Green Elephant, Portland
When I was in high school I was a vegetarian for about a minute. I thought it would be a healthy way to lose weight but since I only consumed pasta, salads, and the occasional tofu scramble, I grew bored rather quickly. After eating at the Green Elephant it’s clear to me that my cooking lacked a variety of protein, spices, and, above all, creativity.
Chefs Danai “Dan” Sriprasert and Nattasak “Bob” Wongsaichua co-own the Green Elephant and Boda. Although his passion is cooking, Sriprasert attended the Art Institute of Seattle and his artistic influence can be seen in the utensil-inspired art in the dining room.
It’s 5:15 p.m. on a Wednesday evening and there are already a few families eating. Within 30 minutes most of the seats are full and throughout the night a steady stream of people come in to pick up take-out orders. The restaurant grows louder as the service picks up, but the music can be heard amid the sounds of talking and laughter. It’s noisy, but in a good way, like a dinner party at a friend’s house or a large family gathering.
The beauty of eating at the Green Elephant is that you don’t have to be vegan, gluten-free, or vegetarian to enjoy the menu. Most of the staff, some customers, and even Sriprasert eat meat. Looking around the dining room it’s impossible to pick out the vegans from the meat eaters. I see a very pregnant woman and her family, a group of college kids, an older couple, and a group of women talking and sharing a meal.
We start with a crisp white wine, a slightly effervescent Vinho Verde and an Oregon Pinot Gris with a nice minerality. The whites pair well with the aromatic, spiced cuisine. Like the menu items, all the beverages are labeled as vegan, organic, or local.
As we sip the wine and look over the menu our server tells us about the special and can easily answer any menu questions we have. He is friendly and talkative and fits the casual, laid-back atmosphere perfectly.
The food comes out quickly and we dig into fresh rolls filled with avocado, vermicelli noodles, lettuce, carrots, and mint. The refreshing bundles wrapped in rice paper are crunchy and light on their own, but when dipped into the creamy peanut sauce, the dish is transformed. What makes it so good isn’t the unusual combination of ingredients—hoisin sauce, coconut milk, and peanut butter—but that every morsel comes out tasting even better. I might even consider putting it on ice cream!
For those seeking more than vegetables, there are three types of soy protein found on the menu. Heiwa Tofu, a family-owned farm in Lincolnville, supplies tofu; tempeh, lightly fermented soybeans, comes from Lalibella Farm in Bowdoinham; and faux-meat is made from soy flour, mushroom powder, soy sauce, and pepper.
It’s difficult to choose an entree from all the stir-fry and steamed dishes, fried rice, curry and noodle preparations, but our selections, the Siamese Dream Curry Noodle and Singapore Noodle special are beautifully prepared. I realize later I ordered two noodle dishes—even after all these years, I can’t escape my vegetarian noodle fascination!
The Siamese Dream is a bowl of rice noodles, red bell peppers, snow peas, cashews, and spinach floating in an aromatic broth of coconut curry. I want to experience the type of invigorating heat Thai cooking is known for, so we order our dishes at a spice level of four out of four. This type of heat is usually out of my comfort zone, but Sriprasert’s use of ground bird’s eye chili is masterful. It’s not a heat that will make your eyes water and mouth tingle for hours; it’s a warming sensation.
The base of the Singapore Noodle dish is rice vermicelli noodles seasoned with soy sauce and yellow curry powder. The vegetables are stir-fried and take on a natural sweetness, while the fried tofu gives the dish some added weight. Topped with pea sprouts, the dish is both beautiful and fresh.
I usually pass on desserts, but Sriprasert brings us a piece of chocolate orange mousse pie and the fried banana with coconut ice cream, and I’m thrilled. The pie is rich and has a velvety-smooth consistency and the fried banana and coconut ice cream is everything a dessert should be—sweet, crunchy, gooey, hot, and cold. Each bite is a different combination of crunchy sesame and coconut dumpling, smooth banana filling and cold coconut ice cream.
When the meal ends I ask Sriprasert about the name of his restaurant. He says the color green signifies vegetarian cooking and in Thailand, elephants are considered lucky. But I am the one feeling lucky as I sit with my friend eating a vegetarian—sometimes gluten-free or vegan—meal. Sriprasert illustrates that it takes variety and creativity to transform vegetables and pasta into a satisfying and exciting vegetarian dish—a tip that would have been helpful to me all those years ago.
607 Congress St. | Portland | 207.347.3111 | greenelephantmaine.com