Delicious, quality food has become more cherished than ever as we navigate COVID-19. To be sure, we’ve experienced plague, not famine, but bare grocery store aisles, restaurant closures and economic difficulties have recently had an impact on local individuals’ and families’ ability to access quality food. At the same time, families are spending more time together at home than ever before, and with entertainment seriously limited by business and event shutdowns, food is now an especially significant source of joy and gathering.
But we all know that not all food is created equal. Fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains provide wonderful health benefits that are missing in many processed or sugary foods. And I would argue that well-prepared and flavorful foods can delight our senses and boost our mental and emotional well-being. In addition to these human health benefits of natural and great-tasting food, the practices of sourcing and preparing that food can have a big impact on the health of our community and our wider world. As the restaurants we love and the farms that supply them adopt the use of local ingredients, reduce waste and practice sustainable farming method, humans benefit and Mother Earth is protected for generations to come.
I recently spoke with owners, chefs and publicists of a few of Clark County’s most environmentally-conscious restaurants to learn how and why they continue to serve us the very best food and safeguard our planet—despite a worldwide pandemic.
A local favorite since the 1960s, Burgerville has served local and seasonal specials for years, but their brand new No. 6 burger (named after carbon, the 6th element in the periodic table) is an altogether ambitious creation, centered on “putting climate change on the menu.” The burger features Northwest-grown aged cheddar cheese from Face Rock Creamery in Bandon, Oregon and whole grain made from flour milled in Walla Walla, Washington and Junction City, Washington, but the focus of any burger is the beef. Carman Ranch in Wallowa County, Oregon provides that, from cattle who graze on native grass and restore nutrients to the soil, a practice called regenerative agriculture. My family and I tried the No. 6 on a weekday when we all happened to be home for lunchtime—surely an event only COVID-19 could produce. Paired with Burgerville’s waffle fries and chipotle mayo, the No. 6 made for a delicious food fight—against climate change.
Location: Various throughout Clark County
Hours: Vary by location
Website: www.burgerville.com (Open for takeout. Check for dining room opening status.)
When was the last time you saw a pizza joint offer the likes of cheesy baked polenta, roasted vegetables and handmade baklava on the menu? Rally specializes in pizza but their culinary scope goes far beyond pizza pies. I’ve been eating solid food for almost 40 years, and I’ve never tasted a flavor combination quite like their delicata, radicchio, and hazelnut salad.
Owners Alan Maniscalco and Shan Wickham (also husband and wife) have prioritized local ingredients and house made concoctions to achieve these flavors and preserve the environment since opening in 2016. “We are a very produce-driven restaurant,” Wickham wrote me in an email. “We use as many items as we can from our local farmers to craft our menu. When we are looking for inspirations for our menu specials, we start with our farmers’ produce availability lists. We get excited for their fruits and vegetables and build offerings around what we want to work with. Our farmers are keeping their land productive, even as development builds up all around them. What they are doing by keeping farmland alive is so important for all of us, and we believe it’s our job as a restaurant to support them. Red Truck Farm, Wobbly Cart Farm and Flat Tack Farm are our go-to local farm partners for produce, along with Reister Farm for lamb and eggs. We couldn’t do what we do without them!” In addition to fresh produce, a pizza place’s most essential staple is flour. Rally uses Pacific Northwest Shepherd’s Grain Low-Gluten Flour, which is Food Alliance-certified for sustainability. “It’s no-till, so they’re not tilling the soil, which creates loss of topsoil,” Maniscalco told me in an interview at the restaurant. “It’s a very low-impact form of farming . . . and they are all smaller family farms. The mill buys from all the family farms and blends the flour to get the product they want.” Wickham added that each bag of flour from Shepherd’s Grain can be traced back to the farm on which it was grown. “That’s the basis of our pizza dough,” Maniscalco said.
I loved their Forest Pass Pizza: wild, local chanterelle mushrooms, leeks and pickled chiles from Wobbly Cart Farm, hand pulled mozzarella, fontina cheese, and Grana-Padano cheese.
Location: 8070 E Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver. Open for takeout, curbside pickup and DoorDash delivery.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 3-8 pm / Friday-Sunday 12-8 pm
Website: www.rallypizza.com (Open for takeout. Check for dining room opening status.)
La Bottega has been a special part of Downtown Vancouver’s vibrant culinary scene since 2006, and it’s a family affair, owned and managed by the Dougherty family. “I have always strived to work with local and smaller farms as distributers, especially family-owned because that is who we are,” dining room manager and head of wine program Nichole Dougherty told me. “We appreciate companies who strive for biodynamic and sustainable practices, and we very much believe in putting as much back into the earth and community as you use.” For food ingredients, the restaurant has sourced from Heart 2 Heart Farms in Dundee, Oregon for whole animals, Briar Rose Creamery (also in Dundee) for diary products and recently began working with Windy Mountain Mushrooms out of Battle Ground. With these local ingredients and more, La Bottega’s chef de cuisine Vito Crews oversees a kitchen crew that makes all of their own pasta sauces and stocks in-house to reduce cost and waste. On the beverage side, La Bottega supports many local wineries and breweries, including Loowit, 54-40, Pomeroy Winery, Bateaux Winery, VanArnam Winery, Syncline Winery, and Brothers Cascadia Brewing.
