Vegan Cuisine's Faux Pho
Fishy, but not quite "swimming free"
Vegan Cuisine isn't found by accident. It's in a strip mall that has a Laundromat, a palm reader and an outpost of the infamous $1.99 Restaurant, located in the hinterlands of Fountain Valley on the stretch of Edinger I usually take to get to somewhere else. Since the restaurant isn't on the street-facing part of the complex, there's a sign with an arrow that directs people to walk toward a covered corridor between the armpit of two buildings. It's tucked in the back, past the hair salon.
It must be noted that before becoming the newest entrant in Little Saigon's small sisterhood of Vietnamese vegan restaurants—Au Lac, Bo De Tinh Tam Chay and Zen Vegetarian—Vegan Cuisine was a Vietnamese café. This might explain why there are curvy red vinyl booths that look as though they're from a long-forgotten Tim Burton movie, a smoking patio and a small stage where a microphone and speakers are set up for warbly Vietnamese karaoke at night. There's also an LCD TV tuned to a channel broadcasting the teachings of one Supreme Master Ching Hai, whom I recognized from the LCD TVs tuned to the same channel at Loving Hut, the vegan restaurant chain. But for now, there's hardly even a cult following for the place. My mates and I have visited twice, and both times we were the only customers (apparently not enough reason for the restaurant to turn on the air conditioning).
Despite the vegan nomenclature, the place is intended to be inclusive of all diners, with a menu that has burgers, spaghetti and even pad Thai. Vegan Cuisine doesn't want to be just a Vietnamese restaurant, either. English is spoken here. What took some deciphering, though, were words like "Swimming Free" and "Feather Light," which turned out to be code for vegan approximations of fish and chicken, respectively. After figuring that out, one can assume that any dish with "Grazing Moon" in its description had vegan beef as protein.
And there were a few using that protein, including a bo luc lac, and even a faux pho with brown slices of the slightly chewy fake meat in an anise-scented veggie broth. Did it taste like pho? Close enough. I enjoyed it for what it was: an umami-rich bowl of noodles that slurps just as satisfyingly, and with strips of tofu I dipped into my usual slurry of Sriracha and hoisin.
On other dishes, I'd be unaware the place was vegan if I didn't know it already. Bánh xeo was served with the same Amazon of herbs and lettuces. Stuffed summer rolls wrapped in translucent cylinders were dipped into a thick peanut sauce. Refreshing soursop smoothies soothed and reminded me of childhood summers.
The best dishes featured that "Swimming Free" meat. Since there's an entirely separate menu dedicated to it, you get the impression it's the specialty of the house. Vegan Cuisine has every right to be proud of it. The blend of mysterious ingredients (probably mostly soy) was uncanny in its fish fakery. There's no better way than this for your palate to be so blatantly lied to. It's all in the texture, which falls apart in the mouth in exactly the way your brain expects a Gorton's fish stick should. The best application was in Vegan Cuisine's version of cha cá Thang Long, the turmeric-tinged grilled fish dish served with tons of dill that's popular in Hanoi. Here the dish wasn't so much grilled, but rather deep-fried in what I assume was its original form as battered fish patties. But it's served per tradition: on a sizzling hot plate, decorated with tufts of dill, wilted onions, peanuts and a wad of rice noodle on the side to eat it with.
The "Swimming Free" meat can also be had as fish and chips, served with seasoned fries, vegan tartar sauce and a salad composed of mostly leaf lettuce. It's probably the only non-Vietnamese dish that anyone should try here. I did not like the lasagna, which could've been a good one—with zucchini, broccoli, ground soy meat and tomato sauce layered between pasta sheets—if it didn't have dried-out corners as though it'd just been reheated too long in the microwave.
The pad Thai is also to be avoided if you're expecting pad Thai. It used the wider rice noodle usually reserved for pad see ew, but my friends and I couldn't decide whether the sauce tasted closer to barbecue or the stuff Filipinos douse over their version of spaghetti. It did have more fried tofu than fake meat as protein. Upon finding some, my friend said something rather profound and Homer Simpson-esque: "Mmm. I like fried tofu. You know what it is. It doesn't need to lie to you."
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