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.
What 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.
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.
I 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.
What 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
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.