Tal Caspi says that when some diners stop by Aviv, his new Mediterranean restaurant on SE Division, they’re really upset he doesn’t serve meat. Then they taste the shawarma soy curls: toothsome little morsels, singing with curry-heady marinade and crunchy edges, served over a heap of french fries drizzled with tahini and spicy green sauce.
“They’re like—wow,” Caspi laughs. “[The curls] do a way better job than any other meat alternative. I think we’re converting people to veganism because of the soy curls.”
It turns out that those addictive little frizzled bits, which also star in local vegan burritos (Los Gorditos) and bibimbap bowls (Blossoming Lotus), among other dishes, are an Oregon-born phenomenon, created by Grand Ronde’s family-owned Butler Foods.
In fact, the faux-meat wonders, which are a bit like the lacy edge of a fried egg crossed with a chicken thigh, are kinda our special thing. “If you talk about soy curls in most other parts of the country, they don’t really know what you’re talking about,” says the Sudra owner Sanjay Chandrasekaran, who stuffs tandoori curls inside Indian chapati rolls and tosses them in salads. “It’s part of our local lexicon.”
Butler Foods owner Dan Butler and his small crew have produced the all-natural curls for nearly 20 years—soaking, cooking, and stirring organic soybeans in spring water, then letting them slowly dry out.
“They’re unique,” says the taciturn Seventh-Day Adventist, who has never eaten meat in his 64 years. “And interest is continuing to grow. We’re doubling our production right now,” Butler adds. “A plant-based diet is just far better for the environment.”
Butler started the company after 15 years teaching sustainable farming in Africa, a job he ended up with after opting for “alternative military service” during the Vietnam War due to his objections to, well, killing. His line of soy products, which includes taco crumbles and smoky, umami-rich “beef” jerky, now enjoys a fierce following among Portland hipsters and chefs. Butler’s not surprised.
“One thing about people that follow a plant-based diet. They’re like elephants, they’re smart and live to be real old,” he says. “Maybe some of these Northwestern folk are pretty smart.”