Photo by Jack GouldIt's lonely at the top of the food chain if you're a vegan—or so I would assume. Some of my best friends are among the enlightened, and they have the bony rib cages and cranky dispositions to prove it. And while a steady diet of self-righteousness and French fries (as long as they haven't been fried in the same oil as the McMurder Nuggets) does apparently yield all sorts of health benefits, even the most stoic of stomachs must cry mercy sometime. So that's when I take my poor, hungry, veggie buddies to Au Lac, where—if only for one short meal—even the strictest vegans can make pigs of themselves.
Au Lac is about as soothing and tranquil a place as you'll ever find in a strip mall, barring the odd methadone clinic. It's positively serene: all hazy lighting and leafy plants, the sort of place where you'd eat in the afterlife if you'd been good. They specialize in gourmet Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine, but what really lines the kids up outside is their almost entirely vegan-friendly menu: through deft manipulation, the chefs at Au Lac can sculpt humble tofu and soy globs into mock-meat masterpieces. Half the menu is in quotation marks: "beef," "chicken," "shrimp," "kidney," even "squid," all artfully constructed from the humblest vegetable materials. For the gentle eater, it's the perfect compromise—all the irrepressible joy of tearing into a hunk of meat with none of the ethical torture.
But what about carnivores? Well, we'd see how it "tasted." But as we browsed the menu and started lapping at our hot tea, it felt as if inner peace—for vegans and heathens alike—was but an appetizer away.
We started with Vietnamese crepes, which appeared after precisely seven minutes of careful preparation: crisp, perky, pancake-hefty wraps of sprouts and vegetables were accompanied by a separate plate piled jauntily with lettuce and mint leaves. Some assembly required, our hostess informed us, so we gamely twirled leaf and crepe together, soaked them liberally with fish sauce —sorry, "fish" sauce—and there was that inner peace I'd been seeking. To these virgin-to-vegetarian taste buds, it was the perfect blend of the familiar and the exotic—fish and mint, together at last! The veggie egg rolls were similarly fantastic: light, crisp, piping-hot pockets of sprouts, carrots and more. Subjected to the same mint-and-fish-sauce treatment, they got even better.
For the main course, we arranged a tour de force of gustatory trompe l'oeil and were happily and thoroughly faked out. Our tofu "shrimp," swimming in a thick sauce with peas and carrots and looking for all the world like they'd just been plucked, wriggling, out of the sea, were works of art, down to the flushed-pink crustacean carapaces and just the right hint of brine. The orange soy "chicken" comes swamped in a trencherful of watercress, sliced carrots, zucchini, peppers and orange slices, a much spicier and more delicate dish than its carnivorous counterpart. The Vietnamese "barbecue," sinking in a bowlful of diaphanous vermicelli noodles, had an uncannily realistic tang and texture and surrendered to our chopsticks only after a valiant battle. And the soy broccoli "beef"? Tender, juicy and, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from anything that spent its formative years in a high-density feedlot.
The vegans loved it, of course, and even I was powerless to resist. They finished us off with some gooey vegan chocolate cake, and that was it. As vegetarian cuisine, Au Lac is nonpareil, with chefs as much masters of the culinary arts as they are masters of deception. But as an argument for a more enlightened dietary future, it's devastating: with tofu and soy like this, meat is simply obsolete.
Au Lac, located at 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, is open Tues.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 418-0658; www.aulac.com. Dinner for two, $30, food only. Beer (alcohol-free). Amex, MC, Dicover and Visa accepted.
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