Review: Local Sprouts Cafe

Collective win
By BRIAN DUFF  |  September 8, 2010

TERRIFIC CHICKEN Jamaican brown stewed bird at Local Sprouts.

The responsibilities of individualism are hard to bear. We must compete in a system in which we can sense the rules are fixed — succeeding or failing alone, moving up the ladder or onto unemployment. A collective can offer a tempting escape. We can form a group, make up the rules ourselves, and enforce them on each other — carping at our comrades regarding small differences in philosophy or dedication: "You are hindering the group's actualization," or "hey, it's your day to turn the compost." Collectives can allow ostensibly free-thinking but deeply doctrinaire people to meet each other and have sex; they can provide a trustworthy network that facilitates the acquisition of illegal drugs; they can offer emotional support for your decision to stop shaving.

Local Sprouts Cafe | 645 Congress St, Portland | Mon-Wed 7 am-9 pm; Thurs-Sat 7 am-11 pm; Sun 8 am-4 pm | Visa/MC/Amex | 207.615.9970

And collectives can also accomplish wonderful things if bickering and jealousy don't tear everything apart: think of those terrific early documentaries by the Soviets (Turksib — the best!), the post-revolutionary Cuban craze for shirtless ping-pong, or the "photosynthesis robot" created by the artist collective Future Farmers. So perhaps I should not have been surprised that the food at the Local Sprouts Café, worker-owned and democratically run by the Local Sprouts Cooperative, was so very good.

But I was surprised, and very pleasantly so. One gets nervous about group-think, and it is worrisome that the cooperative's first decision was to call itself "local sprouts." And perhaps the big, curving bird-themed earthen bench that dominates the dining room, as well as the dormitory-style couch occupying prime territory near the window, reflect iffy decision-making. But when it comes to food, Local Sprouts is making all the right calls — from ingredients, to preparation, to price.

You peruse the chalk-board menu while you stand in line to order at the counter. On an art-walk Friday night, the place was hopping, and even the kids' play-corner was occupied by art aficionados. Other chalkboards list the local farms from which they get their ingredients, including meat. You grab your drink (including beer on tap and wine), and a flower-pot with your silverware and identifying totem (so your food can find you), and claim one of the scattered tables. Then there is a bit of a wait, since cooperative types are not fast movers. It gives you time to peruse the veggie-themed children's art and photos of farm animals (including humans) that adorn the many-colored walls, and (on some nights) listen to some very pleasant live piano.

Nonetheless we were ready for our mac-and-cheese: a big, dignified, rich and creamy bowl of seashell pasta, ricotta and other mild white cheeses, attractively topped with breadcrumbs, and spotted with fresh herbs — a steal at $4. The sesame noodle salad was cool and nutty, and topped with a crunchy heap of broccoli, carrots, and cabbage.

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