The crowds attracted to Orange County Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants are a curious mix. Buddhist monks, environmental activists, animal protection agents and Harley-Davidson riders seem quite at home with a bowl of pho or a plate of spring rolls.
The reason: Faux meats never tasted so good.
Vegetarian diets are generally lower in fat, sodium and cholesterol than the average diet. Although meat usually is part of the Vietnamese diet, a few Vietnamese restaurants have infused the distinct aroma and flavors of Vietnam into their offerings--without the meat.
Two restaurants in particular specialize in vegetarian and vegan (no animal byproducts) dishes. Vien Huong restaurants in Westminster and Huntington Beach and Au Lac Restaurant in Fountain Valley have helped in the evolution of vegetarian cuisine from its days of bland blocks of tofu. Soy, it seems, is the best thing since sliced bread.
"A few years ago, you didn't have any options for vegetarians except for tofu," said Mai Nguyen, 44, who owns Au Lac. She and a partner opened the restaurant in 1996. "People were misled to believe that just eating tofu for protein instead of meat was not enough to provide them with energy for a busy daily life."
But Nguyen's discovered ways to add sizzle to her soy.
A few miles away in Westminster, Huong Pham also wanted to convince the skeptics.
"We have to be really inventive," said Huong Pham, 24, who helps run the family-owned Vien Huong restaurant in Westminster. Opened in 1990 as the first venue in Orange County to offer an entirely Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine, the business has grown and another location was added last year in Huntington Beach. Pham's mother, Kim Oanh Huynh, is the master chef who invents dishes and makes sauces.
The Vien Huong menu items have doubled from 100 to 200 gourmet dishes. It's difficult to tell the curry "chicken" isn't meat, with chunks of potatoes and shredded, poultry-like gluten filling the stew. The soy-based prawns with "lobster" sauce are so popular the restaurant sometimes runs out of stock. The ga roti is a rotisserie-style, textured-soy dish with chicken thigh-shaped pieces.
Most dishes are from the distinct northern, central or southern regions of Vietnam. They include the traditional, specialty beef noodle soup, pho; the spicy bun bo hue noodle dish; the stuffed rice dough banh bot loc; and crispy, golden-fried spring rolls.
The restaurants have long menu lists with familiar offerings such as house specials, appetizers, "beef," "chicken," "duckling" and "seafood." But the menus' disclaimers promise that all foods are meatless.
Soy, which is high in protein, and wheat gluten are common ingredients used to make the specialty dishes. Japanese soybean slices imitate beef slices; white seaweed mimics the fibrous tripe; ham and pork are made from mashed soybean protein; shrimp, fish and other seafood are actually a mix of soy, seaweed and braised bean curd; and "chicken" is soy protein fiber.
The transition from meat to vegetarian dishes wasn't easy. Pham's family changed to a low-sodium diet 12 years ago because her father received a kidney stone diagnosis. Since Pham and her mother used to cater to local Buddhist temples where the vegetarian diet was strict, they decided to expand the business into a restaurant.
The Little Saigon location in Westminster initially served a mostly Vietnamese clientele. As Buddhists, most Vietnamese customarily observe two to three days each month on the lunar calendar in which they must maintain a vegetarian diet called chay. On these days noted as ngay ram, the moon is at its brightest.
The restaurant owners say they are surprised at how the crowds have increased over the last five years. The restaurants attract an ethnically mixed clientele ranging from college-age students to seniors.
A growing number of Americans are part-time vegetarians, according to a poll taken this year by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a Baltimore-based nonprofit educational organization.
In 1999, 57% of respondents said they sometimes, often or always order vegetarian dishes at restaurants. Last year, that number jumped to 72%, the study found. About 2.5% of the U.S. population is fully vegetarian.
On the menu at Au Lac, the No. 55 is a grilled soy fish and dipping sauce served with a plate of mint leaves, relish and lettuce garnishes; a plate of rounded, rice paper; and a plate of vermicelli noodles. But the house special is the pho, the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Chunks of faux beef and thin slices of imitation pork sit atop a steaming bowl of noodles and vegetable broth scented with anise seeds. The secret is in the seasonings.
"I had to figure out why I was so addicted to pho, which is traditionally cooked with a lot of animal fat," said Nguyen, who eats pho three times a week and opted to become a vegetarian 10 years ago because she had high cholesterol.
She labored over the stove to re-create the essential aroma of pho. Her pho is made with anise seeds, garlic, onion, vegetable powder and soy protein. "We have a good crowd, not because of the spirituality, but their stomachs and appetites are full and happy without feeling like they've giving anything up," Nguyen said.
"I created the dishes one by one and made sure they satisfied me and tasted like the Vietnamese food I grew up with. Eating meat is a habit unless someone proves to you that there's something better that tastes just as good."
* Au Lac, Vietnamese Vegetarian/Vegan, 16563 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 418-0658.
* Vien Huong, Vietnamese Vegetarian/Vegan, 14092 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 373-1876.
* Vien Huong, 19171 Magnolia Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 964-5411.