Alkebulan Moroski has never eaten pork in their life, but they know that a good Southern green needs a little meat — or, at least, something very similar. “You won’t find a plate of vegan greens in the south,” Moroski said. “Almost all greens have ham hocks in them, that was a tricky flavor to replace. So I made a seitan-based meat, with a whole bunch of secret spices… the major thing was figuring out how to replace the flavor of the ham hocks, and the greasiness that meat imparts on it. You don’t want to feel like you’re eating wet leaves.”
Moroski — who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi — spent most of his childhood mainly vegetarian, never going much farther than fish. But they knew that the foundation of so much Southern cooking relied on things like pork and chicken, and decided to figure out the best way to veganize it. Those vegan Southern staples became the foundation for their gangbuster vegan food cart, Dirty Lettuce, which quickly soared to Eater PDX’s vegan standouts map. Soon, however, Moroski will follow in the footsteps of all of 2020’s vegan breakout hits, jumping into a permanent restaurant space later this spring.
The Dirty Lettuce restaurant, opening on NE Fremont by the end of April, will be an extension of everything Moroski has started to do at the cart: The restaurant will serve seitan mock-meats and sides by the pound, offer a New Orleans Jazz brunch on the weekends, and will wade into new culinary waters, be it Korean barbecue or Italian sandwiches. “Our culinary repertoire is much larger than what we can do at the cart,” Moroski said. “I want to slowly start branching out into other cuisines.”
Part of Moroski’s success has to do with their adept understanding of Southern cooking. While living in Mississippi, Moroski started tweaking and testing out proteins and seasonings, and would feed them to Southern meat-eaters to make sure they worked. “A lot of my recipes are very traditional. I try to alter my recipes as little as possible from the Cajun recipe, I try to find the closest version to the non-vegan [ingredient],” they said. “I look at the chemical properties of the vegan replacements, I go, ‘Okay, what kind of fat occurs in nature that replicates how this fat behaves?’”
Moroski started their food cart after dropping out of their environmental science program, looking for something new and more aligned with what they wanted to do with their lives. “I was filled with existential horror, and I went, ‘Okay, what can I do to make some form of incremental change?’” they said. “I went ‘Well, I can persuade people to curb their meat consumption by making vegan food that people would want to eat.’” After moving to Oregon in 2020, Moroski opened a cart in the Shady Pines pod, which exclusively hosts meatless vendors. They started serving vegan meats like seitan barbecue ribs and Ota tofu fried chicken. The proteins came on plates with sides like Southern-style greens, sour cream and onion mashed potatoes, and jambalaya, as well as “infamous bowls” done in the style of the KFC Famous Bowl. The cart will keep on running after the restaurant opens, sticking to infamous bowls and po’boys.
Moroski hopes the restaurant can also serve as the jumping-off point for expansion, both in terms of restaurant menu items but also in terms of the actual vegan meats. Dirty Lettuce will vacuum-seal their seitan ribs and chicken to ship around the country, or to have Portland chefs take home for home cooking. Those meats are Moroski’s crowning glory, a methodical and meticulously constructed version of down-home things like barbecue ribs. “The big thing for me, I am a very, very, very big biology and chemistry nerd, and when I’m trying to figure out what meat I’m trying to replicate, I think about the muscular structure, the connective tissue,” they said. “The way you mimic a texture is to have it have the same structure on the microscopic level… if you get it just right, it starts to mimic the type of meat you’re trying to emulate.”
The market element of Dirty Lettuce’s brick-and-mortar is sort of an homage to the Southern general store, which Moroski also plans to incorporate into the decor and interior design. But it wouldn’t be Dirty Lettuce without a little bit of Moroski’s personality also folded in. “I would say the idea I’m trying to evoke is a Southern country store, with glass coke bottles, worn wood, slightly rusted metal,” they said. “It’ll be a Southern general store with psychedelic art exploded on one wall. I want to include some of my art pieces.”
Dirty Lettuce will open at 4727 NE Fremont Street.