R: While we boast about our many vegetarian eateries within Los Angeles County, and do our utmost to nurture their success, we become ecstatic at the discovery of a restaurant that stands out as a cut above the rest. Vegetarian Wok Chinese Restaurant on East Valley Blvd. in San Gabriel earns that distinction.
Z: Wish we could clone it and place it at convenient locations throughout all of Los Angeles, but we recognize San Gabriel has its own special distinction. That city has become the new center of Chinese activity with shops, markets, entertainment centers, and restaurants that cater to the Chinese community. Even visiting dignitaries from China gravitate to San Gabriel where they can feel right at home among a population that speaks Chinese and displays storefront signs in their language.
R: Tucked into the corner of a strip mall was what appeared to be a cozy little restaurant, but a surprise greeted us once we entered. Not quite cavernous, the sizeable restaurant could easily accommodate 150 diners. At 6:30 on a Sunday night, the restaurant was three-fourths full with families occupying the large round tables that filled the length of the room's center portion. Smaller tables hugged the walls, while one corner was set aside for round tables to accommodate large parties.
Z: Integral to the interior landscape, a golden Buddha occupies a spot close to the entrance that was bedecked with red and gold decorations in celebration of the Chinese New Year. The large dining room spoke of simple elegance with floral carpeting, white tablecloths, black framed chairs with green fabric covering, crystal chandeliers, and Chinese music playing softly in the background.
R: I'm always impressed when a restaurant goes out of the way to offer patrons a welcoming tidbit--a tiny nibble that's not on the menu but says so much about their generosity and desire to establish a dedicated clientele. As soon as we were seated, our server brought a tiny bowl of salted, roasted Spanish peanuts and another of pickled daikon. We enjoyed our miniscule starter while perusing the extensive menu.
Z: And what an intriguing array of dishes they offer. From an awesome selection of 76 entrees we chose three: Mixed Vegetables Wrapped in Bean Curd Skin, Vegetarian Three Ingredients, and Stir Fried Veggies. Our starter, the Vegetarian Minced Pigeon sounded too enticing to pass up and became our fourth selection.
R: The Vegetarian Three Ingredients arrived quickly with plumes of steam rising from the dish painted with a traditional design of blue lotus flowers. The three ingredients featured were veggie shrimp, veggie squid, and wheat gluten seasoned to resemble chicken. Enhancing the tasty combination were sliced mushrooms, carrots, and broccoli florets in a savory brown sauce.
Z: By good fortune we chose Vegetarian Minced Pigeon, an extraordinary dish. It was a serendipitous choice because the menu does not provide descriptions. Actually a lettuce wrap, the dish was served on two platters--one with iceberg lettuce caps--the other sporting an impressive mound of finely minced tofu skin, mushrooms, celery, fungus, and deep fried strips of crispy wonton skins well seasoned with a savory sauce and a whisper of spice.
R: Though we're certainly not new to Chinese cuisine, we found this our first encounter with Minced Pigeon an irresistible combination of tantalizing flavors and textures. Another exceptional dish, Mixed Vegetables in Bean Curd Skin was served in a deep bowl with stuffed tofu skins floating in a sea of light brown sauce. Cutting into the little pouches with my fork, yes, you guessed it--I'm not a whiz with chopsticks--I was treated to a tasty filling of shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, and bok choy. The dish was nicely garnished with a sprinkle of edamame, long strips of bamboo shoots, and giant shiitakes.
Z: The Stir Fried Veggies, bathed in a delicate white sauce, was a typical melange of colorful veggies perfectly cooked just until tender crisp. Accompanying our delicacies was the ubiquitous white rice. Our only disappointment was the unavailability of brown rice, but that yearning paled against the outstanding experience that included service with a smile.
R: One final treat was a dish of sweet, juicy navel orange wedges presented along with the bill. Toward the end of our meal, we noticed the restaurant was nearly full, yet it was not noisy. This is a definite plus that adds to an enjoyable dining experience.
Z: One of our readers who frequents the Vegetarian Wok suggested a few of his favorite must-try dishes that include the Deep Fried Fish in Hot Bean Sauce and Kung Pao Chicken. He also recommends the exceptional Hot and Sour Soup. Other menu items that tempt us include Smoked Vegetarian Chicken, Sour Napa Pickle with Vegetarian Sausage, and Wheat Gluten Puffs with Bamboo and Mushroom.
R: Because the portions were so generous, we had difficulty finishing our food that we spooned into styrofoam cartons to take home. After leaving the restaurant, we couldn't help visiting the bakery next door with its giant wedding cake in the window and rows of delectable sweets in the glass cases. The sign announcing fresh roasted chestnuts enticed us to walk in the opposite direction to the candy store two doors down. Although we were quite full from our dinner, we found it impossible to resist tasting the warm, sweet nuts. A bag of chestnuts and the styrofoam cartons of food became our souvenirs of a special dining experience and pleasurable evening.
Reviewed May 2006