You know that clichéd koan about whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound if no one is around to hear it? A similar thing has happened with Thuyen Vien, a gem of a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant in Garden Grove. Since it opened in 2002, Thuyen Vien has attracted eaters not just because it seamlessly replicated all its meats with soy, but because it also nailed the complex flavors of Vietnamese cuisine in a way few other Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants could. I loved the place, and longed for it these past couple of years as life took me away from Orange County. I recently returned (hopefully for good), and one of the first restaurants I visited was my beloved Thuyen Vien.
And so I strutted in anew a couple of weeks ago . . . and noticed things were askew. Similar, yet askew. Painted-bead curtains still hung loosely in the front window, curtains that show a picture of a Vietnamese fishing scene when aligned correctly. But the check-out counter had moved to the other side of this soy saloon. And it now had a built-in cubby hole filled with various goodies for Buddha—oranges, brightly colored ribbons, the quintessential feline with the single raised paw and a cigarette. There was even a new portrait of Vietnam clinging to a freshly white-washed wall.
Petty changes, I reminded myself as I awaited the mild-mannered man, the lovely chap who stoically received my orders over the years. But the man was gone—in his place was a pubescent girl. She was nice, attentive and faithfully scribbled as I ordered an onslaught of Thuyen Vien's faux-flesh fare . . . but it wasn't my guy.
An unfortunate development, but it's the food that matters, I reminded myself when it arrived. The soy “chicken” salad still had a medley of fresh cabbage, peanuts, fake fowl, cilantro and bean sprouts. The sharp dressing—with the perfect tang of lemon, a punch of black pepper, and a soothing peanut oil richness—was the same dressing that drew me again and again to Thuyen Vien in the old days. The soy “fish” clay-pot sensation arrived sizzling as always, an amazing feat of mock-mackerel bathed in a fantastic gravy of caramelized green onions and black pepper with a decadent sweet-savory balance. This fish was good, it was damn good . . . yet something was a tad off.
I still couldn't put my finger on what was missing when the curry soy “chicken” arrived in the same gargantuan bowl I remembered. It was a lovely stew of coconut broth, chile oil, potatoes, onions, tofu and fake chicken. It was, again, great—but, still, I wasn't satisfied.
And here is where my dilemma lies: if you have never tried Thuyen Vien's clay-pot “fish,” if you never experienced the pleasure of the curry “chicken,” if you've never enjoyed these meals, does it really matter that this amazing grub was even more amazing at one point? Probably not. Realistically, as veggie restaurants close and open and inevitably close, and so few remain open and—more importantly, are delicious—one shouldn't nit-pick between awesome and extraordinary.
As I left Thuyen Vien, the young girl who replaced my old server said that her parents had just purchased the 4-year-old restaurant the previous week but planned to keep the same vegetarian menu I loved. Maybe it was transitional kinks that left me slightly dissatisfied; maybe it was stubborn nostalgia. But, in the end, if a kick-ass veggie restaurant changes ownership but keeps the same amazing dishes, should anyone care? You shouldn't, but allow me to shed a tear for the past.
THUYEN VIEN VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, 11080 MAGNOLIA ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 638-8189. OPEN WED.-MON, 9 A.M.-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$30, CASH ONLY. NO ALCOHOL OR ANIMALS.