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Meatless Miracles

San Gabriel's Vegetarian Delight serves up Chinese specialties with a tasty twist.

June 05, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chinese vegetarian food is healthful, tasty, cheap and downright fascinating. So why isn't it more popular? A man named S.T. Cheung became a foodie celebrity about a dozen years ago when he opened a vegetarian restaurant, the Fragrant Vegetable, in Monterey Park. In the late '80s, he expanded to the Westside. But within two years, both restaurants were out of business.

Vegetarian Delight might be even more accomplished than the Fragrant Vegetable was. It serves terrific food, and it has the added buzz of being located on the second level of the Southland's largest Chinese mall, sprawling San Gabriel Square. But even with these advantages, it faces an uphill struggle. Rents are high in this mall and business has been spotty. Most people evidently don't know what they're missing.

The cuisine is based on traditional recipes adapted from Chinese and Taiwanese Buddhist monks. Most Chinese Buddhists do not shun meat and only eat vegetarian on certain days of the month--or when they're on religious retreats at Buddhist monasteries. So clever monks discovered the art of using vegetable proteins like wheat gluten and soybean products to duplicate the taste and texture of meat and fish. They were amazingly successful at this.

Take a dish like this restaurant's vegetarian fish, which you can get either braised in a spicy sauce or broiled and sauced with a deliciously spicy bean paste. The "fish," cut into bite-sized pieces, is made from pressed bean sheets with a light, crisp bean curd "fish skin," and the flavor is remarkably reminiscent of the ocean--sweet, salty and tangy, with hints of iodine and seaweed. Or take General Tao's chicken: chunks of tofu, breaded, deep-fried and served in a sweet-sour sauce laced with red bell peppers and onions. It takes a major effort to remind yourself you are not really eating fried chicken.

Some dishes have names that may puzzle you. Vegetarian goose is so named because the pressed, dried bean curd that is its main ingredient has been shaped into a long, wrinkled roll--which resembles a goose neck. Eaten cold, in slices, this traditional appetizer has a dense feel and a smoky finish. "Hair in your dish" is a saute of tofu sheets, spongy brown hunks of fried wheat gluten and shredded black seaweed.

One of the best main dishes is roast vegetarian lion's head, which mimics a famous northern Chinese dish. This giant "meatball" made from vegetables, mushrooms and nuts is filling in itself--one nearly fills an entire rice bowl--and it comes with Napa cabbage and a thick brown sauce. Another dish I unfailingly order here is roast kau-fu: fried wheat gluten, braised black mushrooms, bamboo shoots and boiled green soybeans.

Vegetarian Delight does a good job with vegetable and rice dishes as well, using a minimum of oil in the preparations. The restaurant's excellent vegetable fried rice is flecked with green soybeans, corn, carrots and minced black mushroom. Other good ones are eggplant with basil leaves, dry-sauteed string beans, crisp fried tofu and the wonderfully pungent and exotic mustard greens with bamboo shoots (which the owner will ask you to reconsider at least two or three times before finally letting you order it).

Most of the noodle dishes are very good, especially zhajiang mian (spaghetti topped with a spicy sesame sauce). In mid-afternoon, the restaurant serves a number of snacks. Mei-kao is a light brown, baseball-sized clump of steamed millet and rice, partially obscured by a sweet, sticky red sauce. Vegetarian Shanghai-style steamed won tons are a dozen noodle pockets filled with chopped mushrooms and vegetables, blanketed in a tongue-searing dark brown paste of sesame and red chile.

You have to work a little to get jiong-zi, because they're only listed on the Chinese-language specials board. These sticky rice dumplings are stuffed with boiled peanuts, steamed chestnuts and black mushrooms and wrapped in lotus leaves. They're the perfect complement for the pots of strong tea on every table.

The dining room, incidentally, is pleasant and modest. Most tables have light green tablecloths and the walls are decorated with Chinese brush paintings. Lunch specials start as low as $3.99, and at dinner it is possible to order off a limited a la carte, all-you-can-eat menu for $9.99 per person.

BE THERE

Vegetarian Delight, 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel. (818) 288-2698. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Parking in lot. Takeout. Dinner for two, $13-$33.

What to Get: Chinese vegetarian goose, roast vegetarian lion's head, vegetarian fish in hot bean paste, mei-kao, mustard greens with bamboo shoots, jiong-zi.

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