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Silly’s in Portland serves up vegan dishes and desserts to die for

Some days demand a burger and fries. Even when you’re vegan.

In Portland, one of the longest-running places to get a vegan burger and fries—even a slice of vegan cake—is Silly’s. The eatery isn’t all-vegan but it’s known for homestyle vegan dishes that come with a side of indulgence.

Silly’s in Portland is one of the longest-running places to tasty vegan food in town. While Silly’s isn’t all-vegan, owner Colleen Kelley recently opened Simply Vegan by Silly’s, located on Washington Ave., just down the street from Silly’s. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

This summer, the iconic Portland restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary by opening an all-vegan venture, Simply Vegan by Silly’s.

The nine-seat, counter-service spot is down the street from the original Silly’s. Both sit on Washington Avenue’s restaurant row and both serve filling, well-sauced vegan dishes with whimsical names such as KaaNoodling, Thai One On, Vegan Strikes Mac and Don’t Mock Me Rueben.

For Emmie Noel of Portland, the “melty, hearty and always-enough-for-two meals” Reuben and the fried dill pickle chips with creamy vegan dipping sauce have turned her into a regular.

“I love Silly’s because they don’t treat their vegan menu options like an afterthought, like a leafy salad or vegetable soup,” Noel says. “If I wanted those things, I would eat them at home. When I go out to eat, I want a treat. I want something hearty, flavorful and creative, just like omnivores do when they go out to eat. Silly’s gets that.”

Portland resident Ryan Audy calls Silly’s one of his “go-to spots.” He favors the vegan SlyGuy wrap (falafel, pumpkin seed hummus and vegan feta) and the Mr. Zombie roll up (veggie burger pieces with vegan cheese, hot sauce and pineapple).

“Silly’s proves that being vegan doesn’t have to be boring and consist of eating only salad and bread,” said Audy.

Colleen Kelley, Silly’s owner, is the woman behind these plant-based dishes. She purchased the restaurant in 2002 from its original owners, who opened it in 1988 on Cumberland Avenue then relocated to Washington Avenue in 1997.

Kelley says she expanded the vegan offerings because she realized “the only way I’m going to stay in business is if I do things differently.”

In 2002, vegan food was different. Back then, there were just a handful of restaurants in Portland with “vegan” printed on the menu.

Kelley’s sense that her vegan options could benefit from expanding and that there is space in the Portland market for an all-vegan eatery is backed by recent statistics. Last year the market research firm GlobalData reported a 600 percent jump in the number of Americans identifying as vegan.

The Kanoodle, a spicy and flavorful vegan dish on the menu at Silly’s in Portland. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Also significant: The 2016 Harris Poll survey conducted for the Vegetarian Research Group found that 27 percent of American adults in the northeast regularly (but not exclusively) order vegan meals when dining out.

Simply Vegan by Silly’s caters to these growing ranks of vegans and vegan-ish eaters.

Donna Jean Hickey is a local vegan who’s eaten at Silly’s for years. Hickey’s favorite treat: the vegan layer cake.

“The cakes are top-notch, decadent and mouthwatering,” said Hickey, who lives in Portland and teaches at Portland Power Yoga.

They’re also hard to resist. Displayed on pedestals behind the bar, the triple layer vegan cakes come in flavors such as dark chocolate with caramel almonds, mint chocolate Oreo, and carrot with maple.

Silly’s sells traditional cake, too, but recently the sales breakdown has changed.

“Vegan cake is outselling the regular cake,” Kelley says. At the same time, sales of the Dive Bar (an original Silly’s vegan indulgence) “are rivaling cake.”

The Dive Bar is a deconstructed no-bake cookie. On the bottom is a fudge-like layer of peanut butter and oats topped by a fudge-like layer of chocolate and oats sprinkled with shredded coconut, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries.

One serving can satiate four.

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

But should conscientious eaters worry that such rich vegan food will revoke their healthful eater cards? Registered dietician Amy Taylor Grimm says “no.” Grimm recommends plant-based eaters treat themselves to foods they crave and love.

“I don’t believe that it’s indulgent to have these types of foods on a regular basis,” says Grimm, who practices in Portland and who’s been eating vegan burgers and cake at Silly’s for 10 years. “I think it’s important for our mental health to not have to be perfect with food all of the time.”

For her part, Kelley isn’t seeking perfection but pursuing her passion for food and making people happy. This passion keeps her going during the long hours and fuels her creativity with vegan recipes.

“I get to do what I love every single day with the people I love,” Kelley says. “The staff is just so much fun. It’s a joy to come to work.”

An essence of that joy flavors every bite of Silly’s decadent vegan cake.

Sweet & Savory Vegan

These days Portland serves up plentiful vegan comfort food in addition to what’s available at Silly’s. Here is a sampling of 10 savory and 10 sweet vegan indulgences you can enjoy in the city:

Sweet

Chocolate mousse cake bombs at Foley’s Bakery (1 Monument Way, foleysgourmetbakery.com)

Blueberry lemon cupcakes at Baristas + Bites (469 Fore St., baristasandbites.com)

Cinnamon rolls at Local Sprouts Cooperative (649 Congress St., localsproutscooperative.com)

Whoopie pies at Flatbread Company (72 Commercial St., flatbreadcompany.com/portland)

Chocolate orange mousse pie at Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro (608 Congress St., greenelephantmaine.com)

Pomegranate glazed doughnut at Holy Donut (7 Exchange St. and 194 Park Ave., theholydonut.com)

Savory

Veganwurst plate at Novare Res Bier Cafe (4 Canal Plaza, novareresbiercafe.com)

Vegan mac ’n cheese at Local Sprouts Cooperative (649 Congress St., localsproutscooperative.com)

Chicken fried tofu at Whole Foods Market (2 Somerset St., wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/portland-me)

Vegan pho with vegetables and tofu at Pho Co. (28 Monument Square,
facebook.com/phocoportlandmaine)

Tempeh, lettuce and tomato sandwich at Bayside Bowl (58 Alder St., baysidebowl.com)

Tofu “egg” salad sandwich at Portland Food Co-op (290 Congress St., portlandfood.coop)

Ya Baba pizza at Olive Cafe (127 Commercial St., olivecafeportland.com)

Ginger fried rice at Empire Chinese Kitchen (575 Congress St., portlandempire.com)

The Mobster at Falafel Mafia food truck (falafelmafia.com)

Fried Brussels sprouts at Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro (608 Congress St., greenelephantmaine.com)

Avery Yale Kamila is a long-time food columnist for the Portland Press Herald, where she writes the Vegan Kitchen column. She lives in Portland and can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com and on Twitter @AveryYaleKamila

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