Driving down Stark Street earlier today, my stomach empty and my mind full of memories, I reached back into the part of my brain that holds the enchanted thoughts that led me to move to Portland. Oh, the vegan paradise! Oh, the unabashed weirdness! Oh, the affordable prices and the tax-free shopping! Oh, the public transit and the ever-plenty bike lanes! In 2013, this city seemed like a paradise. Perhaps, at that time, it was, if only in my romantic mind. (And, come to think of it, maybe it still is.) I needed a new place to live- to start afresh, try something new, and leave my failed relationship in the past. I needed to get out of the Bay Area, California, and Portland was calling my name.
At that time, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t aware that the place where I was to live, between Hazelwood and Glenfair, would be so congested with meth heads, sporadic gun shots, and scatterbrained yelling matches. I had no clue that unemployment was such a dire problem, or that homelessness downtown was 10 times more common than San Francisco’s Market Street (this is my personal guesstimate). It didn’t occur to me that people would generally maintain a lack of ambition, and spend their days smoking pot, selling pot, or trying to get rid of their pot to avoid another jail sentence. (Obviously, things have changed now that marijuana is legal.) I wouldn’t have believed that such a progressive city would maintain a shattering lack of diversity, or that so many of its residents would tirelessly smoke cigarettes, despite the reputed health consciousness.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I LOVE and ADORE Portland, and there are many reasons why I stayed despite having moved here during one of the harshest winters in years. Despite my nomadic tendencies, it is one of the very few places in the world where I feel home. Relocating to this city has changed my life for the better in so many realms. It has undoubtedly shifted my perspective of not only myself, but of the United States as a whole. But that is another story for another time.
Would it be crazy to admit that I came to Portland largely because of its food? When I visited in 2013 on a road trip, I was floored by how local, fresh, affordable, and foot-stompingly delicious every single plate I ordered was. Not only that, but vegan and vegetarian dishes were on, like, every single freakin’ menu. In places like the Silicon Valley, where so much progress has been made technologically, you do a search for plant-based restaurants and Yelp gives you the stink face. But here, you just stumble across vegan or vegetarian joints without even trying. Those places practically come and knock on your door, singing “We’ll be waitin’ for you.”
So yes, my journey to Portland was also my passage into veganism. I knew that becoming vegan here would be a relatively easy transition. Why so? Well, for starters, the community is extremely supportive of animal rights and maintaining plant-based diets. In the land of weirdos, no one was going to look at me strangely, scoff my decisions, or wave pieces of meat in my face, telling me that I didn’t know what I was missing out on. Yuck. I still don’t understand why some meat eaters are so entertained by antics like this. Anyhow, a supportive community, such as the Northwest VEG Project, meant that I would by no means pioneering into uncharted, or unobtainable, endeavors.
Secondly, I chose to become vegan in Portland because I knew wouldn’t feel so limited in my choices. I love going out to eat no matter where I go, and living here wouldn’t leave me researching and traveling for two hours just to find a vegan/veggie-friendly restaurant. In fact, Portland has over 27 restaurants and food carts that are strictly vegan, 24 that are vegetarian/vegan, and 30 that are veggie friendly. This means that, in a city with a population of approximately 620,000 residents (circa 2014), there are more than 81 places where a vegan can go out to eat without flinching. To put this in perspective, San Jose has a population of over 100,000 people (again, circa 2014), and there are two vegan restaurants I know of. Not cool.
And while there’s nothing wrong with tofu and vegetables or salads, the variety of vegan food is drool-worthy here. It ranges from Mexican to Thai and American; from Japanese to Italian and Indian. Apart from the meals, there are the appetizers, the local brews, and the desserts. Oh, the desserts…Now, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but who can say no to vegan cheesecake or a freshly-baked (vegan) chocolate scone their (vegan) cafe latte? In Portland, vegans are not deprived in the least. In fact, we might even be over-indulged. The food is just too scrumptious to turn down, and there is literal weight in the notion that we are the land of fat vegans.
To top it off, the vegan options don’t end at restaurants and food carts. You can sign up for vegan nutrition classes, attend vegan potlucks and meet-ups, shop in vegan clothing stores, work out at vegan fitness clubs, get vegan tattoos, and even go to a vegan strip club. That’s right. You might not know, but Portland has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the United States. And there are venues here that not only offer gentlemanly entertainment, but also serve you up delicious food (errr… or so the word is on the street 😉 ) while you watch women clad in vegan-only clothing and shoes. Yep, only in Portland.
As these reflections surfaced in my mind, I pulled up to my destination on SE Stark and 112th Street. Even though it’s been over a year and a half since I moved here, I had never gone to our city’s vegan-only grocery store. I had passed by a few times after having coffee at Sweet Pea, on the same block, but always was in a rush. As I approached Food Fight!, I saw a sign on the door reading “OPEN EVERY FUCKING DAY,” and knew it was meant to be. The difficulty I’d experienced in the past several months, traveling as a vegan throughout Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and visiting family in San Jose, dissipated as if it had been an illusion.
I walked in, my eyes feasting on EVERY SINGLE ITEM that I could consume. There’s no other way to describe the feeling other than the cliche of being a child waking up on Christmas morning. I put pupusas, taquitos, naan, “cheese,” veggies, hummus, soups, sriracha mayo, chia pods, snacks, and countless other items in my basket until I could no longer carry it. And then I went back for more. I couldn’t help it- first off, this was my first time properly grocery shopping since I’d gotten back, and secondly, how could I not? This was an hour of pure vegan bliss, and one that will surely been continued again when I run out of groceries.
So the answer to the question, “Is Portland, Oregon really a vegan haven?” is not just yes, but a emphatic, irrefutable “HELL YES!”