The Green Elephant opened in 2007 at 608 Congress St., a storefront with a rich restaurant history. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Before chef Dan Sriprasert and his business partner Bob Wongsaichau opened the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro 15 years ago, they spotted Portland’s demand for more vegetarian restaurants in their tofu sales.

The pair had purchased Bangkok Thai on Congress Street across from Longfellow Square in September 2003. As they slowly tweaked the inherited menu, “I noticed we were using a lot of tofu,” Sriprasert told me, when we sat down recently at the Green Elephant to talk about those early days. “We had a vegetarian section, and it was selling really good. I realized this might be an opportunity to open a dedicated restaurant for vegetarian and vegan guests.”

Looking around for the right spot, Sriprasert was drawn to the 608 Congress St. space that now houses the Green Elephant. And with good reason. Not only is it a prime spot (across from the State Theatre, close to the Portland Museum of Art), it’s also a property with a rich restaurant history.

According to the Portland Chinese-American history walking tour published online by the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, the storefront has “housed more Chinese restaurants than any other Portland address.” The space operated as the Mandarin Café from 1939 to 1947, later becoming Cathay Gardens Restaurant. That closed in 1979 to become the original location of the Hu Shang Restaurant, which I remember as an extremely popular spot on Exchange Street in the 1980s. In 2005, Portland Hunan set up shop at 608 Congress St.

“I had one of my employees, who is Singaporean and who speaks Chinese, call and ask the owners if they were interested in selling.” Sriprasert said. The answer was “yes,” and in October 2007, the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro opened its doors.

VEGAN INSPIRATIONS

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Sriprasert and Wongsaichau grew up in Thailand and both came to the United States to attend college in Seattle. That’s where they lived when Sriprasert read a sales notice for Bangkok Thai in a Thai-language newspaper. He and Wongsaichau hopped on a plane for Portland, assessed the foot traffic in Longfellow Square, looked over the restaurant’s books and soon moved across the country to become its owners.

Sriprasert learned to cook from his mother, Lamaiporn Sriprasert, who when he was a child ran a food stall from the family’s home in Nan, Thailand. “I watched and learned from her,” Sriprasert said. The food stall wasn’t vegetarian, nor are Sriprasert or his mother, who still lives in Nan. However, every year during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar Tesagan Kin Pak, a multi-day vegetarian festival, is celebrated throughout Thailand. During the holiday, observant Buddhists and Taoists abstain from meat, eggs, cow’s milk, alcohol, sex and other temptations. Sriprasert learned to make classic Thai vegan dishes for the festival, and he expanded upon that repertoire to create the Green Elephant menu.

The menu at his mother’s food stall centered on stir fries and curries, as does the Green Elephant’s, making it familiar to anyone who has eaten at a Thai restaurant. Tofu, tempeh and soy meat stand in for chicken, shrimp, pork and such. Eggs may be added to some dishes. Restaurant consultant Christina Frinkle of Vegan Hospitality says that familiarity is a key to Green Elephant’s lasting success. “What successful vegetarian or plant-forward restaurants have in common is that they don’t stray too far from the foods we all know and love,” she said.

The chef and co-owner of the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro, Dan Sriprasert, left, stands with manager Nate Edwards and assistant manager and server Ryan Rush. Photo courtesy of Green Elephant

PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS

Top-of-mind for all restaurants these days is the pandemic, and Green Elephant manager Nate Edwards said the restaurant did “relatively well, considering.” It closed for the month of April 2020, came back as takeout only for almost a year, reopened at 50 percent capacity with reservations (a first for the restaurant) in April 2021 and in March 2022 returned to 90 percent of pre-pandemic capacity and eliminated reservations. The restaurant (and its sister restaurant Boda at the former Bangkok Thai spot) retained much of its workforce during the past two years.

“Dan and Bob were so understanding and so receptive to us as a staff in terms of what we were comfortable with and where we were concerned about things,” said Edwards, who joined the staff in 2013. “They took it super seriously the whole time, and we were never pushed to start opening the doors when we weren’t ready.”

