Sweet Spot

Don’t Have a Cow, Man

Portland makes a serious case as America’s vegan ice cream capital.

By Karen Brooks June 25, 2019 Published in the July 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

[Top image: Middle Eastern vegan spot Aviv scores with (clockwise from top) creamy coffee, strawberry-basil, halva, chocolate, and pistachio ice creams churned from coconut cream.]

Not too long ago, vegan ice cream was the Debbie Downer of the scoop shop. There it was, full of righteous ersatz glory, sitting defiantly behind rows of luscious, cow-blasted sin. We knew what that grainy tub was thinking: “Die, you artery-clogged, morally challenged losers.” We stared it down, then ordered the good stuff.

Flash forward to now. ICYMI, vegan ice cream is officially a thing. The days of token options are toast. At Portland’s Salt & Straw, America’s trend-churning ice cream machine, 20 percent of the menu went vegan in January. Local fast food darling Burgerville just unveiled vegan analogs for its beloved milkshakes, flaunting Eugene’s Coconut Bliss. The data has spoken. A growing chorus of eaters are renouncing dairy in favor of eco-minded, allergen-safe, or lactose-free options. Vegan millennials, armed with spending power, hold the front line, but Gen Z is right behind.

Fifty Licks' Choc-Coco-Mel, one of the best vegan flavors in town

Image: Michael Novak

So what does Portland, America’s self-proclaimed vegan HQ, bring to the table? In truth, our famed plant-based paradise is beautifully vast, but rarely produces first-rate restaurants. After licking my way through the vegan ice cream landscape recently, I’m here to report that chalky horrors still linger. But compelling voices are emerging, too, from the world’s first big bet on chickpea ice cream to a shop leaning on nut milks as a creative canvas for really good soft serve. And right now, a bid for the spiciest ice cream on record—part coconut cream, part face-melting Carolina reapers—is hiding behind the counter at a vegan restaurant, spooned out only to those who know the password: “Repentant.” Vegan ice cream is finally getting interesting, and Portland is leading the way.   

On the surface, Little Bean looks like just another high-end Pearl District ice cream shop—the #liveauthentic décor, the attentive service, the buzzy flavors, like blackberry basil and cherry chai. Owner Micah Camden sees something else: a revolution. The Portland fast-food baron is no vegan; he may even be the anti-vegan, making hay with his SuperDeluxe burger drive-thrus and Blue Star Donuts. But Camden, a zeitgeist Midas, sees gold in the humble beige legume. The shop’s neon sign says it all: “Chickpeas, really?”

Really. At Little Bean, opened in April, chickpeas are the root and muse of the menu—nuts, soy, gluten, and dairy are all verboten.  While most vegan ice cream makers rely on high-fat, dairy-approximating coconut cream, Little Bean crashed the party with an audacious salvo: house-made chickpea milk, churned with a modern aesthetic, the beans grown cheaply and sustainably at a farm up in Washington.

Little Bean's trademark neon sign

Image: Michael Novak

But does it taste good? I found it slightly weird; not quite ice cream, with a faint popsicle-stick aftertaste. That said, Little Bean scores high on body, balanced flavors, and a striking lightness—you can eat a double-scoop for lunch and skip back to the office. Standouts so far: the cold-brew coffee, nicely calibrated between bitter and sweet, and the refreshing mint matcha.The real accomplishment is making pretty convincing ice cream out of chickpeas. (Meanwhile, Camden’s already on to a new chickpea-based project, confiding, “It will blow your fucking mind.”)

Tal Caspi is Camden’s spiritual opposite, a hard-core vegan infusing coconut ice cream experiments with his value system at his meat-free Israeli restaurant Aviv on SE Division. He loves local Courier Coffee Roasters, for one, because the owner delivers each microroasted batch by bike. Not a bad call: right now Aviv’s coffee flavor, rich and roasty, vies for the city’s vegan ice cream crown, backed by the crackle and zoom of ground beans on top.

Aviv is Portland’s ice cream think tank to watch, with nine ever-changing options that include curry date, chocolate rose malabi, and, yes, Repentant. One quibble: some flavors veer close to sugar shock. Meanwhile, Caspi’s pints, under the name Be Sweet, are hitting New Seasons this summer. At 420 calories a serving, these coconut cream-bulging scoops better be good—even Häagen-Dazs is like, my dude.

Vegan ice cream is difficult, a hat trick, which is why flavors are graded on the curve. It’s near impossible to recreate the melting pleasures of sweet cream. Tell that to Chad Draizin, who cracked the code at his Fifty Licks shops, where four vegan flavors rival his esteemed dairy scoops. The secret? Draizin confesses only to his science aptitude and a secret brand of Thai coconut cream. I defy you to eat the Chocolate A.F. and Choc-Coco-Mel side by side and tell the cow from the coconut. According to Draizin, one customer recently groused: “It tastes too real. Vegan ice cream is not supposed to be this creamy.”

Fifty Licks owner Chad Draizin

Image: Michael Novak

Another sure bet? Eb & Bean, timid when it launched in 2014, has evolved into a next-level soft servery, with three locations swirling ever-changing dairy and nondairy flavors in equal measure, plus an eye-popping trove of magic shells and artisanal toppings for the dairy-adverse. My jam here: salty, almond-milk-based chocolate-peanut-butter fro-yo, whipped coconut cream, and crushed, Butterfinger-y Tom Bumble bar. 

Little Bean's chickpea milk Szechuan Strawberry and Lemon Ginger ice creams on a chickpea chocolate waffle cone

Image: Michael Novak

Creativity is the titanium backbone of Salt & Straw, which does decadent, risk-taking scoops, chunked with god knows what, better than anyone. That mode now embraces vegans, as some of the shop’s most popular flavors head to the plant land, including the vaunted, cheesecakey Meyer lemon and blueberry. And sometimes vegan is actually better: Remember a horrid S&S flavor called Berries, Beans and BBQ Sauce? Grills across the city shut their lids in protest. This summer it returned, retconned from, of all things, coconut cream, “baked bean ganache,” and vinegar-twanged berry jam. It’s shockingly good fun.

The best vegan ice cream I’ve ever tasted? Coconut, cashew brittle, and pandan pocked with Thai caramel and spicy pineapple, a stupor-inducing Salt & Straw collaboration with Departure’s Gregory Gourdet. S&S sold it, briefly, in 2013, never to be tasted again, though the chef willed the shop his coconut milk base recipe.

Now, Gourdet’s jumped another level, with a new kind of coconut ice cream that enlists the sweet funk of Japanese fermented koji rice. The texture is velvet, rich enough to be illegal. Departure serves it in house-made cones throughout the summer, two flavors a week, Haitian rum raisin to peanut brittle. “New York and LA may have more shops,” he mused recently, of the country’s vegan cream scene. “But, given styles and points of view, Portland is at the front of something.”

Five years ago, no one could have imagined that vegan ice cream would be the sweet spot of summer. Now, only a Debbie Downer would miss it. Really.

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