Vegans don’t exactly have it made when it comes to dining out. Outside of large cities — where vegan-centric restaurants can number in the hundreds — options for those who follow strictly vegan diets amount to little more than perhaps one or two dishes on any given menu, which is in all honesty shooting on the high side. In Portland, Chef Matt Ginn offers a vegan tasting menu at the excellent Eastern Mediterranean-focused Evo and to my knowledge is peerless in doing so. Otherwise, it’s off to the Green Elephant — the only restaurant in the area that has served a largely vegan menu for both lunch and dinner in the past decade.

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The interior at Simply Vegan By Silly's

Then, you’ve got Silly’s — a Portland institution that coincidentally just entered its 30th year of existence. Purveyors of smoke-laden BBQ pork, mountainous plates of fried fish and burgers the size of one’s head, Silly’s has also long catered to the needs of its vegan customer-base, offering plenty of vegan-friendly options and even boasting a dedicated vegan fryer. Now, owner Colleen Kelley has expanded this focus in the form of a new cafe located just steps away from her flagship restaurant.

Aptly titled “Simply Vegan By Silly’s,” Kelley’s new venture quietly opened its doors in mid-July at 68 Washington Ave. Spare and pleasantly accented with blues and greens, the space doubles as both a café and market, with many of the salads, sauces and prepared items offered on the regular menu available to take home — a nice touch for those who have understandably felt shut-out from 90 percent of prepared foods available in most deli cases. Though hours don’t currently extend past 8 pm, the café serves a sizable menu of breakfast and lunch items, including some that will be familiar to longtime Silly’s customers.

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Don't Mock Me Reuben

Recognizing that I myself do not follow a vegan diet, I made a conscious effort across two visits to Simply Vegan to drop any preconceived notion of what “vegan cuisine” is and instead focus on the overall interplay of textures, flavors and seasonings on a basic culinary level. A cup of sweet potato chili with carrot, black bean and millet featured just enough heat, with pleasant warming spices lingering in the background of each bite. Equally satisfying was a breakfast plate cleverly called “I Said Mush,” which topped a warm biscuit with spinach, tomato, veggie tofu and mushroom gravy for what was undoubtedly the best dish tasted at Simply Vegan.

Falling short were two items that could be described as attempts at animal protein analogs. Built like a skyscraper, the “Don’t Mock Me Reuben” sandwich unfortunately collapsed into a puddle of soggy bread, pickled vegetables and Thousand Island dressing upon picking up, quickly becoming a fork-and-knife affair offset by seitan that was oddly sweet and tasted of fall baking spices. The “You Don’t Know Jack” burrito centered around jackfruit (a popular analog for pulled pork) that was both bitter and cloyingly sweet. Fortunately, sides of piquant, refreshing mango-basil slaw and a surprisingly convincing caesar-style pasta salad helped bring things back into perspective.

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The "You Don't Know Jack" burrito contains jackfruit instead of pulled pork

Simply Vegan most certainly has a place in Portland, filling a major gap that few in our local dining scene have stepped up to the plate to address. With a little bit of adjustment, the café could easily become a destination for vegans and the non-dietarily-restricted alike — a rare platform that has yet to be fully brought to fruition in the area.

Simply Vegan By Silly's | 68 Washington Ave, Portland | Wed-Sun 9 am-7:30 pm | www.sillys.com

Erik Neilson is a writer, musician and passionate foodhead based in Portland, ME.

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