Photo by Amy TheiligWhether it's your first visit to Irvine's Wheel of Life Restaurant or your 30th, the welcome remains the same: a smile, a pat on the back, and a vigorous handshake offered by owners Victor and Kim Lim. It's impressive, not only because of the earnest good manners, but also because this scene is as reliable as the glow of human contact in a long-distance phone commercial, except that this is really real, as heartfelt in the morning when almost no one's in the place as when the tide of customers starts washing up to this veggie haven around lunch time and continues swelling with the rising moon, at least 100 salutations on a slow day.
The greeting is merely the non-dairy icing on the tofu-based cake. The Wheel has dished out some of Orange County's best vegetarian grub from a quintessential Irvine strip-mall location for four years now. Even if the only interaction between owner and customer here were the bill, the Wheel's fresh, flavorful, flesh-free food (prepared mostly via a Thai cooking prism) would continue to attract the most demanding gourmand, whether they're animal-friendly or not.
The Lims' love of cooking and greeting emanates from an adherence to Buddhist teachings, which can get a bit too zealous. It's right on the Wheel's website: "We love our life, animals love their lives, love animals, don't eat them"—a paraphrase of Siddhartha's first precept that states people should revere all life. But the Wheel of Lifers muse so much on out-karma-ing the competition that the décor is tolerably lacking. One wall is mirrored to contrive a more capacious feel—or to allow for self-reflection, maybe. Other walls strain under concrete bas-reliefs that do a bad job of mimicking landscapes. Traditional and not-so-traditional Thai restaurant bric-a-brac is scattered throughout the dining room—lucky bamboo, red ribbons, pro-vegetarian propaganda and retina-searing wall adornments that flicker like a Vegas billboard.
But who cares about a restaurant's appearance when its craft is so dharmic? Start with the sizzling barbecue "chicken," pre-sliced and served on a cast-iron plate forged by the hammers of Hephaestus. The medallions of faux fowl are succulent and tasty, even charred a bit to mimic the best rotisserie bird. As impressively deceptive is the pepper "steak," rightfully advertised as a manager's special. Three rotund patties come alongside fresh cucumber slices and a biting steak sauce that's just great. Wheel of Life also cleverly apes beef, pork, shrimp, even fish—virtually any meat for which the bloodthirsty might yen.
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If you're one of those people who, you know, actually wants vegetable-based entrées at a vegetarian restaurant, then concentrate on the Wheel Fresh Spring Roll. The four rubbery wraps sit on a field of shredded carrot slices and burst with the verdancy of moist lettuce, sprouts and Thai basil sprigs; they span the flavor spectrum from sour to spicy and even a hint of peanut thanks to an accompanying condiment. Despite their name, the sautéed dry string beans are anything but desiccated: plump, tender, succulent green pods rich with braised, salty, textured vegetable protein. And while enjoying pad Thai is a bit passé, this rendition is dressed with a piquant peanut sauce and topped with such life-like fake shrimp it will leave any crustacean lover in the pink.
There is no way one could leave the cozy eatery without dessert—also vegan, naturally. Two deep-fried banana portions wrapped in delicate, crispy golden shells buttress the homemade coconut ice cream; the non-dairy scoops elope with the hot fruit to create wedded bliss. But even if you're happily paired, you'll want to get two orders—there is no sharing when sweets are this sensational.
The Lims don't say goodbye to diners when they finally waddle out of the Wheel, but that's okay. You can only expect so much grace, and it would probably be too much of an inconvenience for them since the two are already shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and escorting just-arrived patrons to their tables. Besides, there's no need for a prolonged farewell—you'll be back within the week, and they know it.
The Wheel of Life, 14370 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 551-8222. Open Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. No alcohol, animals. Dinner for two, $10-$30, food only. All major credit cards accepted.