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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

Vien Huongs' Grand Illusions

May 23, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

Buddhist temple cooking, first practiced by abstinent monks, is entirely vegetarian. Almost every country in Asia has its own interpretation.

I've had several examples of the genre while traveling in Asia myself, such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, and the depth of imagination involved in its preparation never ceases to amaze me.

The Koreans overwhelm you with a wide variety of grains and wild mountain vegetables. The Chinese do it through their canny cooking techniques, creating replicas of seafood, meat and poultry out of beans, glutens and other ingredients. It's all dazzling fare, equal parts art, science and magic.

But with Vien Huong I and II, Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in Santa Ana and Westminster respectively, it's the magic that you remember. Chef Kim Huynh must be a sorceress to produce these 100-odd items from her native repertoire. And the real trick is that they all taste tremendous.

It's hard to believe that Kim, a young woman with two teen-age children, could have developed all these recipes by herself, but apparently she did. She modestly says that she learned how to cook this way from her mother. Her husband, Pham, says she taught herself so he wouldn't get another kidney stone.

Vien Huong I, the older and smaller of her restaurants, looks and sounds no different from the hundreds of eating emporiums lining the main thoroughfare of Little Saigon (the street on which it is located, West 1st Street in Santa Ana, is a continuation of Bolsa Avenue in Westminster). It's a bright, boxy storefront where comfort is minimal, and Vietnamese language versions of pop tunes such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" play incessantly on the speaker system.

Communication is a slight problem. If you're lucky, one of Kim's children, son Quoc or daughter Huong (the restaurants are named for her), will be around to help. They are native speakers of English, but like most teen-agers, somewhat reluctant to describe Mom's food. They just eat it.

Bi cuon and bo bia are two of the many ways to begin a meal here. Bi cuon are fresh rice paper rolls with shredded pork, and bo bia are kissin' cousins, sauteed on the outside and filled with shrimp and chicken.

Kim's rice rolls contain fresh noodles, mint, cilantro, bean sprouts and the meat substitutes. The only detectable difference is a certain lightness--in taste, texture and appearance, they are identical to the ones that contain meat. The mock pork, colored red and spiced appropriately, really tastes like pork. Ditto the mock shrimp and mock chicken. Dip the rolls in the sweet sauce they are served with, a clear liquid infused with carrot, radish and crushed peanuts. They are wonderful.

That, you soon discover, is mere sleight of hand compared to what is to follow. Luon um, which the menu calls "eel with special sauce," is one of the most incredible dishes I've ever seen in a restaurant. Kim uses a mixture of gluten and bean curd skin to reproduce her "eel." The slippery exterior is made from the bean curd and has been blackened with natural ingredients. The crunchy inside is made from gluten.

The "eel" is then sliced into scallop-sized pieces, and served with bean thread noodles, crunchy frizzled onions and a creamy gravy made from coconut milk, lemon grass and other spices. It tastes and feels remarkably close to nature's handiwork. A hot bean paste on the side makes it even more convincing.

Then there's the combination hot pot, a doughnut-shaped soup tureen with a butane flame shooting out of the center. When you lift the cover, you see a beautiful rainbow of foodstuffs: Baby corn, snow peas, slices of "pork" pate, white chunks of soybean "chicken," pale orange strips of "cuttlefish," little brown "meatballs," cubes of tofu and more wizardry. The "meatballs" have the same peppery tang and otherworldly crunch as the spongy meatballs the Vietnamese put in many of their soups. The "cuttlefish" may lack the fishy pungency of its real-life counterpart, but in color and texture its authenticity takes your breath away. How it's done is a mystery.

It's not always this dramatic. Some of her dishes work well because of less sophisticated effects such as simple distraction. Ga xao xa ot, for example--a spicy "chicken" with lemon grass--is spiced so exotically and perfumed so strongly that you hardly notice the bean curd sheets that have been substituted for real chicken.

Tom sot chua cay, in my view the least believable illusion on this menu, comes to you under the guise of a long brown dragon of breaded tofu, and tastes little like the spicy shrimp its name implies. But the red sweet-and-sour sauce in which the "shrimp" is masked is so intense, you can't taste what you are eating anyway.

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