Veggie Logic

Photo by Jeanne RicePretty much every restaurant—even those obviously disdainful of the Mediterranean diet—claims it features healthy menu items and works hard to cut out the excess fats and such so you won't have to worry about them. So why is everyone getting fatter?

Because we're eating too damn much. Have you noticed how much food you're getting with a restaurant meal? It seems every place is putting double portions on the plate, and the urge to eat it all is usually overpowering. It's as if the ghost of the dearly departed Belisle's—the Garden Grove restaurant that served humongous mountains of food, omelets the size of pillows, cakes the size of ottomans—still haunts the OC dining scene.

Now, I appreciate a large meal, but the tonnage being heaped before me is getting ridiculous. My refrigerator is a cornucopia overflowing with leftover boxes. I can only imagine how a server's arms feel after an evening of lugging around so much grub.

So if you want to eat “healthy” in a restaurant, start with this simple rule: eat less. Leave food on your plate, and don't take it home.

Most restaurants advertising themselves as health-food places produce bland heaps of basmati rice and, God forbid, alfalfa sprouts that taste like dirt. The problem with healthy cooking is that it frequently removes the flavor along with the fat and calories.

Best ye seek a restaurant featuring “cuisine” first and “healthy” second. Consider the Lotus Caf in Orange. This is a Chinese vegetarian restaurant that looks like a Norm's. It's located in a rundown, middle-class neighborhood about a mile from the Pond, about as far from the fern-nibbling Laguna set as you can get.

Yet, somehow, the Lotus Caf thrives. Here's the somehow: if you're not too hung up on the vegetarian thing, you will have a satisfying meal here.

The key to eating vegetarian for the non-veg is to understand that “meat substitute” is not a substitute for meat—not in flavor, not in texture. It will never taste as good as the original; its presence in the dish is to provide protein.

But aside from the bland soy-protein additives in their food, Lotus Caf is as good as any midlevel Chinese restaurant you'll find in OC. The dishes nearly all feature wonderfully prepared vegetables in tasty sauces. And the portions aren't so large that you'll bust. The pot stickers are filled with a yummy medley of diced vegetables, and the ginger dipping sauce that comes with them is just plain great. The signature dish is the Hot Wok Special, which features zucchini and red bell peppers stir-fried in a peppy chile sauce. It also contains a “veggie beef” made from shitake mushrooms that doesn't taste at all like beef but is good nonetheless. There's also a good Curry Supreme that tastes even better if you toss aside the soy-protein bits.

Eat at the Lotus Caf as you would any Chinese restaurant, and you'll have a good time. But I refuse to vouch for what are called the “wheat gluten” dishes. I may get paid to eat, but there ain't no way I'm going to touch gluten puffs with mushrooms. Gluten puffs. Yeah, right.

Lotus Caf, located at 1515 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. N 5-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. N 5-9:30 p.m. (714) 385-1233. No booze. $10-$15 per person, food only. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.

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