Little Lad's Bakery
I am the type of person who isn't usually satisfied with a meal unless I've had one serving of everything, a little dairy, preferably cheese, some meat, although that's not always necessary if there's enough dairy, some hearty carbohydrates and so on. So trying to get me to go to a vegan restaurant, where no animal products of any kind are anywhere to be found, is like pulling teeth. But somehow, my vegetarian friend lured me into Little Lad's Bakery last week and later I realized, to my surprise, that I had found some delicious vegan food at extremely cheap prices.
It all started on this one day that I had to stay late at my job and didn't get a chance to take a lunch break. My friend brought me over a little cup of black bean soup and a side of wheat bread and butter. The soup was great and had little bits of coconut swimming in it. I gobbled it up, thinking it was from this other café down the street. A few days later, as if the soup had passed the test, he suggested we try Little Lads, a small restaurant located in a somewhat hidden basement space on Exchange Street. Not only did I encounter my bean soup and bread with "butter" once again, but discovered more delicious vegan alternatives.
A sandwich board greeted us on the sidewalk listing their most popular special, the $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet which includes a choice of one of the two soups du jour, a choice of one of the two hot entrees that they happen to be serving up, a salad with a choice of dressing and a little sandwich of bread and "butter". The aromas of simmering food led us down the stairs into the nearly empty, very quiet space and we proceeded to the counter.
The place is very dark and cavernous inside. It is in the basement of it's building and has a concave rounded brick wall on one end, the kitchen on the other. There were a few patrons eating their lunches but the place was so quiet that we hesitated at the door thinking that perhaps they had closed for the day. I immediately noticed the coolers stocked with bottled beverages situated beside a jug of complimentary water. Another cooler next to the counter was filled with cold take-out meals, the same dishes as were offered with the buffet, and some intriguing dessert specialties, which I didn't really get a close look at, but distinctly recall the word "fudge" written on them. There were also a few shelves displaying other Little Lad's products for sale such as bakery items and popcorn.
I quickly looked over the menu of sandwiches and salads but I couldn't pass up the buffet special, nor could my friend. I had no idea at the time that the food I was about to imbibe was all vegan and I asked the server which, if any, entrée was vegetarian only to receive a very strange look and a quick retort that both dishes were meat-free. I was very confused as to how the buffet worked as I didn't see any food out on a table or anything, and the servers weren't exactly openly helpful. But I managed to convey that I wanted the buffet and somehow got my meal by answering a series of brief questions asked of me by the young staff. The two entrée selections on this particular day were American Chop Suey and Salisbury "Steak". I chose the Suey and my friend picked the "Steak", we figured we'd share. That came with a salad on the side of the plate for which I chose Ranch dressing and he chose Thousand Island. The soup was self-serve, a choice of either my familiar Jamaican Black Bean or French Onion. After a minute or two of preparation, the server immediately delivered our hot meals to our table after we chose a sufficient seating location.
I dug into my salad and found very fresh greens with thick mildly flavored dressing. It was absolutely the best vegan salad dressing I've ever had, but definitely not like regular dressing. It didn't take much getting used to though as the taste of low-fat or fat-free dressings do, it was still rich in texture and there was plenty to coat my entire salad. My generous serving of American Chop Suey was a concoction of soy "ground beef" with tomato sauce and egg-free elbow macaroni. The first bite was a little off, since I was expecting the taste of real hearty American Chop Suey like my mom used to make, but once I got used to the flavor medley, it was quite appetizing. The bread was excellent, just a slice of freshly baked wheat bread, cut into a triangle shaped sandwich with a layer of butter-like spread in the middle. My Jamaican Black Bean soup was just as delicious as the first time I tried it, but didn't really go well with the rest of my meal. My friend's Salisbury "Steak", which he thoroughly enjoyed, was a square of indecipherable tan colored substance of which I reluctantly tried a nibble. I've never had Salisbury Steak before, so I had no comparison, but it was quite a strange dish. Very soft in texture, with a strong cream of mushroom type flavor. Needless to say, I was happy I had chosen the American Chop Suey. He was perfectly content with his entire meal though and even returned the next day with another friend.
This second time around, my friend tried both the soups du jour, Navy Bean and Vegetable. He described the Vegetable soup as thick and hearty with large chucks of potato and lots of peas. For his entrée he chose the Shepherd's Pie, yet another abundant helping, with a crisp top, thick with mashed potato, and finished off on the bottom with tasty "ground beef". His companion decided against the super cheap buffet and ordered a chicken salad sandwich in an organic tortilla wrap ($4.50). He, as I during my virgin trial of Little Lad's, was also unaware that all the menu offerings are vegan specialties. He devoured his wrap, along with his side of popcorn, and couldn't stop talking about how delicious it was the whole time. When my friend informed his unaware companion that no meat products of any kind are used at Little Lad's he was shocked but realized he didn't miss it a bit. He described Little Lad's as "a clean well lighted place with herbs of various arrangement hanging from the center beam that ran through the dining area." He especially liked the fact that "you pay after you eat giving you time to show appreciation of your meal and to have some idle chit-chat with the cook."
Tracy B. Wheeler is a classical flutist and freelance writer who lives in Portland.