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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Dining in Paradise

R: Ever eager for a new food adventure, we two birds flew out to South El Monte on a Saturday night with another pair of foodie birds to taste the delicacies at a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant.

Z: Traffic was particularly congested that night, and I was concerned we wouldn't get there before their closing time at 9:00 p.m. We finally arrived at 8:30 p.m. and noticed a full complement of diners and just enough room for the four of us.

Veggie Life Restaurant R: Veggie Life is an unpretentious storefront restaurant on the southwest corner of East Garvey Avenue and Rosemead in a little strip mall. The ambience speaks simplicity, yet there is a special hominess that most likely comes from the warm welcome and caring attention owner Ching Chen gave us. This is a simple family-style restaurant dressed up with pale yellow tablecloths covered with glass tops. Each table had a napkin dispenser and a unique holder for little sauce bowls, Chinese soup spoons, forks, and chop sticks.

Z: Throughout the meal, Ching was like a doting mother watching over her small children, teaching us how to properly eat our special dishes in the Vietnamese style. The menu itself was a colorful experience, with several pages of color photographs depicting each dish. All the photos had a number, an English name, and oriental characters we assumed were the Vietnamese names of the dishes.

R: With Ching's help we ordered Goi Cuon for our appetizer. We were hungry and delighted to be served rather quickly. Goi Cuon were Rice Rolls that consisted of finely diced water chestnuts, mushrooms, and veggie ham tightly wrapped in Vietnamese rice wrappers. The rolls, served steaming hot on a bed of red leaf lettuce, were about 10 to 12-inches long and cut into pieces like sushi. Garnishing the plate were enough bean sprouts, mint leaves, and shredded cucumbers to complete our day's salad requirements.

Z: This delicious starter came with a delicately sweetened Dipping Sauce made of soy sauce and chili. We all agreed it was worth the long trek. Next came the Banh Xeo, a 12-inch diameter Vietnamese Crepe, made from rice flour. It was actually a golden yellow fried pancake folded in half and filled with mushrooms, veggie shrimp, veggie pork, bean sprouts, and mung beans. On a separate dish were mint leaves, lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, and carrot slices.

R: Ching instinctively knew we would need some orientation and eagerly served these to us with instructions. She seemed to be enjoying our experience as much as we were. We were shown how to fill a lettuce leaf with some of the crepe, along with some mint leaves, a cucumber slice and a carrot slice with the lettuce leaf forming the ideal wrapper. This combination was then plunged into the dipping sauce that provided the zesty seasoning.

Z: That night we really began appreciating mint, an herb that is obviously a Vietnamese favorite. Arriving together were the Bo Luc Lac and Lau Thap Cam along with white rice. The Bo Luc Lac is a veggie Beef with Black Pepper Sauce attractively presented on an oval dish lined with curly lettuce leaves. The stir-fried chunks of "beef" were heaped in the center and surrounded with sliced tomato halves, orange bell pepper slices, and sprigs of cilantro. It was tantalizing to look at and even better to devour with its delicately spiced black pepper sauce.

R: The texture of the "beef" was so satisfying, I had to ask Ching what it was made of, since it didn't have the typical texture of an all soy-based product. These meaty morsels were made with wheaten gluten, mushroom, and soybean curd, a winning combination. It didn't take long for the four of us to demolish this dish.

Soup Birds Z: The Lau Thap Cam is a Combination Hot Pot that's basically a clear broth with a heap of goodies that included shiitake and white mushrooms, taro root, veggie shrimp balls, napa cabbage, tofu, and veggie ham. The flavor was delicate, and we could have chosen to add some of the sauces or crushed chiles included at each table, but we felt the simplicity was an ideal balance to our meal. This is a perfect dish for anyone wanting to enjoy a low-fat Southeast Asian dish.

R: Since Ching was not at our side for this dish, I decided to put some rice into our bowls and top it with the broth and hot pot ingredients. Soon those copycats at our table did the same.

Z: Throughout the meal I noticed that some of the diners were focused on the TV set mounted on the wall. Not able to understand the language, I had no idea about the Vietnamese program that was featured, but others seemed to be riveted to the TV. As I looked around, I noticed several ceiling fans, mirrors along the back wall to give the room a larger appearance, and a buffet cart used at lunchtime.

R: Ching asked if we would like to order dessert, but we were quite full. Although we enjoyed everything we ordered, we recognized that, typically, Asian foods that are stir-fried are not synonymous with low fat. Veggie Life's many pluses include reasonable prices, generous servings, tasty and unique cuisine, and an opportunity to stay on the vegetarian path with every bite.

Veggie Life Restaurant
9324 E. Garvey Ave., South El Monte, CA 91733
Phone: 626-443-8687
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Closed Mondays

Reviewed April 2002

Click here for past Dining in Paradise reviews

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