Photo by Jeanne RiceThere is no better appetizer than the scent of good food luring you into a restaurant—especially if the mouth-watering smells are coming from the establishment you intend to patronize and not the one next door. In this case, the perfumery was Lotus Cafe in Orange. Outside, it's strip malls; inside, a sanctuary. With its breezy patio; ceilings of light wood slats; jade accents; and simple placement of traditional Chinese sculptures, paintings and plants, the restaurant manages to block out the noisy, hot outside world, allowing customers to cool off, relax and breathe.
I was presented with a plate of fried wontons and a small bowl of hot and sour soup while perusing the menus. Extremely light and crispy and seasoned with soy sauce, if their wontons were packaged and sold like potato chips, I would eat my weight in them. The hot and sour soup was tangy and peppery, with slivers of tofu, bamboo shoots and black mushrooms.
In addition to its sizable entrée menu, Lotus Cafe offers excellent lunch specials at a good price. Served with steamed rice and a spring roll, the choices range from yuba with mustard greens to savory eggplant to the curry garden feast and can be ordered with tofu, "beef," "chicken" or "shrimp" for a small added charge.
This is the Lotus Cafe's specialty—"meats" that ride in quotation marks; it is a vegetarian's nirvana. As a card-carrying meat eater myself, I was a bit hesitant to eat anything that came with quotation marks around it, but when my szechuan broccoli arrived, it looked and smelled so alluring that I dug in. Did the "beef" look like real meat? Did it taste like real meat? No and no. But it was good. The rolled pieces of soy looked a bit like chicken and had the stringy quality of tenderized flesh, but it tasted something like Thanksgiving stuffing. It took the sauce well, and it offered a tasty change from typical meat dishes. The broccoli, peas, carrots and bamboo were perfectly al dente. Unlike some spring rolls, the Lotus Cafe's seemed to be made of crispy slices of a summer breeze—if you could in fact cut and fry the air—wrapped around a center of cabbage and carrots. They were so good I purchased a few more before I left to eat later.
With the memory of lunch still lingering, I returned the next night to taste the orange-flavor nuggets, the vegetarian take on orange chicken. The sauce was everything an orange-chicken lover craves: tangy with the essence of oranges, fiery with red chiles and blessed with an abundance of soy "chicken" that tasted similar to the house "beef." But with sauce like this, I didn't care.
While the Lotus Cafe's food hasn't persuaded me to go vegetarian, I now know a good place to take my herbivorous friends—or where I would take my herbivorous friends if I had any. Herbivores, I mean, not friends.
The Lotus Cafe, located at 1515 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-9:30 p.m. (714) 385-1233. Dinner for two, $30, food only. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.