A funny little thing happened over on Twitter the week before last. I went for it, frivolously tweeting at a company, demanding to know something selfish I probably could have and should have easily looked up on their website (in this case, the arrival of a new tofu banh mi on a certain winter menu), and then Kevin, one of the lovely founders of this company in question, did two things: 1) He confirmed that yes, it had arrived in Portland and 2) Sent an invitation to a personal new winter menu tasting. Oh, how sweet it is.
Look, I was having this utterly traumatic week where my panniers flew off my bike and went missing for 3 hours, gut-wrenchingly assumed lost (…eventually found in a Wendy’s), some jerks chucked a packet of ketchup at my head from a car window while I searched up and down NE Sandy, and suddenly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of one gloriously anticipated lunch spread, and a little hope restored in humanity (and marketing).
Yeah, I tried every single item on this vegan fast casual establishment’s 2014 winter menu so you don’t have to. Or, you totally can, I’m not stopping you, but if you’re anything like me, you would have tried at the most, maybe one or two new items while they lasted. My freelancer fall budget is a little more beans and rice burrito and tallboy-friendly than downtown lunch date, for better and worse (and intrigue and self-growth, AM I RIGHT?!) Anyway, I’ve overcome a lot of my menu ordering jitters from years gone by, but I do get stuck in this rut of being terrified of picking the wrong thing and not finding my new favorite something. That’s a big way of how I view food: I want nearly everything I cook + eat + order to be interesting! Which means, I want intriguing flavors and dishes in my life. Surprise me! Impress me!
At the same time, I really, really dig Veggie Grill’s Sante Fe Crispy Chickin’, wrap-style, with those addictive Sweetheart fries and creamy chipotle ranch. That, folks, is my VG go-to. I’ve also got a big soft spot for the B Wing Salad (don’t ever leave that menu or me, baby) and occasionally, the Country Chickin plate, plus a little side of hot sauce. Which brings me to getting the biggest shock of the winter menu out of the way: No chickin’! I mean, you can add it as a topping to stuff, sure, but it wasn’t the star of any of the dishes we tried. Shocker!
Chickenless chickin’ dramatics aside, there are some really good things happening, and some good things, and a couple that weren’t vibing with me, but they’ll clearly vibe for someone (because there’s this whole menu creation process, for sure). Dusting off my old restaurant reviewer hat (which is totally a little hand knit hat that used to be a sweater I picked up from a craft show and legitimately rediscovered while cleaning around this same time, true shiitake) so here we go…
Thoughts + Pictures from Veggie Grill’s 2014 Winter Menu
This new starter was the first thing we tried, and honestly, it didn’t look like much and didn’t appear very battered (and when in doubt, if you’re gonna eat something crispy, more batter for the win, right?), but it won me over on the first bite. They basically take a portobello mushroom cap, slice it into spears, and lightly batter-frying in a rice flour meets tempura action, and the result is just so juicy, earthy and delicious. There’s this light crisp, ‘clean’ fry element from the rice bran oil (which I received bottles of from a client years ago in another life and forgot existed), and that whole “meaty” mushroom thing going on. It’s served with a creamy, romesco-esque roasted red pepper sauce and was apparently inspired by customers asking for a fried portobello inside the Papa Pomodora burger, which sounds just as tasty ⸺ and makes me want a side of marinara for these bad boys.
Jules’ thoughts? DA-YUMMMMM.
Sonoran Winter Bowl
This is apparently quite the controversial dish already, sheesh! Don’t look for me to settle the score: I’m afraid I can’t weigh in on much due to the least trendy vegan allergy ever (er, of the moment, treenuts). I took a few careful bites (avoiding the almond-studded quinoa) and appreciated all of the flvorful components I experienced ⸺ from the stewed black beans, crispy tortilla strips, fresh avocado, curious dried grapes and assortment of veggies ⸺ but more importantly, contemplating what I’d heard so far, I was left wondering A) where in California the “Sonoran” is, because I want to believe this is actually inspired by a certain Commander Strax and B) who and what and where inspired this dish? What’s the thinking here? I truly want to pick that brain.
As curious as it is, it’s sure a conversation-starting switcheroo to your typical beans + quinoa + kale + sauce bowl.
Jules’ thoughts: :::Insert dramatic pause::: I could see a lot of people ordering this. Um, raisins?
