Happy Family Mocks Meat

The Buddhist vegetarian fare might help you forget the beloved Costa Mesa Chinese restaurant it replaced

More than six months have passed since Happy Family Vegetarian replaced May Garden in Costa Mesa, but practically every other person who walks in the door asks the same question: “What happened to May Garden?” One night, the hostess, by now no stranger to these repeated inquiries, greeted a puzzled out-of-town couple who just arrived from the airport. But the two weren’t as much interested in trying the new place as they were curious about where their favorite OC Chinese restaurant and its owner went.

With the infinite patience of a nun and the unbreakable smile of a seasoned customer-service professional, the hostess explained that the previous owner retired and that this was now a vegetarian restaurant. She assured them the food was as good and invited them to look over a menu. Though initially unconvinced, the out-of-towners finally relented—maybe from hunger, or maybe because they had no other place to go. Or maybe because they saw a familiar face in one of the waiters, a serene-mannered man I remembered from the old days who stuck around even as the food changed from Americanized Chinese fare to Chinese Buddhist vegetarian.

Many of Happy Family’s customers, however, are by now well-aware of the new restaurant’s pedigree and its food. These people come in based on the reputation of the original Happy Family in Rowland Heights, arguably the most successful Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Southern California; since 1981, it has transformed simple vegetables and tofu into meals more compelling than bloody steaks. And if there’s one dish to try here, it is the stir-fried lily buds with lycium berries. The main ingredient looks like white cups, its appearance similar to separated layers of an onion. But where you expect a sting, sweetness comes. Its calming presence on the plate pulls together a dish that’s bright and invigorating, with snow peas carefully snipped of their stems, sliced asparagus and the slightly tart red flecks of the lycium berry.

Happy Family newbies should order such dishes as this. Despite your instincts, avoid the kung-pao chicken—at least at first. Spend the evening mulling the delicate simplicity of a dish such as the lily buds instead of dissecting how the kung pao’s fake meat doesn’t taste like chicken. Just accept it never will. Same goes for the “chicken” with mango, which will garner raves on the savory bent of the sauce, the perky tartness of the mango and the meatiness of the straw mushrooms—but try not to focus on how the masquerading protein couldn’t possibly pass as the real stuff. Do not expect gluten and soy protein to do the impossible; it simply can’t—not even here.

Still, some meat facsimiles are hard to resist. Real mayo (read: not vegan) covers deep-fried, battered prawn impersonators. Steamed broccoli and a shower of crisp honey-glazed walnut complete the classic Chinese wedding-banquet dish. And if you’re not paying too much attention to the texture, you’ll find it tastes pretty darned close to the original. Anyone intent on testing the boundaries of meat fakery should go with the crispy soy nuggets with basil. A thin sheen of batter and a salvo of five-spice and fried basil tap-dance around the fact this is as close as soy protein can get to the real thing without clucking. It’s still more wholesome than a McNugget!

The biggest rewards come from dishes using naturally occurring meat substitutes. The Crispy Oyster Mushroom is a prime example of this. It isn’t just one of Happy Family’s best vegetarian dishes; it’s one of the best dishes in OC. A gossamer-thin batter coats each little baseball-mitt-shaped morsel. Its meatiness is akin to actual oysters; its crispy crumb thoroughly absorbs the flavors from a wok-toss in spicy salt, sliced red chiles and sharp bites of ginger. This is a dish so savory a lot of rice is required, either brown or plain-old white, to cleanse the palate. Or better yet, order the signature fried bread—a Happy Family staple in which a fluffy pillow of sweet dough is dropped into boiling oil, taking on the crunchy exterior of a cake doughnut. The bread is especially effective at cushioning the blow of the Special Spicy Combination, tiny cubes of firm-pressed tofu stir-fried into a lethal hash made with excessive amounts of sliced red chiles.

Tofu reappears again and again. Here, the workhorse protein is in oversized cubes encased in bubbled batter. There, it is in a gravy-rich braise with eggplant. Here it comes again in a gurgling hot pot, paired with soy-protein intestines doing a dead-on impersonation of chitterlings. So many different manifestations—and even those and the aforementioned dishes represent just a fraction of Happy Family’s menu; the roster easily eclipses May Garden’s by a hundred. And after a few well-eaten meals at Happy Family, the previous tenant may become a distant memory. In fact, you won’t even notice that along with the absence of meat, the place does not use garlic or onion, ingredients forbidden by Buddhist sutras for making us mortals irritable and quick to anger. Ah, so that’s how the hostess has maintained her composure all these months. . . .

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