My brother-in-law wanted Southeast Asian and I wanted to try something new. I've been eating at the same old places too much lately. We had just picked him up at the airport and the only place I could think of that I hadn't been was this little restaurant on Division between Wong's and 82nd. I hadn't realized it was vegetarian, though, until we got there. We decided to make a go of it.
It's actually a non-profit, volunteer-based restaurant. Sister Co Thu of the Thien Quang Buddhist Temple does the cooking. And she does a good job.
We started with jicima (sic) salad rolls ($2.75 for 3). The jicama wasn't really noticable, but the salad rolls were quite tasty. No noodles, all herbs and vegetables. They were loosely packed however, and their fillings fell out easily once bitten into. The peanut sauce was lacking -- very little flavor -- but the salad rolls were flavorful enough they didn't really need it.
We also shared a green papaya salad ($6.95).
More interesting than most in town and not just because of the mock meat (mock chicken? can't remember) around the outside of the platter. It also came with rice chips, adding both a nice crunch and something to use as a utensil, almost like chips for salsa. The green papaya was very crisp and shared the bulk of the salad along with julienned carrots. Crushed peanuts, fried shallots, and mixed herbs topped everything. It came undressed with sauce on the side. I kind of like that since it keeps the papaya from getting soggy. I missed the fish-sauce flavor, but it was an adequate sweet and sour sort of dressing. Overall quite good.
My brother-in-law ordered the veggie ham ($5.95), some sort of pressed bean curd with slices of cucumber and a side of brown or white rice. He chose the brown. I'm not very familiar with mock meats. This didn't taste like ham, though its texture, I guess, could be called hammy. But it didn't taste like tofu either. None of the mock meats tasted like tofu (and some weren't; some were gluten concoctions). A very plain dish, I think my brother-in-law was too polite to say much bad about it. But the amount of Sriracha, Hoisin, and soy sauce he used told the tale. Maybe that's the intent.
My wife got the crispy tofu ($5.95), a large platter of deep-fried soft tofu on a bed of lettuce served with rice. Again, this was very plain. It was just the tofu and rice, though hers came with some sort of sauce. I guess it makes sense when you consider a Buddhist nun is making the food. The execution was quite good, though. The soft tofu was creamy inside, but had a pleasant crispy exterior. Both my wife's and her brother's rice went largely untouched, though. I just don't know that it fits a Western palate to eat rice like that.
I got the medium bowl of pho with mock beef ($5.95 medium, closeup pictured). It had a nice fragrance, the mixture of spices -- anise, cinnamon, ginger -- were definitely present. Of course I missed the beefiness, but I've had much worse bowls of pho from non-vegetarian restaurants. And this wasn't just not-bad, it was pretty good. I'd rather have their pho than Yen Ha's, I think. It was better than my last bowl of pho from Pho Hung. And I'd rather have that mock beef (which didn't so much taste like beef -- I suspect it was gluten -- as it had the look and texture) than the over-cooked thin strips I last got from Pho Dalat (though they have a very good broth). The side of herbs and sprouts were very fresh and there was a nice mixture of basil, mint, and romaine.
There are a lot of Vietnamese options in the area and I can't imagine I'll be back too soon. But if I was with a vegan or vegetarian, I wouldn't hesitate returning. I wouldn't feel like I was getting gyped. And I may return for the papaya salad sometime and I wouldn't be surprised if my wife insists on the crispy tofu as a snack some time when we're out and about. People are often asking about good vegetarian and vegetarian versions of Vietnamese. This is both.