Written by Merrill Shindler
Over the years, I’ve happily collected meatless options. And there are many. Here in Los Angeles, without too much effort, you can exist quite nicely at vegan Indian restaurants, Thai restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Middle Eastern restaurants — and on an odd corner in a barely noticeable mini-mall in Reseda, a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, which definitely stands out as a meatless variation on one of the beefiest cuisines in the world.
You go to any number of Vietnamese pho or banh mi joints around town, and you’re confronted with a choice of any number of cuts of beef, some fairly obscure, along with pork pates and sundry sausages.
You go to Vinh Loi Tofu — a couple of small rooms with a counter in the front — and you’re told, in no uncertain terms, that this is not the land of beef or pork. The menu declares this a “No Meat Zone.” (It also says this is “A Better Way of Life,” as vegan restaurants tend to remind you of their moral superiority ... as is the case of the café in Studio City whose name is H.O.P.E. — which stands for “Healthy Organic Positive Eating.” Oh well.)
But though the menu may be meatless, it’s not without meat substitutes. There’s vegan chicken, vegan beef, vegan shrimp, gluten duck, vegan fish, gluten abalone, soy ham, vegan tuna, vegan seafood.
I’ve eaten at a lot of Asian vegan restaurants over the years, and have long wondered at the need to pretend to be eating meat; there are Chinese vegans in the San Gabriel Valley that offer vegan intestines. As I said, I like vegetables. Vegetables are our friends. Vegetables taste good, and they’re good for you.
I don’t entirely understand the need for meat substitutes. But that’s me.
It’s not the sizable crowds at Vinh Loi Tofu, who show up in droves for the 16 soups, seven salads, 12 noodles dishes, nine spring rolls, eight banh mi sandwiches (they call them “subs” on the menu), sundry rice dishes — and nine tofu dishes.
The tofu dishes were my favorite creations here, some served in crispy pieces, others in blocks. And those crispy pieces — like the fried tofu flavored with lemongrass and chili — were very tasty, though, of course, they weren’t pretending to be anything but tofu.
There’s a rack of do-it-yourself/help-yourself seasonings between the two rooms, with several spicy sauces that make the crispy tofu that much better — Sriracha makes just about everything taste like, well, Sriracha. The rack sits next to a large glass-fronted refrigerator filled with green tea and fruit drinks.
And, despite my reservations about the meat substitutes, the food here is very good. Not as richly flavored as Thai vegan cooking, but a fine variation on the theme.
I didn’t much like the texture of the vegan beef and chicken in the spring rolls — too rubbery for me. But the rolls come with a good peanut sauce, and the veggies within are nice and crisp. So, I picked out the subs, and had a good dish.
The meat subs fit better into the noodle dishes, where they get lost amidst the greens and pickles and peanuts. And I noticed diners at a number of tables staring at their menus in puzzlement; at which point the cheery servers happily jump in, and offer to bring a selection of the most popular dishes.
The table next to mine did just that — they seemed happy to be surprised. But another table insisted in staring in puzzlement at their menus. They were puzzling when I entered. And they were puzzling when I left.
The good news is, whenever they made up their minds, they’d eat quickly — service at Vinh Loi Tofu is rocket-fast. With lots of takeout passing out the door.