Very often, the answer to “Where should we meet for lunch?” is Green Elephant for me. I like everything about it—the serene atmosphere, the simple, clean interior and most of all, the food. There’s something about the combination of spices, sauces, and fresh vegetables that I find irresistible. Green Elephant is a vegetarian restaurant, but it’s important to emphasize that it is not just for vegetarians and vegans. No, not at all.
Labeling the food at Green Elephant anything but delicious might create false limitations. The crowd comes for many reasons. There’s the fantastic Brussels sprouts appetizer seasoned with tamari and brown sugar. A drinks menu featuring Portland’s Homegrown Tea, including a special Green Elephant blend. The incredibly popular chocolate mousse pie with Oreo crust. And there’s the flexibility to work with all kinds of special diets—gluten free, vegan, etc. The staff is accommodating and helpful, and the kitchen is prepared for just about any request.
While dishes are composed largely of vegetables, this is most definitely not salad. This is food that’s rich and hearty, complex and thoroughly enjoyable. There is so much flavor in each dish that meat truly isn’t necessary and will hardly be missed. Protein comes in several forms and manager Andy Cole tells me, “The first part of learning the job here is learning about the soy products and how to describe them to customers.” Tofu used at Green Elephant comes from Heiwa in Belfast, Maine. It’s made from New England-grown organic soybeans. Fresh, organic tempeh is sourced from Lalibela Farm in Bowdoinham, and it is made from pressed fermented soybeans and has a somewhat meatier texture than tofu and a nutty taste.
Every dish that appears at the table is visually gorgeous. Colors are vivid and garnishes, such as red cabbage, lime, and carrots, add another layer of brightness. A wide-edged bowl of green curry is lovely; the broth a vibrant shade with yellow peppers, carrots, and broccoli peeking out beneath a little pile of microgreens. I’m glad to be handed a spoon as well as chopsticks, so I’m able to slurp up every last bit of broth and jasmine brown rice. A dish of Japanese eggplant stir-fry is presented in a covered steel pot. A lift of the lid reveals thick half-moons of eggplant, tofu, red and green pepper chunks, onions, and lots of Thai basil atop rice. The basil pairs very well with the chile oil in the dish. If you’re not a fan of spiciness that’s not a problem at Green Elephant as all dishes can be prepared on a scale of one to four for heat. “There’s also a ten-star option if you want something super spicy. No waiver necessary,” Cole explains with a smile.
Pad Thai may be the dish people are most familiar with, and Green Elephant’s version has been declared “the best in town” by more than a few diners. The stir-fried rice noodles have an irresistible chewy texture with just a hint of citrus. There’s shreds of fried egg, squares of tofu and vegetables topped with ground peanuts and bean sprouts.
Green Elephant opened in 2007 by Dan Sriprasert and Bob Wongsaichua, who are both Thai natives. They came to Portland from the west coast in 2003 and purchased what was then Bangkok Thai, which is now Boda on Congress Street. They discovered a new opportunity when they took notice of their many vegetarian customers. Asian countries have a strong vegetarian culture and the chefs were eager to introduce that here, making Green Elephant the first strictly vegetarian restaurant in Portland. Dishes have no borders—meaning they’re influenced by many nations, including India, Malaysia, and Japan, as well as the chef’s home country. While the culinary influences are far-reaching, the food sources are not. As much as possible, ingredients come from local suppliers from Portland’s North Spore mushrooms used in a mushroom rice bowl special to Westbrook’s Catbird Creamery toasted coconut sorbet that accompanies sweet banana fritters. The chefs call this “mindful dining,” having an awareness of where the food comes from, how it’s made, and what its impact is on the environment.
For me, Green Elephant is especially welcoming during the cold weather months. The flavors and spirit of the place warm me from the inside out.
Green Elephant | 608 Congress St. | Portland | 207.347.3111 | greenelephantmaine.com