Vegan food from Dirty Lettuce can satisfy any KFC craving. courtesy of dirty lettuce

Surrounded by a virtual Instagram grid of perfectly plated street tacos and behind-the-scenes cooking videos is an image of Walter Mercado—a beloved Hispanic astrologer—standing in an embellished pink cape, his hands outstretched as if presenting the overlaid text: “Trans POC eat free.”

It’s a policy that speaks to the core of vegan taqueria Mis Tacones’s mission of making Portland’s predominantly white vegan scene more welcoming and accessible for brown, working-class queer people.

“I’ve always seen veganism through the lens of privilege,” said Polo Bañuelos, chef and co-owner of Mis Tacones. “And when I see privilege, I see inaccessibility to other communities. It doesn’t have to be inaccessible.”

While Portland is lauded as a vegan haven, it’s a haven that only exists for some. Despite plant-based eating having ancient roots in several cultures, the recent vegan movement often centers white people—whether that’s due to PETA grossly comparing animal agriculture to slavery, the appearance of vegan-friendly stores like Whole Foods being signifiers of gentrification, or the fact that overwhelmingly white large cities like Portland are leading the charge in plant-based restaurants per capita. As a result, veganism can be unwelcoming and inaccessible to nonwhite people—and at a time when beef production alone accounts for 25 percent of food production’s greenhouse gas emissions, making vegan choices more accessible for everyone is beneficial.

For many vegan chefs in Portland, making veganism more accessible to communities of color means divesting from capitalist values, embracing community, and honoring the food that raised them.

Bañuelos and their partner Carlos Reynoso started Mis Tacones in 2016, aiming to bring the energy and “pulse” of Los Angeles and Baja California street food to Portland. While their pop-ups filled the taco-void in Portland’s vegan food scene at the time, Bañuelos and Reynoso also wanted to bring brown, working-class people to Portland’s predominantly white vegan spaces.

Mis Tacones’s first residency at Food Fight Grocery, a curated vegan market, in 2016 gave the pair an opportunity to start carving out that space. For Reynoso, it was “an honor” to cater to their community in a heavily gentrified area of Portland. At the time, Food Fight was located in inner Southeast Portland, one of the many areas of the city that saw an uptick in luxury apartment complexes and boutique coffee shops that have priced out lower-income Portlanders over the past couple decades.

Mis Tacones serves veganized versions of familiar taqueria staples, like tangy and spicy asada tacos. Isabella Garcia

“We wanted to bring working-class brown folks [to the area] that were also vegan, but might have felt alienated by the culture,” Reynoso said.

Mis Tacones tackles that alienation by serving veganized versions of familiar taqueria staples, like tangy and spicy asada tacos and velvety refried beans made with vegetable shortening instead of the traditional lard. Bañuelos makes their own seitan—a gluten-based protein that can mimic the chew and texture of meat—and flavors it with spices and herbs from their family’s meat-based recipes.

“Watching my brother on the grill pouring beer and lime all over the asada, getting it all nice and crispy—they’re just very traditional, backyard ways of making carne asada that I incorporate,” Bañuelos said.

Centering mock-meats is a common theme among Portland chefs creating vegan-friendly versions of traditional meals. Cyrus Ichiza, owner and chef of vegan Pan-Asian restaurant Ichiza Kitchen in Northeast Portland, sees mock-meats as the “trope of Ichiza,” featuring them in over half of the dishes on his menu. For Ichiza, it’s about maintaining a relationship with the food that raised him—the black vinegar-spiced chicken adobo from his childhood and dumplings that marked special occasions—just without the animal products.

“Especially in a lifestyle of being vegan and constantly being pressured to be healthy and eat whole foods, I wanted to create a menu that people could still have their cultural food memories, which is so deeply ingrained in us,” Ichiza said. “It's not just me that grew up with this food, it's so many other people.”

