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A No-Meat Feat

At Lotus Cafe, veggies masquerade as tasty Chinese-style beef.

March 20, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Chinese vegetarian tradition is based on the requirements of Buddhist monasteries and on Chinese court protocol requirements that the emperor eat periodic meatless meals. The result was a repertoire of rather convincing imitations of Chinese meat dishes (meat or no meat, the emperor was bound to eat well) using wheat gluten, tofu, mushrooms, nuts, yam paste and soybean flour.

This style of cooking has been a tough sell on these shores. The restaurant that introduced it to the Southland, the Fragrant Vegetable in Monterey Park, enjoyed success for the better part of a decade before eventually losing steam and going out of business.

The leading proponent of Asian vegetarian cooking in Orange County has been Vien Huong in Little Saigon, which serves classic Vietnamese dishes revised along the same lines as Chinese vegetarian food.

But now Orange boasts the highly accomplished Lotus Cafe, staffed by chefs and management from Taiwan, a country with a rich history of Buddhist temple cooking. Most Chinese Buddhists are periodic vegetarians--eschewing meat only on certain days of the month--and never really lose the craving for meat. Some of the Buddhist imitation "meats" are truly stunning.

Lotus Cafe's appearance belies the unique experience; it could easily pass for a coffee shop in Carson. It's a spacious room full of long, black vinyl booths, with tall windows facing onto Chapman Avenue and ceiling fans twirling overhead. All that hints at the delicate, unusual food to come is the presence of an enormous Chinese calligraphic poster and a glass hutch filled with cloisonne work, tiny teapots and other Chinese tchotchkes.

You could start a meal with dim sum snacks, also good on their own with afternoon tea. Shao loong bao are round, moist Shanghai-style dumplings filled with minced soybean "pork." You dip them in a light ginger sauce. Siu mai is another sort of dumpling, a bite-sized type open at the top and stuffed with a delicious filling of peas, sweet rice and mushrooms. Both taste remarkably close to their non-vegetarian prototypes.

The vegetarian "chicken," cooked like paper-wrapped chicken (in aluminum foil, not parchment, as is usual these days), is made from wheat gluten. It has the same strong soy and ginger flavoring as the familiar ground chicken version.

Eggplant Delight tastes rather Middle Eastern, but the dish would be welcome in any context. It's eggplant puree mixed with whole pine nuts, lemon juice and olive oil (the last distinctly un-Chinese, though up-to-date Taiwanese health foodies are probably into it). The presentation is rounded out by thousand-layer buns, a steamed bread deep fried so that it pulls apart in layers like a dinner roll.

These snacks are sophisticated, but the kitchen unveils its real magic with the main dishes. Sichuan fish filet (soy bean powder, seaweed and tofu) comes as dense, thin slices that look almost exactly like fish, complete with a light "fish skin" fashioned of dried bean curd. The dish is highlighted by a spicy bean sauce embellished with fresh peas and carrots.

Our waitress was dead on when she insisted we order the hot wok soy beef. "You won't be able to tell the difference between this dish and real beef," she said proudly. We didn't believe her, but, boy, were we wrong. The tender chunks of "beef" come in a terrific sauce made with red and green sweet peppers, numbingly hot Sichuan fagara pepper and salty fermented black soybeans.

Not all the dishes try to look or taste like meat. Many play it straight, such as the sauteed string beans, the shiitake mushrooms with bok choy and the eggplant with basil. They're cooked with hints of garlic, splashes of flavorful sauces and a minimum of oil.

Bland old tofu is given the spicy treatment here, served either Sichuan-style in a spicy bean sauce or as kung pao tofu, sauteed in oil with peanuts and hot peppers. You can also get dried tofu sheets, a popular foodstuff in Taiwan. Try the dried tofu stir-fried with nappa cabbage or combined with biting Chinese mustard greens.

Soups and hot pots are another route to travel. Vegi-shrimp ball soup may not fool you into believing you are eating shrimp, but this combination of nappa cabbage, fresh mushrooms and rubbery mock shrimp balls--made from seaweed, soy bean flour, red yams and wheat gluten--is a tasty catch.

One of the heartiest main dishes is hot pot soy meat ball, featuring massive "meatballs" made of mixed vegetables, mushrooms and nuts (along the lines of the famous "lion's head" meatballs of northern China), wrapped in leaves of nappa cabbage. It's a rich, satisfying creation.

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