Bodhisattvas of Vegetarianism

Photo by Tenaya HillsNot so very long ago, there was a vegetarian restaurant by the name of Vien Huong in the heart of Little Saigon. The Pham family members who ran this Vietnamese heaven–mother Kim Huyh, brothers Quoc and Viet, and namesake sister Huong–were renowned as the county's sages of soy, able to transform tasteless tofu slabs into spiced wonders that assumed the consistency and flavor of any meat the Phams wished. Vien Huong was wildly successful because of the Pham's vegetarian vision, and the restaurant bustled late into the night with the peoples of multicultural Orange County.

As the Buddha says, however, all things must pass . . . and poof! The 14-year-old Vien Huong disappeared with little explanation. Bewildered customers wondered to what cave the Phams had retreated; the clan only offered vague remarks about returning in the imminent future.

The future was September. Almost as clandestinely as they left Little Saigon, the Phams re-emerged in all their mock-meat glory last month at the elegant Bodhi Tree Vegetarian Café in Huntington Beach. Akin to a delicious déjà vu, Bodhi Tree offers the same bargain bites the Phams so expertly prepared at Vien Huong, as well as new items, all under a fresh name in an au courant café-style setting.

Bodhi Tree is a strip-mall oasis amidst the carnivorous H.B. bro-central dining desert. A small sign guilelessly reading Vegetarian Café sways above limited outdoor seating. Brush-swept oil paintings of villagers toiling in the Saigon countryside adorn the walls; chile-red and jade-green lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Dun-colored bamboo stalks stretch and curl around pillars adorned with red ribbons, giving the restaurant the charm of a Christmas gift. A quarry of stones bubbling with water creates a tranquil fountain in the restaurant's hub.

Serene settings aside, deciding what to eat at Bodhi Tree–there are more than 100 choices–involve the same deliberation needed for a koan. The tofu-drop soup, bobbing with meaty chunks of bean curd, bamboo shoots and cilantro, is literally priceless: the Phams bring it out free of charge. Not free but worth the somewhat-pricey $3.50 is the chicken-satay baguette sandwich full of faux fowl, tomatoes and so many julienned carrots it could be classified under the salad portion of the menu and mislead no one.

The tofu-drop soup and chicken-satay sandwiches are holdovers from the Pham's Vien Huong era. New, but just as worthy of the Vien Huong legacy, is the chicken salad. This ain't your mama's bland mash of bird and celery; Bodhi Tree's chicken salad is a grassy knoll of cabbage, crispy wontons, phony poultry and a decadent Thai peanut dressing. Beef stew yellow noodle soup is another debuting chow choice and just as impressive, a tureen of henna-colored broth brimming with counterfeit cow and thick egg noodles. A platter of bean sprouts, lime and cilantro come with the beef soup; once dunked in the broth, the juxtaposition of the soup's natural heartiness with the freshness of the greenery is one of the better meal mélanges in the county.

The Bodhi Tree spread is awash in heat from the peppers, chiles, spices and other seasonings the Phams use to sweat your soul, so please order the jackfruit shake. Jackfruit could be the new strawberry if more people gave it a chomp; a football-sized fruit, it's juicy yet fulfilling, slightly sour but also exhibiting a bitter sweetness unknown in the States. Bodhi Tree's nondairy jackfruit shake retains the fruit's flavor while smoldering the burning flames that dance upon the tongue with each Bodhi Tree bite, chilly and brilliant. If the Phams ever decide to up and leave again, the jackfruit shake is reason enough to forgive them.

Bodhi Tree Vegetarian Café, located at 501 Main St., Ste. E, Huntington Beach, is open DAILY, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 969-9500. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $15-$20, FOOD ONLY. all major credit cards accepted.


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