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Vegan for the Holidays

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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

R: I had the feeling that our more than one-hour drive was taking us to the edge of the earth but discovered we had only reached the edge of Los Angeles County.

Veggie Panda Wok Z: I had to reassure Reuben it was not in vain, that it would be worth the drive and that we would soon arrive at a gastronomical treasure. I was right, of course. Food sleuths that we are, we did find Veggie Era, a dining gem owned and operated by a dedicated Indonesian family who gains merit toward good karma by pleasing others.

R: Accompanied by a pair of daredevil dining friends, we ventured into the small, informal restaurant and were warmly greeted by daughters Alicia and Elvira, who provided us with two menus. One was a single sheet of hot pink paper listing the menu offerings. The other was a thick notebook featuring bright color photos with appealing presentations of the dishes they prepare.

Z: Those attractive photos made ordering efficient on the one hand and challenging on the other. Too many temptations were causing us to nearly run amok. Narrowing down our choices, we decided on the Veggie Saté, Curry Potato Soup, Lemon Grass Chicken, Stir-fried Mixed Vegetables, Broccoli Shiitake Mushrooms, and Brown Rice.

R: Diners seated at a nearby table ordered the BBQ Veggie Duck and were generous enough to offer us a much-appreciated taste. The long, half-inch-wide strips of imitation duck were bathed in sweet, soy infused barbecue sauce and were so succulent we knew we had to order them on our next visit.

Z: Our appetizer of Veggie Saté was an equally pleasing starter that consisted of three bamboo skewers, each loaded with a different, well-glazed veggie meat. The mock pork, chicken, and beef chunks with their rich golden hue were lightly grilled to seal in the delicately sweet Asian sauce.

Veggie Panda Wok R: Alicia returned to our table and presented us with an unexpected offering--a steaming hot dish so new that it was not yet listed on the menu. She invited us to taste and offer our opinions. As we unwrapped our bundles of banana leaves, we were greeted by a steamed aromatic melange of satin soft wheat gluten, seaweed, tomatoes, and mild chiles. These nameless treats were the most unique combination of flavors we had ever tasted in any Asian restaurant and turned out to be the sensation of the evening's experience.

Z: We insisted this new creation deserved a special name and began calling them Banana Leaf Satin Treasure, a name that seemed to please restaurant owners, Haris and Dianawati Thie. Our next course, the Curry Potato Soup, was an excellent choice. Thick and full-bodied, the soup was a well-seasoned curry generously endowed with large chunks of potatoes, peas, tofu, and carrots.

R: I really went for the Lemon Grass Veggie Chicken that arrived with a colorful blanket of long shreds of carrots and green beans. Those generous portions of glistening deep-fried veggie chicken strips had a pleasing balance of sweet and tart flavors that went down easy. The chicken had a satisfying chewy texture reminiscent of real chicken from many years past. Veggie Panda Wok

Z: The Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables dish lived up to its stunning photo in the notebook menu. Ablaze with color and stir-fried to a perfect crisp-tender state, the vegetable dish was a welcome balance to the meaty Sate appetizer and Veggie Chicken entrée. These veggies were so fresh we could actually taste the distinctive flavors of each one. And the array of vegetables was impressive with more variety than we've encountered at many Asian restaurants.

R: Mushroom fanciers would appreciate the Broccoli Shiitake Mushroom dish heaping with tender broccoli and satiny fresh shiitake mushrooms. Accompanying the mushrooms were sliced carrots and onions bathed in a delicate white sauce that didn't overpower the vegetables. Complementing our many dishes was a bounteous serving of steamed brown rice.

Z: A small board of daily specials listed several desserts that were atypical of Asian style sweets, and each of them seemed to be luring us into extreme sin. How could anyone resist vegan desserts like Chocolate Truffle Pie, Chocolate Vanilla Cake, Black Forest Cheesecake, or Chocolate Coconut Creamy Pie?

R: What Zel is embarrassed to admit is that we ordered all four desserts and shared them among the four of us. The Chocolate Vanilla Cake stood three layers tall and was decadently rich, light in texture, and oozing with moist chocolaty flavor. Between the layers was a creamy, marshmallowy filling. This dessert received an instant thumbs-up from the group.

Z: The runner-up favorite was the Chocolate Coconut Creamy Pie, spotlighting chocolate chips resting at the base of the chocolate graham cracker crust and a heavenly creamy coconut cheesecake filling. It was light, very coconutty, yet not overly sweet. The divine flavor of this one-fourth of one piece of pie has firmly implanted itself in my memory and absolutely refuses to leave.

Veggie Panda Wok R: Close to intoxication from a " sugar high," we moved on to dessert #3. Ultra sweet, irresistibly delicious chocolate, light and creamy--those were our Chocolate Truffle Pie impressions. Our final dessert plunge was the Black Forest Cheesecake, a vegan version of a firm, New York style cheesecake with cherry pie filling on top. That was one decadent dessert spree!

Z: Other offerings on the menu reflect typical Chinese dishes such as the Veggie Chicken Drumstick appetizer and the Chinese Hot and Sour Soup. A few items express the eclectic Asian influences like the spicy Indonesian Fried Rice, Thai Hot and Sour Soup, Curry Masala, and Veggie Chicken Potato Curry.

R: Five years ago the Thie family purchased the Panda Wok Restaurant, a traditional Chinese eatery. They added the word Veggie to express their compassionate philosophy and have since served all vegan dishes that are free of MSG. They have now changed the name to Veggie Era.

Z: Before the evening was over, we had met the whole restaurant family, including brother Tommy, who came out of the kitchen to witness our dessert fantasy. Alicia, we discovered, is the talented dessert maker who smiled in appreciation as we heaped effusive compliments upon her.

R: We also praised her parents, the chefs who created the exceptional banana leaf dish. Then an unusual thing happened. We were each given a little doggie bag containing two more wrapped banana leaf bundles to take home.

Z: Before leaving we asked if the large framed photo hanging over the kitchen was that of Supreme Master Suma Ching Hai, a spiritual leader who has encouraged many of her followers to embrace vegetarianism. Indeed, it was the same photo we have seen in many Asian vegetarian restaurants.

Veggie Era (formerly Veggie Panda Wok)
903-B West Foothill Blvd, Upland, CA 91786
Phone: 909-982-3882
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Sunday 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Closed Monday

Photos by Andy Mars
Reviewed March 2005

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