Beyond local ingredients, the restaurant has routinely reduced waste by composting and using compostable to-go containers. “When COVID started, we had to go to all non-reusable containers, which was really hard for us,” Dougherty shared. “But we made sure everything was compostable and as environmentally friendly as possible.”
In addition to providing a wonderful sit-down restaurant atmosphere (when restaurant in-house dining is permitted) plus a deli counter, La Bottega encourages cooking at home with an in-house neighborhood market that offers high quality milk, flours, cheeses, produce, ice cream and more. “We always had a retail market and deli area,” Dougherty told me, “but we drastically expanded the grocery side as a direct result of COVID. We started making more entrees, soups and gelato for our freezer and brought it a lot of groceries. We started with the things you couldn’t get in the store: flour, yeast, toilet paper, papers towels and gloves; then we just went from there. Our community coming together and ordering our takeout food and shopping at that grocery store is the only reason we are open today.”
My husband and I spent a Halloween date night at La Bottega, and loved the fettuccine alla panna, Giuseppe sandwich and amazing strawberry lemonade. And psst: alfredo sauce is not found on their printed menu, but they can make it up in a flash and it’s delicious!
Location: 1905 Main St., Vancouver. Order takeout by phone at 360-571-5010.
Hours: 7 days a week, 11 am-8 pm
Website: www.labottegafoods.com (Open for takeout. Check for dining room opening status.)
Little Conejo, also in Downtown Vancouver, takes repurposing to a whole new level: the very building they’ve been in since their inception was built in the 1800s. As the story goes, the current building owner’s grandmother was a seamstress who bought the building from her landlord, and it remains in the family to this day. More recently, the building sat empty for three years before business partners Mychal Dynes, a Vancouver native, and Mark Woten leased the space on the corner of 6th and Washington and opened in 2017. The place has been hopping and growing ever since. Even through COVID-related challenges, a kitchen expansion is currently in progress to keep up with demand. “We never really expected to be as busy as we were,” Dynes told me in an interview in the restaurant’s huge basement space. “So we’ve always been trying to figure out ways to catch up and handle the volume and to grow at the same time . . . We’ve been so blessed during this time. I think we just got in at the right time . . . [And] I can’t say enough about the downtown community . . . the community is so supportive.”
Little Conejo’s chef de cuisine, Jordan Cassel, also a Vancouver native, says that the restaurant’s most fundamental ingredient—a tortilla—is also the most environmentally important part of their menu. “We use a [Portland] tortilla company called Three Sisters Nixtamal,” he told me in an email. “They make our tortillas with non-GMO organic Mexican corn. They nixtamalize the corn, grind it and make the tortillas all themselves. Nixtamalization is the process of cooking corn in [calcium hydroxide, also called slaked lime]. The alkaline solution breaks down the dried corn structure making it more digestible to humans and freeing up nutrients making it healthier than eating raw corn. It also makes it softer so when ground it becomes a dough, masa, that is made into tortillas. Keeping heirloom Mexican corns alive by having a market for them is the only way to save them. Sourcing our tortillas this way is truly the biggest thing we do for the planet.” In addition to using these distinct tortillas, Little Conejo sources special produce from Sweet Annie’s farm, owned by Carol Mollet on Sauvie Island. “[Carol] . . . grows a lot of crops just for us like an heirloom Mexican squash called zapallo, Cassel said. “It’s found its way into a myriad of specials this year and is currently in a tamale and an ice cream . . . I love being able to work that way and use whatever the farm has right now. I’m going to be preparing some pea tendrils tomorrow in fact for a new taco. It’s just better tasting and more satisfying being able to make something great that way instead of just picking whatever from a shopping list that never changes from commodity farming.”
The trick and cost to sourcing from local farms like this, however, is that small establishments can only produce so much at a time. “It’s always kind of a bummer when we have something on the specials menu, and then we sell out of it at lunch,” Dynes said. But over time, customers have come to understand the cost of sustainable eating. “When we first opened it was a real struggle to get people to understand that sometimes we sell out of things. Now we don’t have as much pushback on that, which has been great.”
I’ll always remember eating (and loving) lengua (beef tongue) for the first time at Little Conejo. Another unique find is nopal, a paddle cactus that can be cooked and served all sorts of ways. “They’re really underutilized,” Dynes said. “They eat them in Mexico daily or weekly. You have to de-needle them and then we blanch them and sauté them with onion and garlic. They’re really good for you . . . I try to eat two every day just because of how good they are for you.”
Location: 114 W 6th St., Vancouver (plus a food truck in Portland).
Hours: Open for takeout Tuesday-Saturday 11 am-9 pm / Sunday 11 am-8 pm
Website: www.littleconejo.com (Open for takeout. Outdoor patio open! Check for dining room opening status.)