to staffing problems or some kind of sophomore slump. But on recent visits I've no longer had to suffer excessive waits for coffee refills or glares from the kitchen when someone at my table orders a hamburger. Don't miss items on their menu like the vegan chicken-fried steak (batter-fried tempeh with almond gravy), the Monte Cristo sandwich (made with Tofurky), and the simple but satisfying provincial plate (corn, mashed sweet potatoes, tofu, and greens). It's a good idea to split an order with someone, as they are quite substantial. You'll want to save room for one of the Vita's delicious vegan desserts.

Veganopolis

412 SW 4th, 226-3400

We all had big hopes for Veganopolis when it first opened: an all-vegan cafeteria! Wonders upon wonders! But after surviving a dreadful opening lunch there (my sandwich took an hour), I was confused by their claim to be a "cafeteria." They do offer buffet-style dining of sorts, mostly for breakfast, but I contend that despite their claims, they are technically more of a delicatessen than a cafeteria. Veganopolis is best at making sandwiches, a carryover from their food-cart days. The seitan chicken Caesar is a favorite, featuring crisp romaine and grilled seitan smothered in a delicious anchovy-free dressing on ciabatta bread. The grilled eggplant sandwich with soy mozzarella is an uncomplicated delight. Not to be outdone by Vita's famous Monte Cristo, Veganopolis also has a vegan Reuben that's to die for.

Divine Café

SW 9th & Alder, across from Magpie

I think of Divine Café as the little food cart that could. I've returned there repeatedly, trying out different menu items and walked away impressed each time. Among my favorites is the smoked tofu sandwich. It absolutely satisfies the sleeping carnivore within me. Heavy and satisfying, the tempeh Reuben (look out Veganopolis) is super tasty. The messy, delicious BBQ tofu sandwich may not be the right choice to eat over your white shirt before a meeting, but try it anyway. Divine also has excellent vegan chili, a wide variety of non-boring pasta dishes, fresh juice, and an extraordinarily friendly staff.