Z: The shopping center at the northwest corner of South Nogales Street and East Gale Avenue is the gathering place for everything Chinese, especially restaurants. Unfamiliar with the area, we searched the grounds before discovering Happy Veggie Garden is tucked inside the market plaza.
R: We met our friends Eric and Diana who knew the restaurant well and were seated at one of the comfortable upholstered booths that hugged both walls of the large restaurant that celebrates its first birthday this summer (2007). It felt new with its clean, polished wooden floor, light hued tables and chairs, and tasteful, yet simple adornment.
Z: We didn't see Buddha at first, but there he was, a standing, happy Buddha with a burnished silver sheen. He was placed on a high shelf at the rear of the long room overlooking the scene. It was early when we arrived for dinner but it didn't take long for the restaurant to fill to capacity with large and small families, all Chinese. We were the tourists and loving the experience.
R: The menu offers an enormous selection of dishes that resembles more closely what Chinese diners normally eat, rather than the familiar Americanized versions of Chinese food. While waiting for our order, we were served a tiny square bowl of roasted, salted peanuts. We embarked on our dining adventure with # 618, the Sauteed Turnip Patties that appeared on a large square platter as three giant, rectangular cakes, each about one-half-inch thick. They were beautifully tinged with crispy golden edges while the interior was pristine white. Accompanying the cakes was a small cup of thick, very dark sauce and a tiny covered pot of hot chile sauce.
Z: Americans that we are, we quickly gave up the chop stick struggle and begged for forks that made eating the turnip patties far easier. We fell in love with #618 at first bite with its soft, creamy texture inside, delicate turnip flavor, and an idyllic light crunch on the outside. The dark sauce complimented perfectly with its soy base and a suggestion of sweetness.
R: Lotus Root with Snow Peas, #542, was a simply prepared dish of thinly sliced lotus root, whole snow peas, and large "ears" of crunchy black fungus. Lotus root is a gorgeous thing to behold and a delightfully crisp vegetable to eat. Each slice looks like a white, lacy wheel with its single hole in the center and several holes close to the outer edges. With its delicate savory flavor, this dish featured a light sauce that was almost invisible, giving the lotus root center stage.
Z: Veggie fish is not new to us, but the evening at Happy Veggie Garden was our first encounter with crunchy, stir-fried mountain yam, one of the vegetables in #105 Vege Fish and Black Pepper Sauce with Yam. This colorful combo consisted of very flavorful veggie fish wedges heaped with bite-sized chunks of red, yellow, and green bell peppers, button mushroom halves, and white chunks of mountain yam.
R: Our compliments to the chef for keeping the sauces tastefully seasoned without overpowering the dishes. Again, savory flavors came to the foreground, while distinctive flashes of black pepper landed softly on the tongue.
Z: Eric wanted us to experience #617 Deep Fried Bread, apparently a typical Chinese favorite in the form of two white six-inch long rolls that were briefly plunged into hot oil. This treatment gave the bread a gleaming surface. The inside was sweet and soft, the outside lightly crisp.
R: The highlight of the meal was #402 Tofu with Eggplant in Hot Pot. Some of you may be familiar with my enchantment with eggplant. Can't help it--eggplant simply sends me into paroxysms of pleasure. This dish brought delight first as a visual experience when it arrived on a deeply grained wooden stand cut out to hold the small metal hot pot. Plumes of fragrant steam rose from the combo of Chinese eggplant wedges and thick chunks of soft, fried tofu. The sauce was richly flavored, savory, and pungent. Leaves of basil infused the dish lending its distinctive accent. Brown rice was our traditional accompaniment.
Z: The final touch was a sweet treat of orange wedges and fortune cookies. What made this meal so memorable was not only the delicious food, but also the experienced staff and chef who formerly worked at Happy Family Restaurant. The focus at Happy Veggie Garden is on the food, yet the tables down the center of the room had white tablecloths. A lovely planter of white orchids enhances the service stand in the center of the room. Small touches like the wood-trimmed etched glass booth dividers and the unique black bamboo stands in the entrance give the restaurant its unmistakable Asian ambience.
R: Happy Veggie Garden's menu is so intriguing and extensive, it makes one want to rent a table and stay for a week, just tasting and tasting. One special section, labeled Herb Healthy Cooking, lists items that contain gobo, yam, red dates, napa cabbage, and lily bulb. Soup choices and Hot Pot selections are many as are Appetizers and Rice & Noodle dishes. The number of Entrees is staggering with a list of 71 items.
Z: We left the restaurant sated in many ways and hope to return for another wonderful meal. But the evening was not quite over. Our final cultural experience was a shopping trip in the 99 Ranch Market just a few steps away from the restaurant.
Happy Veggie Garden
Reviewed July 2007