The Other, Other White Meat
The meatless magicians at Westminster’s Zen Vegetarian sure know how to fake bake—and simmer, and broil, and fry
Every day in Little Saigon, metric tons of cattle are boiled down into soup for pho. There are restaurants that specialize in the bovine bender called bò 7 món, seven courses of beef. Other places will serve you deer and alligator or just about every species of the animal kingdom, just in case you’re feeling peckish after a trip to the zoo.
In the midst of it all is refuge. Sitting cross-legged at the epicenter of this meat-loving food culture is Zen Vegetarian, a temple to soy protein—the other, other white meat. A gold Buddha greets you at the door, but other than this, there are no clues to indicate you just entered a vegetarian restaurant. No self-serving mantras are seen on the walls. The servers don’t look like they just ambled out of a Phish concert.
Even more discombobulating: Some of the dishes pictured on the menu are convincing facsimiles of the real thing. The whole, roasted “chicken” is formed into the shape of a rotisserie bird, complete with wings, breasts and drumsticks. You won’t know it’s not made of meat until after you’ve put some in your mouth and chewed—and maybe, not even then.
Because of this, some customers have to be told that such items are, in fact, vegetarian. One night, an elderly couple who came in after me was informed by the waitress while perusing the menu. The couple looked surprised, but also excited.
I would’ve been interested to see what would’ve happened if the two had been left to find out for themselves. I’m inclined to believe they‘d leave full, still unaware that their meal did not involve animal flesh. Zen’s traditional, deep-fried egg roll, called cha gio, is exactly the kind of dish that plays into the charade: it’s virtually indistinguishable from those found at other Little Saigon joints. Tightly wound with a crunchy golden shell, cha gio served with its perfunctory accompaniments: leafy lettuce, mint, cilantro, tia to herb for wrapping, plus a vegetarian fish sauce for dunking.
Other items successfully deceive because their non-vegetarian versions are mostly all veggie anyway. The goi cuon—rolls of moistened rice paper—count on a filling of lettuce, noodles and bean sprouts for their invigorating crunch. The fried tofu are silken blocks encased in a thin, shimmering coat of tempura batter, designed to absorb the salty, pinkish Zen sauce that begs to be dribbled over them. Stir-fried baby bok choy swims in a gravy that tastes like oyster sauce, just like its oft-seen Chinese-restaurant counterpart.
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The rest of the menu reads like a run-through of Vietnamese greatest hits. Pho makes an appearance in either chicken or beef, with vegan broths that are as lip-smacking as the meat-based brews. Bun rieu, the homey noodle soup with a tomato-based stock, comes with spongy cubes that are supposed to emulate the traditional topping of crab cake, though without the funk or much of the flavor. Floating tofu rafts pick up the slack, just as in the regular rendition.
Zen is the most fun when it really tries to fool your taste buds. Flat strips of soy beef are wok-tossed as the main ingredient in the classic dish of bo luc lac. They’re lacquered in a thin veneer of sauce heavy on black pepper, which successfully distracts from the only tell: a too-resilient texture. The fried “shrimp,” however, are dead-on impersonators. They’re crunchy-coated, shaped in fetal curls and have pink tiger stripes on their backs. Another faker, the fried “chicken wings,” actually tastes, well, like chicken. And you’re not likely to notice this, but that’s imitation imitation crab in the velvety soy-crab soup.
The best dish found at Zen is the chicken clay pot rice, presented in a rocket-hot ceramic vessel. As you eat, the flavored soy sauce that coats the “chicken” seeps into the rice, and the grains that touch the blazing surface crisp into browned, brittle shards. But because they do not give you any warning of how scorching-hot the pot is, let me give you this tip taken from my own experience: If you’re not careful, your own flesh will be the only meat that’s cooked here.
Zen Vegetarian at 9329 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 895-3637; zenvegetarian.com. Open daily, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Entrées, $4.75-$23.95.