Archive for the 'Mon An Chay' Category

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Veggie Life Restaurant – South El Monte

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 Huea 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
Phone: 626-443-8687

Veggie Life Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Veggie Life Restaurant in Los Angeles

San Diego Tết Festival

The Astronomer and I drove down to San Diego this weekend to celebrate Tết with my family. In Vietnam, the entire country shuts down for over a week in order for families to gather and celebrate. It was beyond grand last year taking off several weeks of work to eat, drink and be merry, but it looks like this Tết I’m going to have to settle for a measly weekend. Oh, cultural norms…

We woke up early this morning to go to the temple. Instead of having a traditional Buddhist ceremony, the temple organized a festive raffle. I won a book about Africa, while Cousin Jimmy won a jade dragon wall hanging. My grandparents didn’t win a prize, but I awarded them Best Dressed honors.

After the Tết raffle, firecrackers were lit!

Before heading to the San Diego Tết Festival, we ate com chay (vegetarian lunch) at the temple. Many Buddhists refrain from eating meat during the first month of the New Year.

As we entered the Tết Festival at Balboa Park, we were greeted by a bunch of veteran carnies. We thought we had made a wrong turn until we ran into Cho Ben Thanh. Whew!

The number of Vietnamese food vendors present at the festival was pretty limited considering how many Vietnamese restaurants there are in the city. Regardless, the smell of grilled pork permeated the festival air.

Cousin Jimmy was in the mood for a banh mi and procured one soon after we arrived. Even though the sandwich was pre-made and the bread was soft rather than crisp, Cousin Jimmy still thought that it was good eats. The Astronomer went for a tall cup of nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) to start. The nuoc mia was refreshing, but too sweet because the vendor failed to squeeze in a bit of citrus like they do in Vietnam.

To accompany his nuoc mia, The Astronomer purchased some banh khot, which were served with greens, herbs and nuoc cham on the side. The banh khot were soggy in the center and tasted like banh xeo. Texturally, banh khot should be crisper and more wafer-like.

While we ate, a faux wedding procession came through.  The costumes made me feel like I was at the Citadel in Hue.

A wedding isn’t a wedding without a roasted piglet.

The highlight of our afternoon at the festival was the lion dance. The footwork was cool, but the rhythm of the drums is the coolest.

Chúc mừng năm mới! Happy New Year!

Hương Viên – Ho Chi Minh City


About one year ago, two things that are loosely related took place. First, my pants stopped fitting. And second, The Astronomer and I discovered Hương Viên (101 Vuon Chuoi Street, District 3, Phone: 8327115), a local spot serving vegetarian Vietnamese food. Do you see where this story’s headed?

It turned out that my first month of living in Saigon was a little too decadent and as a result, those sky blue pants that I liked so much were a bit tight around the waist. To get things back to right, The Astronomer and I spent many lunches the following months dining next to Buddhist monks and nuns downing meatless fare.

Even after the pants ordeal passed, The Astronomer and I continued to dine at Hương Viên because aside from being healthy, their food is genuinely good. Hương Viên, like a lot of veggie restaurants in town, has a pretty hefty menu. So even though we ate here a lot, we barely made a dent in the offerings. Here are Hương Viên’s greatest hits, and a couple of misses too.


Xoi Ga (4,000 VND) – One of my all-time favorite dishes at Hương Viên was their savory sticky rice. The portion size was just right and the “pate” and “pork floss” tasted like the real deal. Coulda fooled me!


Com Thap Cam (10,000 VND) – The Astronomer and I also really liked the rice platter topped with four different tofu and mock meat dishes. The composition changed every day depending on what dishes were on hand. This platter cost a measly 7,000 VND when we first started dining at Hương Viên but crept up to 10,000 VND by the end of our stay.  Inflation is something we definitely don’t miss about Vietnam.


Com Thit Xa Xieu (8,000 VND) –  Of all the mock meat and tofu dishes, the “barbecued meat” was one of the best.



Vegetables – Nothing complements a hearty plate of rice like stir-fried vegetables. The vegetable selection changed daily, and it was difficult to make a bad choice. The chayote (Xu Xao – 4,000 VND), okra (Dau Bap – 3,000 VND) and green beans (Dau Cu Ve – 6,000 VND) were all great.


