Meat is more important to me than it is to most people. I didn't train as a butcher as a mere goof, after all. And yet, the last three days, my lunches were vegan—by choice—courtesy of a single meal purchased at San San Tofu on Wilcrest. Still, it would be hard to argue that the flesh-free repasts weren't meaty. They were, and gloriously so.
The tofu manufacturer, installed in an extra-large space replete with grocery and cafeteria-style restaurant, doesn't limit its offerings to "firm" or "silken." Take, for example, the gỏi cuốn at right. They're solid Vietnamese spring rolls in their own right, bursting with soft rice noodles and basil. But one side is layered with lightly caramelized slices of imitation pork, while the other reveals slippery morsels of startlingly convincing fake shrimp.
Those and a few other items—including "pork" buns and vegan barbecue chicken—wait on counters. The rest of the menu must be ordered at the cafeteria-style line manned by a lineup of ladies who are exceptionally friendly, but not exceptionally comfortable with English. A menu posted to the sneeze guard lists a range of soups, mostly approximations of seafood potages such as hủ tiếu, and a price list for combo lunch plates, which top out at $6.75 for three dishes and fried rice.
Of particular interest, a note at the bottom explains that the food served is chay, a sort of Buddhist equivalent to Indian Sattvic cuisine. Not only does a chay diet exclude all animal products, it also bans root vegetables, onions and garlic. But somehow, the flavors at San San succeed despite those constraints.
San San's most impressive feat of mimicry is its range of dim sum delicacies. Gingery siu mai crunch with water chestnuts. The chopped filling of the ham sui gok (fried pork dumplings) looks almost suspiciously authentic. The taro puffs, a little less light than ideal, still impress with a five-spice-seasoned filling that undeniably approximates cha siu. I can't wait to introduce my vegetarian friends to the wonders of dim sum.
The almost alchemical transformation of soy into flesh takes many forms in the steam trays. Sweet soy-sauce-flavored fish is created by wrapping tofu with nori for a shiny black skin and marine flavor. While some stir-fries are dotted with bacon-like chunks of crisp, salty faux meat, there are also plenty that simply include the smooth tofu cubes most of us expect when we see the word. But not every chunk is so uniform; one braise, spicy with pickled mustard greens, centers around bites of tofu that break into toothsome shreds so close to chicken it might make real vegetarians uncomfortable.
For this meat lover, it was a revelation. And for a $26 investment for two people, I continued to eat a vegan buffet of leftovers all weekend. And if San San's cuisine had that kind of lasting effect on me, there's hope for us all.