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Veggie World's Flavorful Fakes

Animal product replacements look like the real thing and pass the taste test.

November 05, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" soared up the bestseller charts, I thought it might promote interest in our better vegetarian restaurants. To judge by the sparse crowd at Veggie World, however, this hasn't happened.

Admittedly, Veggie World is handicapped by a misleading name. It's not the dull natural-foods emporium you might expect, but a highly evolved Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant where animal products happen to be replaced by tofu, wheat gluten, rice powder and mushrooms.

You might not even realize this at first. Many of Veggie World's dishes look exactly like their fish, meat and poultry counterparts. That alone is an impressive achievement, but better yet, just about everything here also tastes very, very good.

The place has a peaceful, almost bucolic feeling, despite being located on a busy suburban thoroughfare, right across from Rosemead High School. The interior is filled with Chinese paintings and carved statues of Buddha. The tables are set with white cloths, individually wrapped plastic chopsticks and tall vases sprouting silk flowers.

One evening I sat next to a table of Buddhist monks and marveled at the silent grace with which they ate their meal. The quiet, though, made me acutely aware of the drone of Chinese music in the background. The repetitive music made one of my dining companions edgy, but some people probably find it soothing.

Veggie World's large menu reads like a typical Vietnamese cafe menu, complete with the usual noodle dishes, rice casseroles and main courses. For instance, there are Vietnamese spring rolls (cha gio)--little deep-fried dumplings with a dense stuffing of rice noodles, gluten and cabbage, which tastes remarkably like pork or crab filling. They're even better when you wrap them up in lettuce leaves with bean sprouts, mint, basil and hot green chiles.

Then there's a great vegetarian version of the Chinese New Year's dish minced squab in lettuce. Its fried filling of gluten, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pine nuts is served in lettuce leaves smeared with a particularly intense dark plum sauce.

The delicious soups are less likely to perform visual tricks, relying instead on intense flavors. Veggie crab and asparagus soup is loaded with bits of chopped asparagus; very tasty, though anything resembling crab flavor would be hard to detect. At lunch, you can get bun rieu, a sweet-and-sour soup of tomatoes and skinny Vietnamese noodles. The only soup I don't heartily recommend is Vietnamese spinach and shrimp soup. The spinach has a mulched quality, and the broth is thin and watery.

Many of the main dishes are truly like rabbits from a hat, if you'll forgive the metaphor. The Peking duck is fried pressed bean curd, but, amazingly, the anise-scented "skin" has the exact crunchy texture of real duck skin. You eat it on steamed buns smeared with plum sauce. Tiny pieces of cooked broccoli are served in place of the usual green onions (Veggie World eschews garlic and onions as well as meat).

I'm suitably impressed with Veggie World's fried fish with ginger sauce, an amazing simulacrum of sea bass made from pressed bean curd. Likewise the dry-sauteed string beans, which would ordinarily be tossed with minced pork; here they're sauteed with pickled radish, a salty, pungent condiment that accentuates the natural sweetness of fresh green beans.

I've saved the best for last. Com tay cam, a Vietnamese rice casserole, is baked in a clay pot until the concoction of bamboo shoots, carrots, mushrooms and minced ginger that lines the pot is crisp and sizzling. And the rice that covers the vegetables is fluffy and fragrant.

There are no desserts at Veggie World, apart from a complimentary platter of orange slices, but there is a sizable list of good drinks to accompany the meal. Nuoc dua, served in a fresh coconut, is young coconut juice, a most refreshing beverage. You can also get a sweet-salty preserved plum on ice, fresh lemon soda or fresh orange juice squeezed to order, served on cracked ice.

Veggie World is my idea of vegetarian cooking for everyone, anyway.

BE THERE

Veggie World, 9016 Mission Drive, Rosemead. (626) 237-0162. Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; dinner, 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. No alcohol. Takeout. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $18-$35.

What to get: Veggie spring roll, com tay cam, minced squab in lettuce, Peking duck, dry-sauteed string beans.

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