Review: Paradox Cafe

I might be a pig. I might be a backwards-thinking Tennessee hillbilly. I might be a thick-headed carnivorous pre-human. I might also be committing slow suicide with my diet. And yet I have traveled the world, seen several dozen Dead shows, smoked more than my share of grass, lean way left politically, and think of myself as sensitive and open-minded. Can I be both of these people?

Is this what they call a paradox?

These are the things I think of as I eat vegan biscuits and almond gravy at the Paradox Café – but it started before that. I went to their website and found their philosophy: “wholesome common meals at a fair price … seasonal organic produce, organic grains, local and organic tofu and tempeh, free range eggs and hormone free meats … local co-ops … breads, sauces and desserts are mostly dairy and egg free … maple or fructose for our sweeteners.” This sounds wonderful, I thought.

The site also didn’t list their hours or what forms of payment they accept. And when I called to ask, the person answering had to check on the hours. My inner hippie said, “Go with the flow,” but my 40-year-old grump set off a stoner alert. When we got there, I dug the neighborhood feel, the 60s-diner look, the Formica tables, the parquet floor, the egg-shaped light fixtures, and the blue booths−then I sat in a booth and got poked in the ass by a spring. Now, is that quirky, or something they ought to fix? I can’t make up my mind.

The place opened in 1993, and while I wasn’t around Portland then, I suspect it was one of the first mostly-vegetarian places in town. As the Willamette Week has said, “Customers learned to expect a little grease here, a little filth there (but) cheap and easy comfort food, a place where carnivores and vegetarians could coexist in peace.” A friend of mine is familiar with the “vegetarian community,” which my Inner Tennessee Grouch suspects has a lot of cross-over with the Lesbian Community and the Radical Lefty Community, and she tells me that the community “bailed” on the Paradox because of the grease and filth. I also suspect this process accelerated when the original owner founded the more-upscale Vita Café on Alberta Street, and generally when other vegan/vegetarian places opened up around town.

As for the food, perhaps I’m not the person to ask: I refer you to the disclaimer I gave some moments before. I tried the vegan sausage patty and found it dry; I wished it had meat and fat in it. I tried the potatoes and liked them a lot; they were crunchy on the outside, soft inside, and lightly seasoned. I tried the vegan corn cakes and found them mealy. I had the French toast, which is made with sourdough bread and dipped in an egg-free mixture of fruit juices, and I thought they should have soaked it more, though the citrus-y taste worked well. I had the waffle, with oats in it, and thought it was good – and that they shouldn’t try to make waffles healthy with stuff like oats. I read the back of the menu and appreciated somebody explaining what tempeh is.

One friend had the biscuits and gravy and declared it warm, filling, and almost without taste. Another had the breakfast burrito (tofu, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, brown rice, whole wheat tortilla, carrots, and kale, all well cooked without added flavoring) and it was well done. We also thought it wasn’t breakfast, because it didn’t have eggs and sausage in it. But, as I say, I might be a pig.

I’m not a foodie, but I can tell you this: I ate at the Paradox with five different people, asked them all what they thought of the food, and every one of them shrugged. So maybe we’re all pigs. Or maybe vegetarian food is kind of dull. Or maybe the Paradox is just a little neighborhood place with a lot of healthy food that isn’t trying to impress anybody. As you can tell, I’m confused.

And yet the Paradox chugs along, sort of an old-school veggie place with a loyal following; perhaps it’s the Chicago Cubs of the “community”: cute, comfortable, reliable, been there forever, non-threatening. A new owner took over in 2006, and folks are trying to figure out how much the place will change – or, for that matter, how much it should.

  • Address: 3439 SE Belmont, Portland. Google Map
  • Hours: Mon-Sat 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Breakfast served at all times.
  • Website: paradoxorganiccafe.com
  • Phone: 503-232-7508
  • Open Since: 1993
  • Payment: Cash only as of October 2006, but debit “coming soon.”
  • Reservations? No
  • Large groups? No more than 6, I’d think
  • Wait: Medium on weekends
  • Price Range (typical meal with coffee and tip): $8-11
  • Coffee: Stumptown
  • Feel: The hippies took over the diner!
  • Seating: About 40
  • Changes/Substitutions: Menu says “Substitutions $1″
  • Portion Size: Moderate
  • Feel-goods: Local ingredients, free-range eggs, hormone-free meats, seasonal produce
  • Health Options: Many dishes are vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free, etc.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Lynn S. says

    The Paradox is popular because it has vegan food, which especially at the time it opened was rare. My advice for it is “When in Rome.”

    DON’T order truck stop fare at a vegan/vegetarian restaurant, like biscuits and gravy. When my husband ordered these at the Paradox, I warned him. He found them disgusting to the point of not being able to eat them, but that’s because he was expecting a taste that a vegan dish cannot supply, namely the taste of meat and fat.

