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San Francisco Bay Area Vietnamese Palo Alto Lunch Chowdown

Chowdown Report: Sunday Lunch at Chua Giac Minh Pagoda (East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church)


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Restaurants & Bars San Francisco Bay Area Vietnamese Palo Alto Lunch Chowdown

Chowdown Report: Sunday Lunch at Chua Giac Minh Pagoda (East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church)

Melanie Wong | | Apr 10, 2011 10:40 PM

Yesterday I checked out the Chua Giac Minh Pagoda’s kitchen, “Vietnamese-style Vegetarian Food at East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church”
and enjoyed it so much I invited others to join me for a return today. Peter joined me on this scouting trip. We also had a friendly informant, Y, to show us the ropes.

Arriving at 11:30am, the service was still in progress with mesmerizing tonal chanting and drumbeats reverberating from the sanctuary. We headed upstairs, removed our shoes, and took our place on the temple floor with the devout. Some time after noon hour the pace of the chanting seemed to speed up, and one almost wonders if the worshippers were getting hungry and racing to finish.

The outdoor patio was set up with ample tables and chairs for lunch after the service.

Three shrines shared the patio and images of Buddha gazed down upon us. This shows one of the shrines and the collection box for donations.

Y said that the soup changes every week. This Sunday we had tofu bun rieu. Bowls, chopsticks, and spoons were set out. Here’s the pile of rice noodles on the buffet table for assemble-yourself bun rieu.

First we layered some noodles in our individual bowls. Then over to the covered soup cooking station where a Buddhist nun ladled out the scalding hot mix of unpressed bean curd, tomatoes, and dried mushrooms in a delicate broth.

Then back to the buffet table to pile on some shredded veggies: red and green cabbage, and various mints.

Here’s my bowl of bun rieu. I loved the tender texture of the almost fluffy bean curd.

Y also offered us a taste of another soup rife with mushrooms, pressed tofu, mock ham, and bamboo pith.

After this first course, we dropped off our bowls at the dish-washing station and then headed inside to see what other items might be available for purchase.

The most limited item, according to Y, would be the sesame balls, so we snapped those up first. Filled with sweetened mung bean paste, 2/$1, these had a nice crunch even if the shell was a bit thick.

We also shared a very crisp eggroll, handed to us as a sample by the lovely church lady. Liked the thin, crackly wrapper and flavorful filling of mushroom, bean threads, and carrots.

Then, a couple of the small sticky rice flour (mochi) dumplings I’d observed being prepped on Saturday. Wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf, these were 50¢ each.

Peter shows the savory sauteed veggie filling inside the mochi dumpling.

We also had two of the same kind of fried items I tried yesterday. The lemongrass tofu, $1, served warm and freshly fried, was still singularly impressive for the depth of flavor achieved in the meatless topping. Y thought I might be picking up the elusive flavor of the leeks. While this Buddhist sect eschews garlic and onions, apparently leeks are allowed. The fried version of the “chicken thigh”, $1.25, dabbed with some smuggled-in sambal (chili sauce with garlic) hit the spot again.

One of my favorites was a marinated salad of colorful shredded vegetables, prepped a day ahead and cured overnight. Rau ram, carrots, sweet red peppers, bell pepper, jalapeño, green beans, agar-agar threads, mint, celery, bamboo, crushed peanuts in a sweet-sour lemon dressing, $5/pint. Y said that this makes a very good banh mi filling. A bamboo shoot salad was also available.

We passed on the mock fried shrimp. Our favorite church lady said they were too hard. We missed out on the yogurt that Y said was very good.

Here’s the mock meat roll made with tofu and dill. Didn't taste one, it’s also available without dill.
Behind it, soft tofu containers sold with honey syrup for $1. I took one with me and can report that the tofu was silky smooth but more firm than typical. The ginger-honey sauce was very concentrated with strong ginger flavor from thick shreds of ginger root infused in the syrup.

For me, the most remarkable bite of the day was the mock fried fish. Doesn't this look like a fish cutlet with dark skin?

And the cross section shape mimics real fish even more so. Brown and crispy outside, the ivory-colored interior had the bite and slightly fibrous texture of fish, not tofu. Amazing.

We spent $13 each for lunch including extra items to take home. Y said that we could call the temple to place advance orders if we wanted larger quantities of any of these items. It’s also possible to reserve banquet tables for a special memorial meal with more variety priced at about $100 for ten people.

More photos: click on “slideshow”

Giac Minh Pagoda
763 Donohoe St, East Palo Alto, CA