Photo by Jessica CalkinsA lucky-cat shrine greets all who enter Van Hanh Vegetarian Restaurant, a majestic temple of tofu, dramatic lighting and a vestigial disco ball rotating glacially above diners' heads. A painting on the eastern wall recalls a long-gone utopia of Indochinese fishing villages. Mournful Vietnamese pop tunes play in the evening. Vegetarianism is serious business, baby.
Little Saigonese throng to Van Hanh for its remarkable handling of soy. Securing a spot inside is only slightly easier than maneuvering the automobile anarchy outside on Bolsa. The wait can be long, and sharing tables with strangers is a frequent necessity. Offsetting these idiosyncrasies are especially attentive waiters and food that appears almost as soon as it's ordered.
Vietnamese cuisine includes a proud tofu tradition, and Van Hanh's menu represents its full, finest flowering. No limp kung pao and imitation orange chicken here. Instead, you'll find biting papaya concoctions drenched in chile powder and lime juice, noodle selections studded with tasty tofu and veggies, and more rice plates than in Uncle Ben's wildest dreams.
Some of Van Hanh's entrées require no soybean sorcery because they're already flesh-free. Bánh xeo, for example, is a gigantic crepe—an oily sunflower-yellow exterior stuffed with bean sprouts, mild scallions and the odd sham shrimp or two. Experienced diners wrap the accompanying fresh lettuce around chunks of the crepe, add mint leaves, and dunk the delicious mess into a bowl of sweet nuoc mam sauce.
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Other Van Hanh platters reveal mock-meat magic. The eatery prepares a number of broths in which meat is the crucial ingredient—everything from fine faux pho to hearty hu tieu (a noodle soup best known for its overwhelming use of garlic)—as well as a surprising array of seafood creations. All use tofu instead of meat while retaining their signature flavors. The wild hues of bún bò hue, though, defy explanation. It's difficult enough for a cook to master this culinary treasure of central Vietnam with bò (beef), but Van Hanh manages the bò-free trick with pencil-thick vermicelli noodles, chewy mushrooms and plump tofu slices. My waiter explains they use mashed garlic and chiles as a replacement for the pig's blood essential to the soup's harsh tang, but it sure tastes like pork to me.
Then there are treats traditionally built on a shaky foundation of tofu—for example, the muoi xa ot, grilled pale slabs dusted with chiles and lemongrass. It's better as an appetizer shared with others; six tofu slabs could pop the stomach staples on even the most gluttonous man. Any phù chúc entrée will please, however. There's no good working translation for phù chúc—it literally means "congratulation letter"—but Van Hanh does a great job of simulating pork. Phù chúc stew is two slices of tofu glazed with a sweet, slightly hickory sauce that mimics the best rustic cooking. This same type of sauce also dominates the phù chúc siusiu, although here the phù chúc comes prepared in tanned, toasty blocks.
Carnivores are welcomed beyond the lucky-cat shrine, but they should remember Van Hanh is a tofu temple.
Van Hanh Vegetarian Restaurant, 9455 Bolsa Ave., Ste. D, Westminster, (714) 531-4661. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $8-$10, food only. Cash only.