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The two restaurants also distributed a free box of produce to each employee every week for a year during the closures. Because Sriprasert happened to travel to Thailand in January 2020 to visit family, the restaurant had a month’s head start preparing for the lockdown.

“In Thailand, they were already starting to wear masks,” Sriprasert said. “I felt something coming. I came back (to Maine) in February, and I started stocking up on masks and stocking up on everything. I was trying to tell everyone around me (what was coming). Some people laughed at me. And then it happened.”

These days, the restaurant is back to managing the waitlist – it texts when a party’s table is ready – while expediting to-go orders. Takeout, always a substantial part of the business, nonetheless increased significantly during the pandemic. Though still above pre-pandemic levels, takeout orders have tapered off since the dining room reopened.

Edwards said the restaurant’s buzzy fried Brussels sprouts (dressed with tamari, brown sugar and mushroom powder) “still just fly out the door.” The recipe was included in the 2012 cookbook “Portland, Maine Chef’s Table.” The Panang curry vegetable with tempeh and the pad Thai with tofu are other consistent top sellers, he said. In recent years, the Green Elephant has been named to numerous “Best Vegetarian Restaurant” magazine lists, featured in travel reports and written about on vegan blogs.

RESPONSE: CRITICAL AND COMMON MAN

But the food critic crowd was a tough sell at first. In April 2008, when the Maine Sunday Telegram first reviewed the Green Elephant, the idea of vegan dining was so novel that reviewer N.L. English explained what vegan food was in the piece’s second sentence. While English liked the appetizers and the wine, the entrees, she wrote, “failed to intrigue my appetite.”

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However, eight years later the newspaper’s then reviewer, James H. Schwartz, found Green Elephant more to his liking, calling the entrees “consistent and memorable.”

In 2015, Sriprasert and Wongsaichau were approached by an investor in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, area about opening a second restaurant. As a result, Green Elephant at 35 Portwalk Place in Portsmouth was born, featuring the same menu and vibe as the Portland original. Sustainable Seacoast founder Kate Harris of Kittery and her husband, Keith, refer to the Portsmouth location as “our Cheers,” because the staff remembers and anticipates their likes from visit to visit. When the Harrises were featured on HGTV’s House Hunters, the restaurant even agreed to open early to film a scene there. (Unfortunately, the scene was cut from the final show.)

The Green Elephant wasn’t Portland’s first vegetarian restaurant and it isn’t the city’s only vegetarian restaurant, but its opening did bring something new to town: A vegetarian restaurant with affordable pricing yet worthy of a date night. With its blond wood floors, bauble-covered chandelier and neon green wall, plus its menu of familiar dishes, the restaurant soon attracted lines of diners waiting for a table. Fifteen years later, the demand and the affordable pricing remain. Even now, when prices of food are rising fast, the most expensive menu item costs $18 (Siamese dream curry noodles), and most entrees are priced around $15.

Long-time vegan Tom Winton of South Portland first dined at the Green Elephant in the summer of 2008 with his wife, Sherrie, and infant son, Jonah. Ever since, they’ve eaten at the restaurant regularly, most recently last month, celebrating many anniversaries and birthdays and bringing visiting guests. Their son has been a fan of the soy nuggets appetizer since his earliest days.  “He is now 14 years old and still gets the nuggets every single time to this day,” Winton said.

Vegan Meghan O’Neil of Saco estimates she’s eaten at the Green Elephant at least 150 times since it opened, a place she likes in part because she needn’t worry about cross contamination and food mix-ups.

“I appreciate that the only non-vegan ingredient is egg and the servers, both in person and the online app, always prompt you to answer whether or not you want egg in the dish,” O’Neil said. “I appreciate that attention to detail.”

With an attentive staff, familiar menu and plenty of regulars, the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro is ready for the next 15 years.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]
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