Despite my cattle rancher father’s insistence that “salad isn’t food, it’s what food eats,” I do enjoy plants and the meals we make of them. I’m also a sucker for theatrical tiki decorations and drinks. So my hopes were cautiously high when No Bones Beach Club, a “coastal-inspired” “vegan beach bar” that partners with animal rescue non-profits opened up on North Mississippi.
I know what you’re thinking: Vegan tiki bar? Donating to animal rescues? How Portland. Actually, this is the first Portland location for a Seattle-based operation.
Either the fountain of youth is made of cashew fondue or vegans all die in their mid-20s, because I’ve rarely felt older in North Portland than when walking through the front door of No Bones Beach Club. Everyone is impossibly young and vibrant, in a way that might make a carnivore reconsider every choice he’s ever made.
The youthful energy of the place is amplified by how cramped it is. Strides have been made since it opened to make it more comfortable, but the floor plan is still tight. Sitting at the bar, one feels like an obstacle for the servers, as if a tray of tempeh sandwiches might knock you off your stool at any moment.
The place describes itself as a “beach bar,” never using the word tiki. But you can’t decorate like this and claim not to be a tiki bar. No Bones is floor-to-ceiling pineapples, palm thatch, bamboo, and sharks. The bathrooms are lit a deep pink, silver staples glare from novelty-papered walls, Point Break and surf videos play on the TV, and the music is late ’90s and early ’00s pop and hip-hop. Specials, beer lists, and timely messages are scrawled illegibly on surfboards. In a strange TGI Fridays move, the front-of-house staff all seem to have to wear leopard-print pants or skirts (I’ve never seen a man serving or bartending). It feels like something publicly described as “fun” despite all evidence.
Most egregiously for an even semi-tiki bar, the fun-meter takes a nosedive if you start drinking. Credit where it’s due: On my first visit shortly after the place opened, the drinks list was a Mai Tai-less mess of undrinkably imbalanced “takes” on classics. Three months later, with a few tiki standbys front and center, the menu at least tips its goofy parrothead hat toward the tiki tradition.
Unfortunately, reverence and sincerity can only take you so far, and the menu is clogged with poorly constructed cocktails that are somehow less than the sum of their parts. The infusions are typically worth a go, like a beet tequila in a hibiscus margarita ($9)—but everything feels diluted. The margarita has soda in it (what?) and the dark and stormy is a pint glass of weak ginger beer with quarter-cup of ice and a measly float of blackstrap rum. The only cocktail that comes in a fun tiki glass (a porcelain shark head) is the Painkiller, which inexplicably doesn’t have pineapple juice in it, leaving you sucking coconut milk with nutmeg, blindly trusting that there’s rum and OJ in there ($9.50).
In short, with its dollar-store decor and barely spiked punches, it’s reminiscent more than anything else of a suburban senior prom, the kind the art students put together in the school’s gym after the venue falls through.
Then again, vegan is the first word in “vegan beach bar,” and No Bones is right to foreground their food. For the most part they avoid the pitfall of vegan “versions” of meats, focusing instead on artifice-free plant-based dishes like jackfruit flautas (crisp tortillas filled with fleshy jackfruit and chao, slightly spicy with roasted chilies and accented with a reasonable amount of cashew crema—it’s one of the most satisfying and complex dishes on the menu, $12); crunchy wontons filled with pineapple, radish, and hearts of palm in a creamy not-cheese; or a surprisingly zippy “sizzling lettuce wrap” with pineapple, soy curls, and curried cashews (the best use of cashews on a cashew-heavy menu, $10).
Not everything is a slam dunk, though, like the “crispy” jackfruit-and-spinach-stuffed poblano pepper, a swampy mess of bland, refried white beans and way too much cashew crema; or underwhelming cauliflower “wings” ($8)—unfortunately, the buffalo sauce just isn’t flavorful enough to make up for the flatness of cauliflower (or even the tempeh in the buffalo tempeh sandwich).
Brunch at No Bones includes some of the regular menu plus a few breakfast items like huevos rancheros and bagels (including a salty smoked carrot “lox” that somehow tastes genuinely ocean-raised and still costs salmon prices, $11) and a prettily presented stuffed French toast—crusty but soft inside, split (not just stacked) and filled with blackberries and mango. With whipped coconut and jalapeño maple toppings, the only dig against it is that the jalapeño is virtually undetectable ($12). That beet tequila again saves the drink menu in a deep purple Bloody Maria ($9). More importantly, on sunny afternoons, the front garage door rolls up, breathing some much needed air into the claustrophobic indoor space.
But say you’re vegan or with vegans or simply feeling plant-based and you’re seeing a show at Mississippi Studios, and you don’t feel like one of Bar Bar’s veggie burgers (which are real-deal tasty housemade veggie patties, by the way), what are you going to do? Walk up to Victoria? If you also want a solid cocktail or an orderly atmosphere, yes, you will have to do that.
So maybe No Bones is a very specific niche: exclusively vegan Asian/Mexican/Hawaiian fusion for people who are not interested in thoughtful tiki cocktails but are interested in the trappings of tiki culture. But despite its many pitfalls and even with a proper Mai Tai calling my name just blocks away at the Alibi, I now and then still crave those jackfruit flautas and pineapple radish wontons. Don’t tell my dad.
Hours: Tues-Thurs 4-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-11 pm, Sun 11 am-10 pm
Brunch: Fri-Sun 11 am-3 pm
Happy Hour: Tues-Thurs 4-6 pm, Fri-Sat 10 pm-midnight