When my mom swung into town recently for her monthly business trip, she requested that we dine at a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in vegetarian fare. While my mom is normally a happy omnivore, she was abstaining from meat for the first month of the Lunar New Year. A quick search on Yelp yielded Veggie Life Restaurant in South El Monte—an area of town with a heavy concentration of Vietnamese Americans.
From the second we walked into the eatery, we knew we were in for a treat. Like all of the area’s great Vietnamese restaurants, this one had a comfortable and informal vibe that reminded me of Saigon—food prep was taking place on tables unoccupied by diners and the staff greeted us with smiles.
The key to excellent Vietnamese vegetarian fare is a killer mock nuoc cham (fish sauce based vinaigrette). Veggie Life’s nuoc cham really hit the mark, especially when doused atop our starter, the goi ngo sen (lotus stem salad). Our favorite elements of the salad were the generous amounts of fresh herbs and the chewy strands of agar.
For my main course, I chose the chef’s “six delights” rice platter. Count ‘em!
The six delights included lemongrass “beef,” “chicken” drumstick, “pork” loaf, tofu skin wrapped “meat,” “fish” loaf, and thinly shredded “pork.” I am an all-around fan of mock meats and thus enjoyed this compilation platter very much, especially the tofu skin roll and the drumstick. The portions at Veggie Life are livin’ large, so The Astronomer had to help me finish it.
My rice platter was served with a hot bowl of nuoc leo—a simple vegetable stock.
My mom indulged in a tasty bowl of bun bo Hue—a spicy beef noodle soup from the city of Hue. It’s hard to match the robust flavors of meaty bun bo, but this veggie version held it’s own. Fresh lemongrass provided the bulk of the broth’s flavors.
The Astronomer surprised us all by ordering banh xeo—Vietnamese crepe stuffed with mushrooms and bean sprouts. The banh xeo was served with huge lettuce leaves for wrapping, a plethora of herbs for garnishing, and a bowl of nuoc cham for dipping. The Astronomer was very happy with his selection and wrapped, garnished, and dipped his banh xeo like a seasoned veteran. I thought that the banh xeo was really oily, but I must admit that banh xeo wouldn’t quite be banh xeo if it didn’t leave one’s hands and lips glistening with slick grease.
Veggie Life Restaurant
9324 Garvey Ave #B
South El Monte, CA 91733