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Vien Huong gets the most out of vegetables

Photo by Joy BastThe thing I don't get about so many vegetarian restaurants is their insistence on serving "meat." Take Vien Huong, for example. The Huntington Beach restaurant promotes its vegetarian nature right on the front of the menu. But open it up, and reams of pork, beef and chicken dishes spill forth, not to mention others with abalone, fish, duckling and shrimp.

Now I know, you know and everybody else knows that Vien Huong serves nothing that once breathed the air or swam the waters. Nothing with a face or a central nervous system. Which is all fine. The problem comes when they try to approximate the texture and flavor of meat. This type of culinary alchemy just doesn't work, and for two very good reasons:

1. It doesn't look like meat.

2. It doesn't taste like meat.

So why bother even calling it such? Vien Huong even spells it out on its menu cover: "seafood, meats and poultry made from soybean, bean curd, Chinese mushrooms and dry assorted vegetables." No one's trying to trick you here.

Okay, so the sound of "kung pao bean curd" doesn't send out a reveille to the taste buds, but that's pretty much what you're getting. And if you look past that, you'll find that Vien Huong serves some extremely tasty food, faux meat or not.

Vien Huong's initial venture in Westminster has become so successful that a second location opened in Huntington Beach not too long ago. By its name you'd assume Vietnamese restaurant, but a vast majority of what it serves you could find in any decent mainstream Chinese restaurant.

The menu is typically vast, with 150 appetizers, soups, vegetable dishes, tofu plates (yes! Truth in advertising!) and entrées. And among the house specials are some really exotic vegetarian fare: Cornish hen and eel. I don't even want to think about the effort it would take to approximate the taste and texture of eel.

So when a friend and I dropped by for a visit, we went for the gusto: hot, spicy abalone and the highly recommended shrimp with garlic sauce—and we threw in the secret garden vegetable dish and the Mecca egg rolls for an appetizer.

Nothing disappointed. The crispy egg rolls, stuffed with rice noodles, mushrooms and assorted detritus, came with romaine lettuce and oregano for wrapping purposes—I'd have preferred mint, but the oregano worked. The rolls were infused with subtle flavors and delightfully crispy.

The entrées were even better. Yes, the abalone looked like soggy French fries and the shrimp like slugs (both were spongy and flavorless), but the sauces were excellent, rivaling those at your top-end Chinese places. The garlic sauce with shrimp has the consistency of barbecue sauce and a rich tangy flavor accented with large chunks of onion and mushroom.

The hot, spicy abalone sauce was filled with onion, carrots, mushrooms and celery. It was sweet and spicy and mixed perfectly with the brown rice served on the side. Even the secret-garden vegetables were perfect, featuring crisp carrots, broccoli, celery, peas, bamboo shoots and other delectables smothered in sublime brown gravy.

So much here is good. The soup selections range from the standard hot and sour to a more exotic tomato soup with crab paste. And the steaming bowl of combination vegetable soup will put Mom's to shame.

The strength of Vien Huong is the rich and flavorful sauces it serves with its faux meats and seafood. If it eschewed the vegetarian fare and featured the real stuff, it'd easily be among the better standard Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants around. But there are plenty of those already. What Vien Huong has done is make the vegetarian style of eating so palatable that you would choose to eat there solely on the merits of its cooking. And for the vegetarians in the county, this is extremely good news.

Vien Huong, located at 19171 Magnolia Ave., Huntington Beach, is open Mon. and Wed.-Fri., 3-10 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 964-5411; also at 14092 Magnolia Ave., stes. 116-117, Westminster, (714) 373-1876. Beer and wine at Huntington Beach location. Dinner for two, $15-$30, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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