Hoa Sen Serves Cheatin' Chicken
The appearance of the vegetarian lemongrass chicken at Hoa Sen is limp, almost revolting: dun-colored lengths of soy shaved to the thinness of shawarma, looking more like noodles than any bird that ever flapped upon this good earth. It's part and parcel of the vegetarian dining community, these faux meats slapped together with no care about how the meals look because the average diner who seeks mock meat doesn't give a damn. Yet it's that very indifference that turns off the average eater, putting such veggie restaurants at the mercy of their core clientele, a clientele prone to dalliances with any place that can sauté some cauliflower and protein and call it a masterpiece.
Yet that's not the case at this oasis in a Garden Grove strip mall that's part Little Saigon, part Little Mexico, part Little Seoul—and all-American. Hoa Sen is from the genre of Vietnamese vegetarian cooking with a decidedly Buddhist bent, one that proselytizes its worldview with the same fervor as Chick-fil-A. But the eaters here span the proverbial gamut: not just Vietnamese Buddhists and hippy-dippy gabachos, but working-class folks who aren't afraid to tell the owners that some of their "traditional" Vietnamese eats are flat-out weird, who come weekly for their bowl of pho that doesn't possess a morsel of beef yet tastes properly fatty and luscious.
Hoa Sen successfully skips across Vietnam for its meals: a version of bún bò Hue as electrifying as the real thing, clay-pot casseroles sizzle with a crisped rice as great as any tahdig, and they do a fine side business in sinh to (smoothies) ranging from avocado to tamarind, each blended to a creamy, chilled consistency (and I like the touch of toasted peanuts taking the place of boba on the tamarind drink, although be careful about sucking it up your straw too fast). For the vegetarian on the go, Hoa Sen also has trays of bánh chung, the fat rice cakes especially in demand right now because of Tet; the ones here are soft, chewy like an especially glutinous tamale. I also enjoy their bánh xeo, the Vietnamese omelette-crepe stuffed with veggies, as large as a whole plate and almost as good as Van's.
But back to that strange-looking lemongrass chicken: the taste, of course, is magnificent. The soy strips are grilled like the best charbroiled chicken with lemongrass embedded on the crust. A dipping sauce is on the side. Throw in the Vietnamese hot sauce, and you have a "chicken" dinner that can play in Peoria—provided, of course, you blindfold the Midwesterner. Looks ain't anything when it comes to food, a mantra one absorbs while chewing each precious fake-chicken strip.
This column appeared in print as "Cheatin' Chicken."
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