Z: After parking in the Albertson's shopping center just south of Catalina Avenue, Happy Veggie diners are warmly greeted by Pam Cote who happily multitasks as server, sometimes cook, and friendly greeter. While the menu offers a number of beverages, it doesn't mention the filtered water infused with a hint of orange, a feature Pam is very proud to announce.
R: Our two adventurous dining buddies, Eric and Diana, arrived before us and were already seated at one of the light wooden tables. As we approached the table and pulled out our chairs, we couldn't help smiling at the homey touch of the soft, ruffled seat cushions. Pam wasted no time setting out a pot of jasmine tea along with small, white Asian-style teacups. The menu listed extensive choices including some Thai and Chinese dishes along with Vietnamese specialties.
Z: Starters included Summer Rolls and Casaval Rolls, both a familiar combo of veggies and rice noodles tightly rolled in the soft rice paper wrappers and attractively served on white rectangular dishes. The first bite of the Casaval Rolls revealed the unmistakable pungence of basil and was accompanied with a tasty peanut sauce garnished with crushed peanuts. A sweet and sour sauce offered welcome diversity for the Summer Rolls that were filled with soybeans, tofu, carrots, and taro.
R: Pam displayed her creative side when she brought us the Zucchini Spaghetti, an attractive new dish she was testing on her patrons. The large white bowl was filled with long, thin shreds of tender, lightly marinated zucchini squash. Blanketing the top were thin strips of soy chicken and diced, lightly cooked tomatoes. Bits of minced fresh basil provided just the right accent that made this a winning and refreshing creation. We hope this treat becomes a regular menu item, though we might give it a more exotic name like Saigon Noodles.
Z: No Vietnamese dining experience would complete without Pho, prounounced "phuh," a large bowl of delicious rice noodle soup dotted with long strips of tofu, and thin strips of mushrooms all floating in an irresistible savory broth. Traditionally, accompaniments of fresh basil sprigs, bean sprouts, slices of jalapeno, and lime wedges are served on the side as add-ins. Hearty and filling, the soup was a welcome side dish we thoroughly enjoyed. Left behind were a few slices of chilis we were too wimpy to tackle.
R: On Pam's recommendation we ordered the Pineapple Chicken. For those who love sweet dishes, the chunks of pineapple that accompany the soy chicken, scallions, and onions add pleasant contrast to the savory dishes. The light sauce laced with subtle spice was the ideal accompaniment to the brown rice we ordered.
Z: We all agreed the stand-out dish was the scrumptious house special Au Lac Pancake that would have made a satisfying meal by itself. Dotting a batter of rice flour, coconut milk, and ginger were bits of bean sprouts, carrots, seaweed, veggie shrimp, and tofu. The pancake measured about five to six inches in diameter and was served on a platter adorned with greenleaf lettuce leaves, cilantro, and mint. Pam instructed us to take a lettuce leaf and place a portion of the pancake in the center. Then top it with sprigs of the herbs, fold it like a taco, and dip it into the bowl of tasty sweet-sour cocorico sauce. This exceptional pancake is Happy Veggie's signature dish!
R: It's easy to agree. If there were only one menu item to recommend, I would choose the Au Lac Pancake. We had never encountered anything like it in any other Vietnamese restaurant and wanted to compliment the chef, only to learn the chef was Pam's brother Phueng Tran, who is also the restaurant's owner. He spent six years learning his craft at the Vegetarian House in San Jose where other Vietmanese cooks interned to learn their vegetarian cooking skills.
Z: Seems The Vegetarian House is a training center for Asian style veg cooking. Other Vietnamese chefs got their start there as well and opened restaurants throughout the country. When Pheung came into the dining area from the upstairs kitchen to receive our compliments, we were surprised that he spoke no English. Pam translated our kind words and Pheung smiled and bowed.
R: This dynamic, hard-working pair has created some positive vibes in the Redondo Beach area where diners can relax over a dish of Pat Thai noodles or 1,000 Layer Tofu or even a Won Ton or Curry Soup and soak up the simple, yet inviting ambience. Creating the sensation of warmth are the saffron-colored walls with bamboo matting below. Drop lights glow softly because they wear Vietnamese straw hats. A few paintings by Master Ching Hai dot the walls, while the stairs at the back of the restaurant keep Pam in very good shape as she retrieves dishes from the upstairs kitchen.
Z: Our dessert was a complete departure from Southeast Asian cuisine. We shared a piece of moist, tantalizing Carrot Cake that was, thankfully, not cloyingly sweet. The Blueberry Cheesecake was perfection. The last little treat to grace our table was a small plate of refreshing honeydew chunks.
R: At Happy Veggie one cannot help but put on a happy face. The all-vegan food is delicious, the restaurant cozy, and Pam and Pheung just might treat you like family. A hungry vegan can also find great value with generous portions and reasonable prices.
709 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Reviewed September 2007