Review: Mitate Food Cart Raises the Bar for Vegan Sushi – Blogtown

Omnivorous friends, you won’t miss the fish from Mitate’s Stellar Vegan Rolls. Janey Wong

Before launching the Mitate pop-up, Nino Ortiz had considered retiring from the sushi game altogether. Boy, should we be glad he didn’t. Nino and his partner/co-owner Summer have previously worked with some of the best sushi chefs in town at respected locations Bamboo and Yoshi’s, but it took mitatea shift in perception, to find a new purpose.

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About a month and a half ago, the Ortizes turned their successful vegan and gluten-free sushi pop-up into a food cart and are preparing to transition into a full-fledged restaurant next year. “We always wanted to have a restaurant that would be our legacy. We want to be part of the Portland landscape and contribute to it,” said Nino Ortiz.

So far, the cart has found itself in good company at the CORE food pod along SE 82nd – seriously, between the other carts I’ve tried there and what I’ve heard, there doesn’t seem to be a miss among the bunch.

The founding of Mitate was born when chefs prepared vegan sushi for Summer’s family, many of whom are vegan. Through continuous experimentation, they realized they had something special. Much like a band refining a demo into a polished single, some of their early creations became the hits that are on the menu today.

When launching Mitate, Ortiz knew the menu had to have a core; their translations of familiar favorites you’d see on any sushi menu, like Spicy Tuna and California Rolls. They started the pop-up with three main reels – Mountain, Meadow and Oasis – which still anchor the menu.

Rounding out the truck’s three-person team is Chef Thai Nguyen, and each member brings a company-specific skill set. Nino has the most experience with sushi, and his expertise is paired with Nguyen’s fresh ideas and training in line cooking. This symbiosis is essential for Mitate to remain a well-oiled machine. Nino points out that traditional sushi is often simpler with fish; he had to adapt to Mitate’s style, which involves a lot more preparation and cooking behind the scenes.

As usual, I was asked if I wanted soy sauce with my order, and as usual, I replied with a “yes, please”. But honestly, don’t bother with the soy sauce. This sushi is so flavorful and meaty that I feel like the soy sauce would almost corrupt it. It’s also virtually indistinguishable to the eyes and taste buds as a vegan. For the record, Mitate has tamari on deck, so their gluten-free sushi is completely accessible to homies with celiac disease.

Topped with a spicy squash purée, the Oasis (avocado, shishito peppers, zucchini, urfa pepper flakes, fried shallots, green onion) is similar to a spicy tuna roll. This stroke of genius with squash, as well as the use of cauliflower as a substitute for imitation crab, was first orchestrated by Summer and then refined by Nino.

The Meadow (artichoke hearts, cauliflower, garlic mayonnaise, cucumber and apple topped with avocado, micro greens, fried shallots and chimichurri) has a pleasant tangy flavor thanks to the artichoke hearts and a specific mouthfeel you get when you eat something extremely fresh. I can see this scroll achieving the same cult status bestowed on Bamboo’s Green Machine.

But perhaps the scroll that best exemplifies the spirit of mitate is the mountain. With sautéed spinach, kale and mushrooms, many customers say it’s like no other sushi they’ve tried. A fan of truffles in all their forms, Nino wanted to include it in the third must-have on the menu and found a place for it in the sauce. The all black concoction mixes black pepper, black garlic, black truffle and black bean. Goths, eat your hearts out.

MItate's trio of vegetable nigiri.

MItate’s trio of vegetable nigiri. Janey Wong

In addition to their lavishly topped sushi rolls, Mitate serves up nigiri three ways. There’s the avocado toast, which is luxuriously finished with black truffle salt, whiskey-aged black pepper, bright lemon zest and velvety Arbequina de Durant olive oil.

An absolutely sublime fried eggplant nigiri melted in my mouth — it’s topped off with a vinaigrette of roasted tomatoes, capers, smoked sea salt and micro cilantro (via 503 Microgreenswhich started around the same time as Mitate), but the humble vegetable is still the star of the show.

Asparagus is also fried, at that sweet spot where it’s tender enough to bite into comfortably but hasn’t lost all its shine. For added texture and flavor there are fried leek sprigs and a nice touch of Jorinji red miso vinaigrette.

In addition to sourcing greens and miso locally, the Ortizes also use Portland Legends and America’s oldest tofu maker, Ota Tofu in their sushi. “I’ve always found that the closer to home you can get something, the more you can enjoy it,” Ortiz said. “We don’t want our food, or even vegan food, to be looked at [at as] a step back, simply because they are fruits and vegetables. It may not be wild fish, but it’s still organic. It’s still super local.

The Ortizes aren’t actually strictly vegan themselves, but Nino notes that having the cart at impacted his lifestyle and caused a big change in his diet. “Doing a vegan food truck is inspiring to change the way I live,” Ortiz said. “And at the same time, it comes back to inspire me to make better vegan sushi.”

Mitate, 3612 SE 82nd, (503) 260-2321, midatepdx.com

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