Embracing the flavorful, nostalgic dishes of home also disrupts the perceptions of bland, textureless food that plagued the early days of vegan cuisine. Before opening vegan southern food cart phenom Dirty Lettuce in Northeast Portland in early 2020, Alkebulan Moroski tried incorporating vegan dishes into his family’s restaurant in Mississippi. The plant-based food actually drove away customers who viewed those dishes as a sign that the whole menu was bad.

A vegan version of black vinegar-spiced chicken adobo from chef Cyrus Ichiza's childhood. courtesy of Cyrus Ichiza

“I felt that a big thing that was holding back a lot of people from embracing vegan lifestyles more fully, and what I feel like a lot of people in the vegan field don't really like to acknowledge, is that honestly a lot of vegan food does not taste as delicious as meat-based counterparts,” said Moroski. “I wanted to demonstrate to people that it was possible to actually cut animal products out of your diet and not have to sacrifice the pure dopamine rush of a good meal.”

For Moroski, who moved Dirty Lettuce to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Rose City Park neighborhood in May 2021, that means serving silky Mac & Cheeze, smoky barbecued ribs, and crispy fried seitan-based chicken that can actually satisfy a KFC craving.

At the same time, offering vegan options doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel. Plant-based eating has roots in South and East Asian cultures that predates the “vegan” label. While Ichiza grew up eating traditional meat-based recipes, vegan meals were also common when attending Buddhist temples or celebrating the autumn moon festival. For him, the word “vegan” has colonist roots that impact vegan spaces, including his own restaurant.

Ichiza built his menu to reflect his own multicultural identity, featuring Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese foods that mark his own upbringing. But, when people see his Japanese last name, they can start to police the authenticity of his menu, remarking that it’s not true Japanese food and critiquing his versions of traditional dishes. For Ichiza, it’s not just a judgement of his cooking, it’s a dig at his identity.

“I've been in an identity crisis because of other people, not necessarily for myself,” Ichiza said. “When I was growing up, I was not brown enough to be in with the cool Filipino kids and I wasn't white at all. I never had the opportunity to ever be on either side, so I've always been on the outside, and I’m going through the same shit at 38.”

That’s why Ichiza is renaming the restaurant Jade Rabbit at the end of October, aiming to give the multicultural restaurant a more ubiquitous Asian name and protect his own identity from the perpetual grip of colonization.

Vegetarian Indian restaurant Maruti offers Indian staples with an emphasis on sustainability. Isabella Garcia

Despite those challenges, Ichiza has seen a shift in Portland’s vegan food scene, noting that more chefs are bringing their own cultural dishes and food stories to the city.

For Maruti, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, embracing their food story means offering Indian staples with an emphasis on sustainability. Maruti owner Falguni Khanna, who grew up in Western India where vegetarian diets are most popular in the country, is passionate about using organic, non-GMO, and sustainably sourced ingredients and materials throughout the restaurant.

“I will not serve you something I personally will not eat, and that has been my ethos all along,” Khanna said. “If I'm eating organic at home, then I'm cooking organic at the restaurant. If I don't like what I'm eating, I’m not serving it to you.”

Offering sustainable and locally sourced foods comes at a higher cost—the organic safflower oil Maruti uses for frying, for instance, is seven times the price of the more common canola oil. Everything from finding local suppliers for eco-friendly to-go containers to selectively choosing non-GMO ingredients cut into the restaurant’s profits, but, for Khanna, Maruti is not a capitalist venture.

“I feel like food is a form of love, and when you feed people it just nourishes, not just their belly but their soul,” Khanna said. “What we're doing is worth doing, and that means not enough money in our bank account, but we're happy and we're grateful.”

The community-centric approach is a common theme for Portland chefs aiming to make veganism more accessible. While the restaurant industry can be competitive, with restaurants vying for the same customers and trying to find their corner of the market, Reynoso of Mis Tacones celebrates each new POC-owned vegan restaurant as an ally, not a competitor.

“I don't like to think of Mis Tacones, or our business model, as being capitalistic, because honestly fuck capitalism,” said Reynoso. “When I see [other POC-owned vegan] businesses, it makes me happy and I want to support them as well. We're all brown people trying to carve out our culture and make space and create new culture here in Portland.”