    DO order stuff like tofu scrambles and home fries–stuff that’s indigenous to vegan/vegetarian places. I had a lovely veggie and potato fry-up on that same visit that was delicious. It was exactly as I had expected it to be, and I cleaned my plate.

    Final word: Omnivores beware. Manage your expectations.

  2. Sir Loins says

    For some reason, I’ve always wanted to like the Paradox even though I’ve always found their cooking pretty bland. I’m an omnivore and Like Lynn S., I also think it’s wise to follow the “”when in Rome” rule when dining at veggie places.

    However, the last two times I had breakfast with friends there (under the previous ownership) every one of us got quite sick afterwards. Yes, twice in a row, and from vegetarian meals.

    So, while my pals and I won’t be going back for a third try, I think it’s good news for Portland’s SE veggie community that the Paradox has new owners. For their sake, I hope that handwashing has become part of the new kitchen’s training.

  3. jami says

    i imagine that as a vegetarian, if i were reviewing the old established portland ribs place, i would also find it disgusting. in fact, when i went to tennessee red’s, their vegetarian meal was a burrito that showed no love for the medium whatsoever.

    but just as (i hear) red’s is great for carnivores, the paradox is great for vegetarians. the first time i was there, i had excellent fake-meat tacos. a trip to the related vita cafe yielded outstanding ravioli. my most recent attempt at the paradox (the sloppy joe) was not a thrill, but maybe sloppy joes were never that great to begin with.

  4. Beer Batter says

    It’s been a while since I’ve been in the Paradox. It was one of the first places I ate when I first visited Portland well over 10 years ago. I stopped going because the service was so horrible. At the time, it seemed like if you weren’t in the server’s particular hipster clique, they didn’t give a crap about you (or getting tipped). I too always considered most of the food so-so. Maybe one of these days I’ll go back and see if maybe new ownership has improved it.

    To the previous poster who said there was no such thing as good vegan biscuits and gravy: Okay, maybe not at Paradox. Almond gravy is just not a very good idea. However, I’ve had a couple decent veg gravies here and there. I had some at Jam the other day that was pretty good and Veganopolis’ version is quite good and the spelt biscuits are amazing good if you get them fresh. I personally make a vegan mushroom gravy that has recieved raves from vegetarian and meat-eater alike.

    Key ingredients: Earth Balance, flour, mushrooms, garlic, soy milk, veggie bullion, tamari, nutritional yeast and pepper. Optional ingredients: red wine, dill, sage, veggie sausage.

    Oh. and… wait for it…LOVE…

  5. SaltyCod says

    I stopped going to the Paradox 5 years ago. Perhaps under new management it could improve. But these days there are much better options. Both Proper Eats (in St. Johns) and the new Papa G in Seven Corners neighborhood are strictly vegan, and although I eat and enjoy meat, I can also have a great meal at either of these places.
    The thing is, if one is not vegetarian or vegan for moral reasons, one can still enjoy a veggie meal and feel really good afterwards. If the ingredients and cooking methods feel clean and vibrant and the chefs are inspired, the glow of “healthy” can shine on all the patrons, and I can truly love a vegan meal. (rainbows in background…)
    But vegetarian dishes that are full of deep fried potatoes, fake meat (which is always heavily processed) and lots of glomming white flour and tons of salt hardly feel like they are worth it. They are probably worse for you than a steak.

    I’m sure that the paradox in question is that despite being vegetarian, the food is not only terrible, it’s bad for you.
    And do the staff care? The fact that everyone in the kitchen seems to take frequent cigarette breaks leads me to think they might be vegetarian by reflex or association, but not for their health.

  6. emily2531 says

    Not everyone who eats vegetarian or vegan is doing so for health reasons. Don’t expect healthy food just because a place caters to vegans.

    Paradox has a few good things on the menu, but also a lot of mediocre food as well. I think it mostly caters to vegans looking for comfort food with lots of salt and grease. The corn cakes are pretty good, and the vegan nachos were also yummy.

    The booths are uncomfortable, the seats are sprung, the floor is greasy, and close your eyes if you have to walk through the kitchen to use the toilet in the back.

  7. VeganByMegan says

    few places exist in portland where a vegan can sit down and order the same crappy breakfast anyone else might order in a denny’s ihop or 24 hour hotcake house. it’s nice to feel normal.

    • Jill-O says

      I missed this response earlier, and I am not a vegan, but I think it is one of the best vegan response on a non-vegan focused food board I have seen in a long time. Thanks Megan the Vegan!

      I do also agree that there should be more and better vegan choices at most restaurants, healthy and non-healthy choices alike – sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t, eh? Any cook/chef with talent should be able to produce something vegan and delicious, especially with advance notice…and really, many of our chefs around here are plenty talented.

  8. Paul Gerald says

    Actually, I went back to the Paradox recently, and I found it to be bigger, cleaner, and better. I guess the (relatively) new ownership is putting some effort into the place, and I think it’s paying off. Not sure when you were last there, of course, but it might be worth a return trip.

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