Weekend!Food: On the Rocks
Perhaps it's stating the obvious to say that Portland's new pirate-themed vegan restaurant is a pretty unusual place.
The kitchen at Pirates Tavern is completely free of animal products. There is no meat, no cheese, no eggs. Not even honey is allowed under strict vegan guidelines, which hold that animals should not be used for human purposes. Period.
However, it's a search for nautically themed bars, not cruelty-free dining, that lands two friends and me here on a Friday night.
West of U.S. Highway 30 in Northwest Portland, there's a vast industrial maze. We pass windowless buildings with no-nonsense names like General Tool and Pacific Northwest Metal.
The road twists and turns. The car bumps over railroad tracks. And then suddenly, jutting from a steep slope above the road, is the long, old-fashioned front porch of Pirates Tavern.
I was picturing a small cafe, but this place is quite large. The parking lot is vertiginously steep. Beyond looms the dark verge of Forest Park. 'Did you bring me here to kill me?' asks one of my friends.
Inside the front door is a cold vestibule, empty except for two 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie posters. Beyond is an inner foyer. A small treasure chest sits on a ledge, with doubloons scattered around. The servers are actually dressed like pirates. But keep in mind, these are vegan pirate outfits: no leather, silk or wool allowed.
The interior has a mead-hall look to it, with a peaked ceiling and long tables running down the middle. It looks like it once could have been an Arthurian-themed pizza palace, or what it was, a restaurant called Yankee Pot Roast.
It's a bit bare and chilly, and there are space heaters scattered around. How does the owner expect to fill a place like this? Blind optimism, I would guess, except that tonight, it's actually quite full. We have to wait for a pirate-busser to clear a place for us.
Beer's big, rum's rampant
We sit down to a peculiar yet familiar odor. It's vinegar, which was used instead of bleach to wipe down the table. We're given water in big glass goblets.
The drink menu has certain odd limitations. There's organic beer in gigantic 24-ounce steins. There is rum. And that's it. 'Can I get a smaller beer?' I ask the serving wench. 'If you order a bottle of beer,' she says.
Then there's the menu. The seeds, alfalfa sprouts and lentil loaves of 1970s-style health food are nowhere to be found. Rather, with a few discreet changes, this looks like the menu from Denny's, complete with burgers, Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, and a south-of-the-border section.
You have to read the fine print to see that the chicken is mock, the steak isn't steak, the alfredo sauce has no butter or cream, and the Parmesan - well, I have no idea what that means in this context.
It's all a bit surreal, and here's another surprise: The food is really good. I order mashed potatoes and gravy with doubt in my mind, but the potatoes are fluffy and tasty, and the gravy is smooth and savory.
The 'fish' in the fish and chips is so uncannily realistic that my vegetarian friend can't bring herself to eat it. The Rasta Pasta is a bit pasty, but the strawberry daiquiri is outstanding. And you can't go wrong with Roots Organic Brewing's organic beer. The Pirate Pint is a good deal at $5.95, though it's so big it makes you feel like you're shrinking.
Just when we think we've got the place figured out, a group of musicians climbs a ladder, onto a platform that has been built on top of the bar. They start playing acid jazz at an earsplitting level. A little girl sitting near us puts her hands over her ears. So does her grandmother. We hightail it out of there, thinking, Did that really just happen?
Pirates do beat all
It's all so strange that I decide to seek out the owner and ask him a few questions. Johnny Zukle is wearing a ruffly black shirt and a laced-up vest, with a giant key around his neck.
He came to Portland to open Pirates, after having run a vegan restaurant called Vegan Terra in Los Angeles for three and half years. Zuckle estimates that 90 percent of his regulars there weren't even vegetarians.
'The problem is, they couldn't pronounce the word 'vegan' right,' he says (it's VEE-gan). So for his new place, he decided to go with something that sounded more fun - 'What's more fun than pirates?' he asks.
He's currently working some crucial kinks out of the place. As we speak, a new heating system is being installed. He's also planning to install a decibel reader for bands. In the summer, there will be tables out on the terrace, and play areas for dogs (yes, vegans have pets).
Zukle has been a vegan for 23 years. 'I didn't know there was a word for it,' he says, 'Everyone thought I was nuts.'
This is his way of reducing the amount of suffering there is in the world. He tells me, 'That's really my only desire, is to convert all humans in the universe to a more ethical, good way of eating. … Every time a meat eater comes in here and eats, that means he didn't eat somewhere else.'
He also wants humans to be healthy ('Vegans don't have heart attacks,' he says) and to have fun.
I ask him whether he'll expand his cocktail list. His reply is an emphatic, 'Pirates drink rum! C'mon!'
Where: 2839 N.W. St. Helens Road,
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday