I made the mistake of leaving the Bay Area in 1995. For ten years, as I moved from Chicago to North Carolina to Anaheim to Seattle to New York to western Massachusetts, I dreamed of moving back here. In 2005, I finally did. One of the things I was most looking forward to was the food. So far, however, I've been quite disappointed. At this point I've been here for six months and have only found three places that I consider truly excellent: Tacubaya, La Note, and Cha-Ya.
The last of these is the biggest surprise to me. I'd never liked Japanese food. I'm a vegetarian, so on the rare occasions I found myself at a Japanese restaurant I was pretty much limited to vegetable tempura. But thanks to Cha-Ya, I am totally set on the Japanese front. It's the rest of East Asia I'm having trouble with.
I've never been a big fan of Chinese food. On top of everything else, the vegetarian selections at Chinese restaurants tend to be dubious. When I lived in Anaheim, I went to a well-regarded place called Wing's that had a section of the menu titled "For Vegetarian Friends" and ordered vegetable lo mein. This turned out to have chicken in it. I guess that section was for vegetarian friends whom you want to turn into vegetarian enemies.
There's only been one real exception to my dislike of Chinese cuisine: when I lived in Brooklyn, there was a place up the road called Red Hot Szechuan, which was great. It had an entire page of the vegetarian selections, and I'd go in on a fairly regular basis and get vegetable wonton soup, scallion pancakes, and then maybe a green bean dish or a broccoli thing. Ever since I returned to the Bay Area, I've been trying to find someplace like that. Thus far, I have failed.
My first thought was to try the entirely-vegetarian Chinese and Vietnamese places I found recommended on Chowhound. I have been to Long Life Vegi House in Berkeley. It was terrible. I have been to Vegi Food in Berkeley. It was terrible. I have been to White Lotus in San Jose. It was terrible. I have been to Golden Lotus in Oakland. It wasn't terrible, but I'm not really itching to return. This is obviously far from an exhaustive list, but eventually I got discouraged and stopped trying.
Part of the problem with these places is that the menus are full of fake meat. If I wanted to eat meat, I'd eat meat. I don't. I want a nice selection of *vegetable* dishes. Not just a desultory chow mein with huge hunks of virtually unseasoned broccoli.
And I want scallion pancakes.
Am I out of luck? I live in the East Bay, but my job takes me all over the Bay Area, so location is not an issue. I'll go anywhere. And while it'd be great to find a Chinese version of Cha-Ya, at this point I'd settle for a place with like three really good vegetable dishes. Thanks!
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