When I was at Portland VegFest (2016 dates: October 22-23) this past November, I learned about a lot of new companies and people doing awesome things with food, clothing, magazines, speaking engagements, cooking, fitness, and so much more. One of the benefits of being part of such a great event was learning about people within my community, the Portland community, who are doing great things. One such person is Heather Solano.
In 2014, Heather saw an opportunity to spread plant-based eating to others outside of Portland (already a haven-and heaven-for veg-eaters) and so she opened up La Vida Veggie in next-door Beaverton, OR (hometown of Nike World Headquarters). After VegFest, Heather announced that she was turning her vegetarian menu into a 100% plant-based, vegan menu. I was intrigued and I recently finally got around to asking her more about this decision. I was able to learn the narrative of Heather and of La Vida Veggie and I bring you what is not a short Q&A, but Heather’s responses are so well-crafted, you won’t look at the clock once!
So grab your chips, salsa, and the guac, get comfy, and enjoy:
What made you open up a restaurant? Why vegetarian?
I have lived on the Westside of Portland since I was a kid. I’ve been all over by bike, foot, bus and car. I know this side of the river like the back of my hand. When I became vegan 6 years ago, I really longed for a place that I could go, relax and eat that was close. This desire along with my love of cooking with plant foods mixed with divine timing and moral support from my community, really inspired me to go for it. I specifically wanted a plant based restaurant for two reasons: 1. It is a lifestyle that I truly believe in and 2. I believe that it was an unfilled need on the west side. The summer of 2014, my youngest child was ready to start full day kindergarten and this small, humble space opened up across the street from school. It was perfect; and worth a try. Why not, right?!
Are you vegetarian or vegan? Why do you follow this diet or lifestyle?
I am vegan. I have been on this journey, bumps in the road and all, for six and a half years. I used to have a vegetarian friend in middle school. I thought she was eccentric and couldn’t understand her emotional meltdowns when my 14 year old self and friends would gather all of our change, order a half vegetarian/half pepperoni pizza from Old Town Pizza. The pepperoni juice would get on HER half of the pizza and she would then insist on getting her own personal pizza. This was my first brush with vegetarianism. (I totally understand her now!) Although I was a particular child who picked at my chicken to make sure I was only eating white meat and hid my pork chops in my pockets at the dinner table so I wouldn’t have to eat them, I never considered this lifestyle until my second child was born. His arrival via HVBAC in my kitchen (go figure!) changed many, many things in my life. One of these happened when, after nursing him, he would spit up his food and have gastro intestinal issues. I started to research what could have been causing this. One book suggested that dairy could be the culprit. I was eating my fair share of cheese and ice cream, so I did an experiment and cut it out of my diet. Not only did his discomfort go away but headaches that I had been living with, on almost a daily basis since I was a teen, miraculously disappeared. I was amazed! I picked up the book, Skinny Bitch and then The Kind Diet. What I read horrified me, but inspired me to learn more. I watched Earthlings, Forks over Knives, Food Inc. and anything else I could get my hands on. That was it for me. I could not support an industry that harmed animals, the environment and us human beings ever again. Cutting out meat was easy and surprisingly natural for me. I haven’t looked back since.
What made you decide to have La Vida Veggie make the shift to an all-vegan menu? How has the customer response been?
Honestly, I wanted to be an all vegan establishment from the very beginning. But, I was scared. I was scared of the doors closing before I could even open. I was scared of not being supported and not being able to acquire enough interest; after all, it is the wild wild west side! I didn’t have corporate money to advertise and open a huge, fancy place. I knew I had a lot of vegetarian supporters in the community. But, vegan? I wasn’t so sure. After one year of being open, I went for it. I always talk about being true to oneself; I wear my heart on my sleeve and I have to practice what I preach. It was scary to take the leap. However, I’m glad I made this decision. There have been a few people upset, but the response from the vegan community has been so great that it makes up for it. At the end of the day, I’m happy and satisfied with my decision.
What are some of LVV’s most popular dishes/foods?
We have a few best sellers. As expected, our specials usually sell out. I love specials! It’s a way for my staff and me to be creative, try out crazy and fun ideas and keep things fresh and interesting. Our menu is seasonal and changes every three months, however, our jackfruit and walnut meat tacos as well as our Portobello pesto grilled Panini are definitely our best sellers. The tacos are topped with guacamole, pico de gallo, oregano, pickled cabbage and a cashew lime cream. The Portobello Pesto has marinated portobellos, basil pine nut pesto, spinach, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and cashew cheese. Everything besides our breads and tortillas (at least for now!) is housemade.
What is your favorite food to create with?
