Vegans Don’t Smell Bad, Especially the Vietnamese Ones
I am not an adventurous eater. I was raised on Pepsi, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and McDonald’s, so sugar, salt, and starch were the foods of life for me. I didn’t willingly eat broccoli until well after college. My favorite restaurants growing up (besides McDonald’s, which, now I will admit, is not a restaurant) were pizza places or burger joints. I didn’t branch out much. I never ventured far outside the exotic fare of Irish or Italian cuisine.
Even as an adult married to a Cajun who loves tentacles and hot sauce, I have not been very brave about trying new things. I’ve hated seafood, which is odd for a woman who grew up in a coastal New England town. I turned away from ethnic foods besides the ubiquitous Mexican and Chinese dishes that one cannot avoid living in Southern California, as I have done for almost 14 years. I disdain meatless dishes, and have turned my nose up at vegan food. How is that even food? I wondered.
This year, however, I got a new day job, and I didn’t know anyone at this new company. It was like the first day of school, and like a 10-year-old, I worried that nobody would talk to me or sit with me at lunch. Luckily, my coworkers didn’t smell my fear. They invited me to lunch on the very first day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on. They had a ritual: a trip to the market on Mondays to load up on items to eat at the office during the week, and then a special outing on Fridays. The destination was always, with very few exceptions, Vinh Loi Tofu in Reseda, CA.
Let me point out that not only did this establishment have an ethnic name, but it was also entirely vegan. Vietnamese vegan.
My desperation to fit in pushed me over the edge into culinary exploration. My coworkers urged me to join them, swearing that the restaurant had noodles! Which are starchy and plain! And I would like them! And meat! Everything they make is tofu but it all tastes like meat! I remained skeptical, but I went along for the ride. After all, someone else was driving.
Vinh Loi Tofu is a little storefront restaurant in one of those ubiquitous corner shopping centers with 18 businesses and only four parking spaces. It blends right in with the many other ethnic establishments in the area, and it doesn’t face the street, so it’s easy to drive right by. Inside, it’s small, with less than a dozen tables, so patrons waiting for their food just stand around looking at you while you eat.
The menu is a tri-folded flyer, and the list of dishes is also up on the wall in a sensory-overload barrage of too many words. I looked for something recognizable and I ordered the chow mein. My coworkers, already savvy in the way of Vinh Loi, snatched a shrink-wrapped pre-made set of ham rolls from the counter and set about splitting them up among the five of us.
The ham rolls (listed on the menu as “Spring Rools”) consist of tofu ham, greens, and dried rice noodles, wrapped in a skin-like substance they call “rice sheet.” I wasn’t convinced, but I dipped the assembly in peanut sauce, took a bite, and…
Because! Because then I got my chow mein, which not only was not scary or gooey or too spicy or any of the things I had feared about ethnic food, but was actually delicious. Made with wheat noodles stir-fried with cabbage, “vegetable,” and vegan chicken and beef (both formed from tofu, I just can’t imagine how), the chow mein is served with a light sauce on the side. The portion is perfect – I could eat the whole dish in one sitting and be satisfied but not full, or if I had too many ham rolls I could bring the leftovers home for my omnivore husband.
I returned to Vinh Loi for lunch several times. On one occasion I branched out to try “the number 5,” a dry noodle salad favored by my companions, but mostly I ordered the same dish over and over, prompting Kevin, the owner, to nickname me “Chief Chow Mein.” The restaurant serves everything a traditional Vietnamese eatery does, but everything is made with this alarmingly delicious and realistic faux-meat.
Sigh. I’m sitting here sighing just thinking about it. It’s true love. As a devotee of the #2 meal at McDonald’s drive-thru for so many years, I just never thought it could happen. I would like to thank my coworkers and Kevin of Vinh Loi for making me a believer.
I still haven’t been brave enough to try the soy pudding or the fermented mushroom tea available in the refrigerator case or the Black Fungus in the little grocery section, but hey, this is quite a start.
This post is about my most memorable restaurant experience, which is most likely anyone’s most memorable restaurant experience ever, and I hope the folks at UpTake’s Restaurant page believe me, because then I will win.