A Veggie World After All

Photo by Steve LoweryVegetarian food seems like a good idea to me. Still, it does have the drawback of having very little meat in it. As Marla Maples said upon first seeing Donald Trump's shriveled . . . What? Oh, come on. None? See, I'm one boy who needs his proteins. Gots to have my proteins ever since I was knee-high to a manacled fatted calf. If I don't get my proteins, I get cranky, weak and shaky. (Mmmm . . . Shakey's.)

This Proustian dollop is offered because I went to a vegetarian restaurant called Veggie World in Orange. It's a cozy little place run by a cozy little man named Jerry Phung. Though it has been open just four months, we've received several letters and e-mails about it, all of them testifying that the food is delicious, which surprised some of the non-vegetarian writers.

Veggie World is a little shop in a strip mall, chock-full of pretty vases and statuary, including a Buddha that sits near the cash register contemplating a cup of water.

"Water is calm and pure, like the Buddha's heart," Jerry said.

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There are books and audiocassettes on Buddhist thought offered gratis, there's soothing music playing, and there are paintings everywhere including the storefront window, which helps hide the parked cars and the In-N-Out Burger directly across the way.

The menu is varied and wide-ranging, from pot stickers to Vietnamese soy chicken salad to 1,000-layer tofu to orange chicken to hot-braised string beans. "The 1,000-layer tofu looks good," said luncheon companion Anthony. "But I don't have that much time."

It's like that with Anthony.

The four of us settled on pot stickers to start and then the Asia soy chicken, Mongolian beef, shrimp asparagus and kung pao chicken. The pot stickers were delicious, especially the sauce. The Asia soy chicken came as a patty and didn't do that great a job of disguising itself as a chicken, unless it was a chicken backed over by a Cadillac Escalade. Nonetheless, it was delicious—chewy, but delicious, owing again to a salty-sweet sauce and just-picked fresh broccoli. The kung pao was exactly that, and the Mongolian beef was textured and yummy.

However, Dave, who ordered the soy shrimp, wasn't as thrilled with his selection. "It looked a little weird to me, a little pumped-up, like something you fashion out of Play-Doh," he said. "Even real shrimp is weird-looking. I guess it just kind of threw me."

It's like that with Dave.

I can say that I tasted the accompanying asparagus and loved its crisp, clean taste. "No oil," Jerry explained. "All the rest, very little oil. Very good, very healthy."

That it is good and healthy is important to Jerry. He has been a vegetarian nearly a year, something he did because most of his friends were and because he recently became a father and thought he owed it to his son to make himself—and the world—healthier. But Jerry, who previously co-owned the Chinese Wok Stick in Orange, also thought he owed it to meat eaters to make the dishes as accessible as possible.

"I want to be an embassy for vegetarian cooking," said Jerry, originally from Vietnam. There is no better ambassador than his orange chicken, which is crispy and sweet and spicy and delicious and the most popular thing on his menu. Jerry brought over the orange chicken and gave it to us for free because he really just wanted us to have the pleasure.

Jerry is nothing if not a people-pleaser. His faux-meat dishes are not made with any egg because he knows that would displease vegans. His menu points out that all dishes are cooked with garlic and onion and asks traditional Buddhists, who believe those ingredients angry up the blood too much for proper contemplative reflection, to tell him so he can hold it.

The result is a wide range of clientele, old and young, veggies and meaties, who have discovered the place. Where we sat we had skate-type kids on one side and a couple of Mormon missionaries on the other. A few business types came in, too. All of them loved the food and the atmosphere, and all of them thanked Jerry, usually with something like "It was really good," as if they were surprised at what it was possible to do with a soy bean.

"I get that a lot," Jerry said. "That makes me happy. I hope they will discover vegetarian food and help them to have more compassion to help the people."

It's like that with Jerry.

Veggie World, located at 3505 E. Chapman, Orange, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 744-0008. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $15-$20, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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