A cuisine centered around fish sauce and shrimp paste doesn't exactly lend itself to the meatless treatment. But the folks at Quan Yin Vegan Restaurant don't seem to mind. For years, they've been serving up Vietnamese food without the flesh. Well, not just Vietnamese food. I was very nearly enticed into trying vegan chicken fried steak when I visited last week. (Maybe next time?) But dishes span global traditions from Indonesian chicken satay to Chinese kung pao chicken to whoever it was that invented meatloaf.
But the bulk of the menu is Vietnamese, and every dish is written in both Vietnamese and English, along with a photo to let diners know what to expect from each of the 86 dishes. Can't conjure a visual of vegan braised fish yourself? There's a picture to assist you.
I was most compelled by the classic dishes. Spring and summer rolls, filled with vegan ham and barbecued pork, respectively, were uncommonly fresh, bursting with lush basil leaves among the slippery rice noodles and salty faux flesh. The sweet-and-salty peanut sauce wasn't half bad, either.
Similarly toothsome barbecue beef was the centerpiece of the bun thit nuong. As a beef bun, the dish was about average, though the sweet "beef" was more flavorful than many versions, and veggies, though meager, were uncommonly fresh. As a vegan beef bun, it was an impressive feat, complete with a side of fish sauce that tasted only a notch or two less funky than the real thing. If only a language barrier hadn't stood in the way of finding out how they do it!
A significant portion of the menu was reserved for "family soup," broths served in bubbling metal hot pots. I was most curious about the canh chua tom, a sweet-and-sour shrimp soup I've seen before but never tried. Was the vegan version the best way to test it? Maybe not, but I doubt it was much different from the real thing.
The shrimp had the same wiggly, slick texture and translucent sheen of the real deal, with stripes of red on the outside to further the illusion. They even tasted briny. But the explosive flavor of the broth, dotted with tomatoes, okra, celery and lots of bean sprouts, was the star. Sour, yes, but in ideal balance with the understated, fruit-like sweetness. If this represented all vegan dining, I would be among the first in line.