It’s an understatement to say that Portland’s food scene was different a decade ago. “Food carts were just getting started, and there wasn’t a dedicated vegetarian one downtown—or anywhere, I don’t think, except for Whole Bowl,” recalls Becky Leonard. That changed in 2009, when Leonard and her husband, Damien Gill, opened a meat-free sandwich cart called DC Vegetarian, serving up “seitanic” chili and massive steak & cheese subs. At the time, the pair viewed the cart as a temporary way to ride out the Great Recession’s unemployment crisis.
“We just wanted to make jobs for ourselves," says Leonard. "We didn’t want to start a business, really. It kept working out; it kept giving us enough money that we could pay our bills and go to Los Gorditos, and that was enough.”
Those burrito runs just got a lot easier for Leonard. Last Friday, February 16, DC Vegetarian opened a brick-and-mortar sandwich shop on SE 50th and Division, less than a block from Los Gorditos’ newest location. The restaurant offers an array of goodies not available at the cart—seats and bathrooms, yes, but also new sandwiches (think Reubens and Cajun po’boys), cocktails, and an all-day breakfast menu. Leonard has more ideas in the works, as well: brunch service, late-night hours, and milkshakes in the summer.
The Division location is currently open Wednesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.– 9 p.m., with plans to expand hours as soon as possible. As for the cart, it’s still open Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m.–2 p.m. ... but for how much longer?
“That’s a great question,” Leonard laughs. “Damien and I really would love to sell it, especially to someone who will keep it veg. I don’t want to disappoint our customers and have another falafel place downtown; that’s unnecessary. But if they gave us money, I would probably do it, because staffing the cart and trying to grow the restaurant has been challenging.”
Many downtowners will no doubt be sad when the DC Vegetarian cart closes, like so many other lost symbols of Old(-ish) Portland. But when you start craving one of those massive tofu-sausage-cheese breakfast sandwiches, don’t forget they’re still available across the river. They’re not $5 anymore, but on the plus side, you can eat them sitting down.