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Interviews

Matthew Melendez: Owner of Counter-Culture, a vegan restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

Where is Counter Culture located?
We're located in Northeast Portland, on the corner of 30th and NE Killingsworth (address 3000 NE Killingsworth, Portland, OR 97211).

When did Counter Culture first open its doors?
We opened in January of 1998 - originally as a take-out counter - with only a single vegan item on the menu. Our original concept was sort of a comfort food deli, the kind of place you can stop on your way home and pick up something for dinner when you've been working late. That never materialized however. At the time there was very little else to sit down and eat at in the neighborhood, and from the get go that's what people wanted. So we adjusted and became a sit down restaurant.

Fusion RollsWhat sort of cuisine were you serving then?
What we liked to call yuppie comfort food mostly. Four Cheese Mac with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Mexican Empanadas with richly seasoned, aromatic fillings, Focaccia Sandwiches on our home-baked bread, etc.

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What eventually drew you to a vegan menu?
A couple of things. First and foremost, our customers. We are located in what is becoming an arty area, and a lot of our customers are people who are on the leading edge of art and cuisine. Additionally, it's always been a dream to develop and organic herb and produce farm and run it in conjunction with the restaurant, and that dove-tailed beautifully with the pressure we were under to produce more vegan cuisine. And then Sandro DiGiovanni arrived, our Chef du Cuisine, and that sealed our fate so to speak. Half Tuscan Italian, half German, Sandro came to us from Stuttgart where he had been perfecting vegan sausages for a German sausage restaurant. Sandro combines a real Tuscan flair with flavors with passion for precision and presentation. Consistently our most flavorful and appealing dishes were the vegan ones, and sales of non-vegan items just sort of fell off. This combined with the pressure to become more of a sit-down restaurant took us out of the "neighborhood eatery" niche, and elevated us to more of a city-wide destination spot for vegans and vegetarians alike.

What effect did the switch have on your customers?
It was actually a lot easier than we had anticipated to make the switch. I think it would have been different if the items weren't our best ones anyway, but our entrees are so flavorful, we've become the place where vegans can bring their non-vegan friends knowing that everyone will find something that will make them happy - regardless of whether it's vegan or not. For example, we have a Seitan Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce and Pickled Cukes on the menu this week that I would proudly put in front of any meat eater - and we did many times last night.

Sweet Potato Ginger CakesI can honestly say though, not a single dinner customer has complained and we've gotten tons of kudos for the switch. There's something very satisfying about being a vegan and walking into a place where everything you see - especially the pastries (we make some killer Tiramisu and a Chocolate, Hazelnut and Caramel Torte that we can't keep in stock.)

Right now our menus are about 85% vegan and the rest is vegetarian. But we're currently completing our summer menu which will go live on July 4 and it will not only be about 40 percent bigger, but 100 percent vegan.

I should also point out as well that a hefty percentage of our customers are NOT vegan, or even vegetarian. We do a lot of marketing that simply points out the myriad nutritional benefits and we don't really tout any moral or value judgements about the lifestyle to our customers. Personally, I don't think the way to evangelize a vegan lifestyle is by loudly pointing out how animals are treated. I think a better way to get most people turned on to a more sustainable and morally satisfying way to eat is to start with the benefit to them - the nutritional benefits and the flavors. And we also don't tout that you have to be 100 percent vegan. In my book, getting our customers just to cut down on their animal-based consumption is a good first step - and we seem to be succeeding with that strategy.

What challenges did you/do you face as a vegan restaurant?
The largest is getting new customers to understand that there's more to being vegan than rice and beans and lentils. That it's possible to create rich, flavorful, "meaty and cheesy" dishes that are completely vegan and therefore, better for you. Once we've done that, the rest is downhill. Luckily, we have good word of mouth and that goes a long way.

What is the most rewarding aspect of running a vegan restaurant?
Many things. I LOVE that we are showing people that there are more responsible ways to manage your diet that are supportive of the environment, and their health, while also being a vibrantly flavorful and sensual experience. It really affects people, which is why our cooking classes are so successful I think. If you find something that tastes better, is more of a pleasure to eat, is better for you, and better for the planet - why wouldn't you eat it? Especially when it's really reasonably priced.

Carrot CakeWhat are your most popular menu items?
Appetizers are the Sweet Potato Ginger Cakes with Tofu Dill Raita, and the Counter Culture Fusion Roll. The sweet potato cakes are sautéed until the sugar in sweet potatoes just begins to caramelize, and their crispy on the outside and the combination with freshly ground ginger is a wonderful explosion of flavor in your mouth. And the fusion rolls are our really popular take on a spring roll, though we've fused flavors from many different cuisines in it including South American, Caribbean as well as Asian.

We have three entrees that outsell everything else. The first we call Aromatherapy by the Plate, and it's Dal Bhat with a Mint Chutney, our own Tofu Yogurt, fresh bananas and a large, homemade samosa - a wildly fragrant Indian dumpling filled with curried veggies. We make our own curry and garam masala and the smells alone will knock your socks off.

Then there's the Counter Culture Pad Thai. Another fusion dish, our take on traditional pad thai includes strong citrus lime flavors, crunchy adzuki beans and peanuts in a sauce made of our vegan "fish sauce" - a slightly fermented concoction of our own comprised of Nori, fresh herbs and some other "secret" ingredients.

Last, there's my favorite, our Curried Coconut Noodles with Pan Seared Tofu. The dish just looks terrific with a bright yellow sauce which includes an aromatic, almost floral curry we make just for this dish, lemon grass, lots of fresh veggies and marinated tofu chunks that are then seasoned and pan-seared just before being served.

Do you offer catering?
Yes we do. Right now it's a bit informal and is only pick-up catering, but we're getting more and more requests so we're just starting the process of putting together a catering menu for launch in the Fall.

How about cooking classes?
Every second and fourth Monday of the month we host a cooking class on a particular topic - either nutritional or culinary. Past topics include things like Avoiding Nutritional Deficiencies, Cooking with Tempeh and Vegan Desserts - and future ones include Cooking with Tofu, Creamy Vegan Soups and Vegan Holiday Cooking.

I know you offer cooking tips on your site. Can you share one with us?
The best one I can offer is not to try and mimic meat - at least not right off the bat. The most common meat substitutes - tofu, tempeh and seitan - have many wonderful properties of their own to be built upon, and I think the best way to start out is by embracing those properties and building dishes that augment and compliment them, rather than trying to "make it taste like chicken." This is possible, but the reality is, it isn't chicken and I think most folks are setting themselves up for disappointment by doing this. I think also that you need to learn a little bit about the materials, which are pretty foreign to most people. For example, tempeh naturally has a bitter taste to it which can be lessened by braising in wine, or used as one of the flavors in the dish to bring out it's nutty qualities.
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