Goi Ngo Sen (6,000 VND) – The lotus root salad was another excellent side, but The Astronomer and I had to keep our eyeballs peeled for camouflaged chilies. Orange colored chilies are the trickiest, especially with carrots in the dish.



Although their rice plates were stellar, Hương Viên had more difficulty transforming classic Vietnamese noodle soups into tasty vegetarian fare. The Hu Tieu Bo Kho (top left – 12,000 VND) and Mi Sa Te (top right – 10,000 VND) were bland, a little watery and tasted nothing like their meaty renditions. The one noodle soup that Hương Viên nailed was Bun Ca Ri Ga (bottom – 15,000 VND).

Hương Viên’s pho (left – 12,000 VND) was also a massive failure. The best vegetarian pho that we encountered in Saigon was at Pho Chay Nhu. The Banh Xeo (10,000 VND), on the other hand, was awesome! Lots of bean sprouts and pieces of mock meat. Didn’t miss the pork and shrimp one bit.


Bun Thit Xao – vermicelli rice noodles with stir-fried beef (12,000 VND) and banh hoi thit nuong – steamed rice noodle cakes with grilled meat (not pictured) were solid efforts. Hương Viên’s nuoc mam sauce is pretty darn similar to the ones that use actual fish sauce.


Hoanh Thanh (12,000 VND) – The wonton soup is another notable broth dish. The “meat” filling inside the wrappers taste nothing like pork and shrimp, but I kinda liked them nevertheless.


Hương Viên‘s Canh Chua – (sour soup – 4,000 VND) was good, but not as tempting as the one served a few stores down at Giac Duc. Both varieties of buns, steamed (Banh Bao – 6,000 VND) and baked (Banh Bao Nuong – 4,000 VND), were lovely little bites, but not so amazing that we felt compelled to order them on every visit like the sticky rice and rice platters.

Phở Chay – Vegetarian Phở

My mom prepares this vegetarian version of pho on auspicious days according to the Lunar Calendar when all Buddhists refrain from eating meat. The broth is fragrant with star anise and five spice, while the “meat” is comprised of mushrooms and wheat gluten.

For noodles

  • 1 package of fresh or dried banh pho (flat rice noodles). Prepare according to directions on package. Make sure to rinse noodles well under cold running water after boiling.

For broth

  • 1 leek (leaves only)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 ginger
  • 5 star anise
  • 14 oz. vegetable broth
  • Water
  • ¾ tablespoon Chinese five spice
  • Soy sauce (Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce)
  • Sugar

For “meat”

  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 leek (stem only)
  • 1 ten oz. can of mock meat/fried wheat gluten (mock duck, chicken, abalone, etc.)
  • 8 oz. sliced mushrooms (any variety)
  • Soy sauce (Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce)
  • Mushroom seasoning
  • Black pepper

Make soup

For the soup, heat vegetable broth and 10-12 cups of water in a medium-sized soup pot, leaving enough room for the ginger, onion and leek leaves.

Remove the outer layer of the onion and add it whole to the broth. Leaving the skin of the ginger intact, chop off the nubs and bruise using a mortar and pestle. Add to broth. Separate the leek leaves from the stems and add them to the broth along with five star anise “fruits.” Let the soup boil on high heat for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the onion and ginger have softened.

Once the onion and ginger have softened, discard the leek leaves. Add ¾ tablespoon of Chinese five spice to the broth and season with soy sauce and sugar to taste. Continue to cook on medium heat for an additional 15 minutes.

Make “meat” mixture

While the soup is boiling, thinly slice the leek stems and chop the mushrooms and mock meat into bite-sized pieces. Deep-fried tofu can be used in place of mock meat if desired.

Saute the leeks with vegetable oil in a medium-sized pan until golden. Add the mushrooms and “meat” to the leek and oil mixture along with half of the canned mock meat “juice.” Season to taste with soy sauce, mushroom seasoning and black pepper. Tip: My mom says to make the “meat” mixture slightly salty because the broth will balance out the excess saltiness.

Assemble and garnish

Grab a bowl and fill it with noodles and the “meat” mixture. Pour some hot broth on top. To garnish, add fresh or steamed bean sprouts, onions, cilantro, lime juice, herbs (basil, saw tooth herb, etc.), hoisin sauce and chili sauce.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


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