Satays are the Bert Blylevens of the meat world: consistently excellent but never quite good enough for widespread acclaim. That now changes (for the satays at least; poor Bert will probably be cold in the ground before the pitcher reaches Cooperstown) thanks to ZEN VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, a newish, narrow Little Saigon gem.
Behold the county's best satay: slices of grilled soy drowned in hoison sauce. The soy chunks taste and feel like beef—blindfold an Argentine, and he wouldn't know the difference between Zen's version and the real deal. The hoisin sauce is spiked with chile, and a side of pickled carrot and daikon strips lend sourness. Most impressive, however, is the satay's size—not an appetizer like in most restaurants, but a full-scale meal that can stuff two people for the night.
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The satay is just one of the many extraordinary dishes at Zen, which already beats most of the county's mock-meat restaurants. The secret is their straight-ahead approach to Vietnamese cuisine. You won't find 30 versions of fried tofu coupled with greens here: the cooks tackle complicated plates again and again. Soy prepared in different ways to reflect a particular meat—tough like jerky in the fresh spring rolls, shredded to reflect the consistency of julienned pork skin, springy when standing in for shrimp. Zen's creations get placed on rice, noodles, even salad but shine best in the soups. Their take on bún bò Hue, the famous beef noodle soup of central Vietnam, isn't mitigated at all—the soup remains pungent, spicy. The fake pho is also tasty, although it doesn't quite match the intensity of authentic phobroth. About a quarter of Zen's choices are soups—fake fish garnished with mint leaves, bamboo soup topped with artificial duck, even a take on abalone soup that's as hearty as anything you can pull out of the Pacific.
Everything at Zen excels, from the gorgeous black-and-white photographs of an ao dai-bedecked beauty. Even the presentation: ca chien xa ot, fried fake fish studded with lemongrass, comes in a white plate shaped like a fish, while the roasted "chicken" looks like a drumstick, wings and chest connected together. This is the type of restaurant you can visit a dozen times and still return filled with anticipation again and again.
And for the record: I'm not sure if Zen is vegan, nor do I particularly care. My job is to find great food, not monitor nutrition.
ZEN VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, 9329 BOLSA AVE., WESTMINSTER, (714) 895-3637.