Chargrilled Veggie + Penne
So, noticeably not a pasta salad, this is assuredly a chilled pasta dish. Keep up with me here. The Chargrilled Veggie + Penne has good things going on: well-cooked pasta, a handful of roasted veggies, including the welcome duo of roasted sweet potatoes and butternut squash, plus, a heap of their tasty house vegan parmesan. It’s pretty easygoing with flavor and a better order for a frind or coworker who’s a tad too terrified for some fake chicken and probably hates mushrooms. You know that type. Yet, as someone who likes their pasta hot & garlicky and who’s been watching a lot of Chopped lately, I agreed with Jules when she pointed out that it seemed like it needed a little something extra to bring the dish together. A vinaigrette? Fresh herbs? More squash? Oh my gosh, squash-based sauce? I just can’t see ordering the chilled pasta salad when there are SO MANY AWESOME THINGS to eat at Veggie Grill, you know? I know.
Jules’ thoughts? Better than The Olive Garden. But not hot. The Parmesan was SO good.
Glazed Tofu Banh Mi
Ah, the banh mi (chay, helloooo) that started it all! I want to thank it for making all this happen! Deep breaths…..I’d hit it again.
This sandwich had all the components you want in a vegan banh mi: good tofu, fresh herbs, vegan mayo, pickled veggies, fresh greens and something resembling a baguette. All checkmarks. So, what did I dig? Dude, those fresh herbs. Okay, I picked some cilantro out, but the unexpected fresh mint was a refreshing bonus. Plus, the pickled daikon and carrot is legit! The tofu is definitely glazed, aka rather, sweetly glazed, and topped with a super thin strip of roasted eggplant and slathered in vegan mayo (YAY!) If you want the full experience, you better go for those sliced jalapenos that are optional upon ordering. They make it happen. I like to think that even spice wimps throw one jalapeno into their pho.
All that goodness aside, it’s definitely on the smaller side for a Veggie Grill sandwich for the price, even if banh mi size does vary. VG makes up points with the generous contents and that vegan mayo, offering their own veganized take on a sandwich that the unknowing could definitely tip toe into and try something new. Yeah!
The bread is definitely not a bad choice, but I wanted something with a little more crisp going on. Honestly, give that bread another inch or two and leave it in the oven another minute, and you’re getting a high five from me if you throw in the Sweetheart fries, because they seriously make everything better….and now I want that chipotle mayo on my banh mi !!
Jules’ Take? A great stepping stone for people who have never had a banh mi to try a traditional Vietnamese sandwich in the future! The bread was really good.
Might I mention that she grabbed this sandwich immediately.
Kale + White Bean Braise
Well, well, well. I didn’t see any of this at my tasting, which is a small shame, because I enjoy kale, white beans and braising. Perhaps, next time, if I’m not feeling too jilted (I KID). You can glimpse it over here in the meantime.
Butternut Velvet Soup
Winner, winner! There are few things I want more than this creamy, well-spiced squash bisque on a rainy Portland afternoon in the fall. The fried sage and crispy pepitas were a nice addition (& ones that you’ll want to eat on the first few bites to keep the textures in-tact. They may not be your thing hanging out in leftovers). And those crackers. Oh, those crackers. Yes, please. I definitely did not expect to call the fried mushrooms and squash soup my favorites, but there ya go.
Jules: Oooo, best.
BONUS: Crispy Cauliflower with Mandarin Sauce
Heck yes, I dig this revamp to the Crispy Cauliflower starter. I tried it over the summer immediately upon its debut and was into it, because dude, there’s a reason sweet, saucey, battered & fried Americanized Chinese food is so popular ⸺ IT’S VERY TASTY ⸺ and this was up there for me. I hadn’t ordered it since, because I only have so much realistic room in my stomach and go for a wrap or giant salad, but had been meaning to since I heard about the not-so-secret Buffalo-by-request variation. The new style of serving this starter is no doubt influenced by 1) Keeping You in charge of your crisp + sauce action and 2) Making it even easier to dip these babies into whatever sauce is up your alley. I alternated between the Mandarin Orange and Buffalo, while Jules (who hadn’t tried these before) went for the latter, and raved on. And on.
Jules: They should sell this at movie theaters!
On one hand, I’ll clearly have to make a little less butternut bisque at home this fall, because I’m gonna be getting down with a bowl or two at VG. On the other, wait, what else can I slather that chipotle ranch on?
I continue to find Veggie Grill such a mesmerizing place, offering bright menus of veganized not-so-fast food, situated in between McDonald’s and Jimmy John’s and obnoxious big box stores I’d rarely head into and consistently hitting-the-spot. Over all, just really changing the way everyday people look at vegan food and “meaty” textures.
Jules closing: Now I will get something different every single time, besides the B Wing Salad. Maybe!
As for me? Goodness, I remain something of a Veggie Grill fangirl, that’s for sure.
Disclaimer: All food + drinks were complimentary at this individual winter menu tasting. Thanks, VG.
Photos by Julia.
*as being photobombed by Daryl Hannah while eating pudding in LA, no doubt.