Mushrooms…mushrooms are amazing! Not only do they taste amazing but they are so important to our environment. They purify the land, have complex underground systems and provide our bodies with important nutrients like Vitamin D, riboflavin and potassium. I love using them as one of my sources of protein too! I have a love affair with portabellos. They are super “meaty” and I always bring them to family BBQ’s! I also always look forward to Chanterelle season every year. My favorite way to prepare them is to sauté them in fresh garlic and ginger with a touch of shoyu, cooking sherry and sesame oil. I also love to make gravy with them. One of my favorite ways to use mushrooms, however, is to pick out many different varieties and make a big bowl of mushroom ceviche. All of the flavors of the tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, cilantro and lime really marinate into the mushrooms and make them so tender and juicy.
La Vida Veggie doesn’t just dish up tasty vegan dining. LVV also puts on classes and workshops, right? What kinds of events are generally on the calendar and why take that on?
We absolutely love it when practitioners, artists, community organizers, etc. come to us and want to host events. I really envision LVV being a community space as well as a restaurant. Some events that we have hosted would include Women’s Red Tents, painting classes, tea ceremonies, art shows and of course, our monthly “Make Tamales Not War.” This is an event that is held most last Saturdays of the month where volunteers and I make up to 200 tamales that are then passed out to homeless men, women and children in our area. It’s really an amazing experience. We are currently also selling food tokens that are then given to the Beaverton Help Center next door, whom then distributes them to homeless families to redeem at our restaurant. Our events bring so much energy flow in and out of La Vida Veggie and they really bring the community together in many fun and interesting ways.
What’s been your most memorable experience since opening La Vida Veggie?
Oh my goodness….every day is memorable. Seriously; I learn so much every day. I’ve made so many mistakes (aka opportunities for growth) and I’ve just had to laugh at myself. So…memorable in a mind-blowing, “wow that was amazing!” way would have had to been attending the Portland VegFest 2015. I had made it my one-year goal to attend and it was an incredible experience. It was a major amount of work but it was so rewarding. I remember weeks and nights before having checklists—and checklists for my checklists—outlining everything that I needed to do and when. Something that has been invaluable for me has been to learn the art of delegation. So, nights before, I just had to give up some control and enlist help. Some wonderful volunteers, as well as my employees helped me prep everything. We had an open dining room for service plus about six people in our teeny tiny kitchen, hands on, making Operation VegFest happen. That Friday night [the night before VegFest], my kids were dressed to the nines making their acting debut on stage at school across the street for a spring performance. So, here I was, staying until the last second that I could at the restaurant and then jogging to school to catch my daughter’s lead role as “Narrator 1” just for it to end to jog back to answer my shop’s text message of “help!” Ha! It was a crazy (but fun!) couple of days. My most memorable moments have been like this, actually. Moments where I think I’m being tested and pushed so far to the edge that I actually may just fall off but in reality I’m growing, learning and accomplishing things that I never thought I could. I’m sure one of these days, the mountains to climb over are going to be 100 times larger and I’m just going to read back on this, chuckling, shaking my head and remembering how easy I (once) had it.
What drives you every day?
This question makes me laugh! I think that I am extremely stubborn and will-driven. Don’t think I can do it?! Well, yes…yes, I can and here, let me prove it! Besides my natural tendency to want to do everything, the fact that I truly, in my heart, believe in this lifestyle and everything it has to offer the world drives me to get up and go to work every day. I love to connect with people; I crave it and it is my purpose in life. I want to spread the message of veganism through this connection; through love and compassion; through non-judgmental living examples; through me and my business. I’m most definitely a dreamer and the reality of the business world has and continues to bring me back to Mother Earth but I just know in my heart that I was sent here to make a difference. And, I will only dedicate my time and energy to something if that is exactly what I’m doing.
Are you perfectly content with La Vida Veggie and its now-vegan menu or do you have additional plans in mind for your and LVV’s future?
La Vida Veggie will continue to be vegan forever. This will not change. However, I do dream of expanding out of my little 14 seat café restaurant. I think about it every single day of my life! I envision a larger, full restaurant with a hood (imagine that!). I would love to be able to exercise all of the menu ideas that I have and bring an incredible, classier version of La Vida Veggie to the Westside. I would love the capacity to make our own breads, tortillas, chips as well as have a more extensive and varied menu. I would also like to entertain the idea of a dance floor and stage for live music as well as a full drink menu, using the finest fresh juices and elixirs. I am convinced that this is where La Vida Veggie is going and I hope to continue to grow with the support and love from our community.
So what are you waiting for? Either add it to your list of restaurants to dine at when you visit Portland, or if you are local, make lunch or dinner plans at La Vida Veggie! You won’t only be supporting this incredible small woman-owned and run business, but also the community that it supports through all it offers beyond creating and serving really good food.