Prior to starting the Mitate pop-up, Nino Ortiz had been contemplating getting out of the sushi game altogether. Boy, should we be glad he didn’t. Nino and his partner/co-owner Summer previously worked with some of the best sushi chefs in town at respected spots Bamboo and Yoshi’s, but it took mitate, a shift in perception, to find a new purpose.
About a month and a half ago, the Ortizes parlayed the success of their vegan and gluten-free sushi pop-up into a food cart, and are plotting a transition into a full-blown restaurant next year. “We always wanted to have a restaurant that would be our legacy. We want to be part of the landscape in Portland, and contribute in that way,” said Nino Ortiz.
For now, the cart has found themselves among good company at the CORE food pod along SE 82nd—seriously, between the other carts I’ve tried there and what I’ve heard, there doesn’t appear to be a dud among the bunch.
The foundation of Mitate was born when the chefs made some vegan sushi for Summer’s family, many of whom are vegan. Through some continued experimentation, they realized they had something special. Much like a band refining a demo into a polished single, some of their early creations turned into the hits that are on the menu today.
When launching Mitate, Ortiz knew the menu had to have a core; their translations of familiar favorites you’d see on any sushi menu, like spicy tuna and California rolls. They started the pop-up with three main rolls—Mountain, Meadow, and Oasis—which still anchor the menu.
The truck’s three-person team is rounded out with chef Thai Nguyen, and each member brings a specific set of skills to the enterprise. Nino has the most experience with sushi, and his expertise is paired with Nguyen’s fresh ideas and line cooking background. This symbiosis is essential to Mitate staying a well-oiled machine. Nino points out that traditional sushi is often more straightforward with fish; he’s had to adapt to Mitate’s style, which involves a lot more prep and cooking behind the scenes.
As is customary, I was asked if I wanted soy sauce with my order, and as is habit, I replied with a “yes, please.” But honestly, don’t bother with soy sauce. This sushi is so flavorful and fully-fleshed on its own that I feel like soy sauce would almost taint it. It’s also virtually indiscernible to the eyes and taste buds as vegan. For the record, Mitate has tamari on deck, so their gluten-free sushi is completely accessible to the celiac-afflicted homies out there.
Crowned with a mash of spicy squash, the Oasis (avocado, shishito peppers, zucchini, urfa chili flakes, fried shallots, green onion) approximates a spicy tuna roll. This stroke of genius with the squash, along with using cauliflower as a substitute for imitation crab, was first masterminded by Summer and then fine-tuned by Nino.
The Meadow (artichoke hearts, cauliflower, garlic mayo, cucumber, and apple topped with avocado, microgreens, fried shallots, and chimichurri) has a pleasant tanginess to it from the artichoke hearts and a specific mouthfeel that you get when eating something supremely fresh. I can see this roll achieving the same cult status afforded to Bamboo’s Green Machine.
But the roll that perhaps best exemplifies the spirit of mitate is the Mountain. With spinach, kale, and sautéed mushrooms, many customers say it’s like no other sushi they’ve tried. As a fan of all forms of truffle, Nino wanted to integrate it into the menu’s third staple, and found a place for it within the sauce. The all black everything concoction blends together black pepper, black garlic, black truffle, and black bean. Goths, eat your hearts out.
Along with their elaborately topped sushi rolls, Mitate serves nigiri three ways. There’s the avocado toast, which is luxuriously finished with black truffle salt, whiskey barrel-aged black pepper, a bright zing of lemon zest, and velvety Arbequina olive oil from Durant.
An absolutely sublime fried eggplant nigiri melted in my mouth—it’s complemented by a roasted tomato vinaigrette, capers, smoked sea salt, and micro cilantro (via 503 Microgreens, which started around the same time as Mitate), but the humble vegetable is still very much the star of the show.
The asparagus is fried as well, at that sweet spot where it’s tender enough to bite through comfortably but hasn’t lost all of its snap. For some added texture and flavor, there’s sprigs of fried leek and a nice hit of Jorinji red miso vinaigrette.
In addition to sourcing greens and miso locally, the Ortizes also use Portland legends and America’s oldest tofu manufacturer, Ota Tofu in their sushi. “I’ve always found that the closer to home you can get something, the more you can appreciate it,” said Ortiz. “We don’t want our food, or even vegan food, to be looked [at as] a step down, just because it’s fruits and vegetables. It may not be wild-caught fish, but it’s still organic. It’s still super local.”
The Ortizes actually aren’t strictly vegan themselves, but Nino notes that having the cart has impacted his lifestyle and prompted a big shift in his diet. “Doing a vegan food truck, it’s inspiring to change the way I live,” said Ortiz. “And at the same time that goes back around to inspire me to make better vegan sushi.”
Mitate, 3612 SE 82nd, (503) 260-2321, mitatepdx.com