Bright Lights, Big Bigots

Photo by Matt OttoA band of pseudo-epicures hungrily approaches the bright lights of Happy Veggie Vegetarian Restaurant, happy but for the notoriously Picky Brother. Squinting and retreating at the same time, he points at a laminated salad picture hanging in the eatery's window. “What's that?!” he demands loudly of no one in particular.

The Picky Brother belongs to me, and Happy Veggie manager Rose Tallman must've heard his jejune remarks despite the distance and glass. Rose has encountered many Picky Brothers in her years of captaining the Huntington Beach eatery—and the fussy shut up once she turns up the charm.

She quickly arranges a table for our party of six and sings, “Welcome to Happy Veggie” as she pulls aside chairs for ladies and gents alike. The Lilliputian woman with a thick black bun piled on her head flutters around like a hummingbird as she lays out silverware and menus, promising we will love everything to come. “Oooooh,” she coos in our ears as she fills our porcelain cups with fragrant jasmine tea. “It's really good.”

We sip the tea and make small talk amid rose-colored plastic booths and Miami Beach-style white chairs. Bulbous lanterns hanging from high ceilings function as decoration rather than illumination. Cream-colored walls sport bargain-bin paintings of fruit and children except where leafy fake plants hang. A television silently plays misty Vietnamese music videos—it sits on a bookshelf groaning with books, videos and pamphlets that the menu cryptically proffers as “spiritual information.”

Happy Veggie's extensive and affordable menu is pan-Asian, encompassing everything from Vietnamese spring rolls, Indian curry, Chinese chow mein and pad Thai to soy Mongolian beef. Everything is 100 percent vegan, and Rose boasts she will make anything your tongue desires. Even so, my famished friends and I decide not to stray from the menu—with more than 100 choices, choosing just a few is already a multiple-choice test more suitable to a computer. In Rose's good graces, we trust, there will be no wrong answers.

Ordering is another story. Picky Brother repeats everything Rose says in a bastardized Vietnamese accent; I try unsuccessfully to kick his shin under the table. Rose politely ignores him but is less patient with one meat-obsessed companion who insists on ordering in Vietnamese what Rose calls her Royal noodle soup.

“I'll have the bún bò hue,” he proclaims with multicultural arrogance.

“Bò?” Rose repeats slowly, looking at him with the expression of someone who just tasted something sour.

“BÒ,” the carnivore snaps back. “Beef.”

Our order finished, she hurries behind the counter and speaks rapidly in Vietnamese to a young man; they laugh and nod their heads in our direction. Lovely. So much for a spit-free meal.

Or maybe not. The Royal noodle soup for which my friend made a multilingual fool of himself arrives in a plastic bowl as big as an Escalade's hubcap and just as showy—the chile-and-lime-flavored broth scorches the mock-meat and a harvest of vegetables. Other dishes we collectively share also shine: fluffy fried rice that melts richly in the mouth, light chow mein noodles, a colossal Kung Pao soy-chicken pyramid. A hulking clay pot holds what Rose calls “1000-layer tofu”; it's a thick stew of light-brown gravy, lemongrass, braised tofu, eggplant, soft carrots and honey-sweet golden potatoes. A late-arriving curry masala, pairing creamy coconut milk with a mild yellow curry, soothes us all in a most mammary way.

The pièce de resistánce is a steaming platter of crispy soy nuggets. Picky Brother tries them first, perhaps with visions of McDonald's in mind. He chews, thinks for a moment and takes more. Taking his cue for once, we happily pass the dish around, dipping the peppery nuggets into a clear, sweet mystery liquid served on the side.

Even with the nuggets gone and food comas rapidly setting in, the belligerence of the bò-brayer still plagues our table. He interrupts a waiter and demands the liquid's identity. “It's just rice vinegar,” the otherwise-polite waiter replies, now annoyed. As we leave the warmth of Happy Veggie for the damp Huntington Beach night, I hesitate saying goodbye to Rose. But I do. Rose stands there, watching our exit. And I swear—she winks.

Happy Veggie Vegetarian Restaurant, 7251 Warner Ave., Ste. F, Huntington Beach, (714) 375-9505. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 4-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $14-$22, food only. MC and Visa accepted.

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