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The Weekly Eater

New eatery shares joy of meat-free dining

    Aurora Baroza, above, food server at the Simple Joy restaurant on South King Street, delivers an order of Clay Pot Sensation to a lunch customer.
    Clay Pot Sensation
    Baroza holds a serving of a bean curd roll.

You’ve read about people who’ve struck it rich in their youth and foundered for lack of what to do with their money. Well, I’ve been poor for so long that I’ve had quite a while to think about what I would do if I were to suddenly hit the jackpot.

It’s not so much stuff that I would want. Most Americans have too much stuff in their lives. Aside from charitable interests, the two luxuries I would want the most are a driver, because driving is such a chore, and a personal chef.

I’ve always envied celebs like Oprah and Madonna, who employ personal chefs to cook them healthful meals. It’s easy to throw a slab of meat on a grill and call it dinner. It seems unfair that while most people would like to eat more healthful and sustainable meals, vegetarian fare — beyond salads — requires more effort to put on the table.

It’s starting to look like I don’t have to wait to strike it rich now that so many vegetarian restaurants have opened around town. It’s a good thing. Through establishments I’ve already covered — like Hale, Loving Hut and Peace Cafe — the Asian community has taken the lead on something I’ve repeatedly written is long overdue.

The newest entry is Simple Joy, on King Street between Pensacola and Piikoi streets, run by the Pham clan. Simple Joy has the most extensive menu of the newbies to date. Not content to offer just one style of cuisine, the menu features Vietnamese, Italian- and American-style dishes, with varying degrees of success. The restaurant maintains simple, spare decor, to suit its mission of sustainable pursuits.

For many dishes, you’d be hard pressed to find anything "different" about them. If you didn’t know this was vegetarian cuisine, for instance, you wouldn’t think twice about crispy spring rolls ($4.75) filled with a mix of veggies and rice noodles. Neither would you miss the pork in vegetable pot stickers ($4.25). One thing I’m not ordering again, though, is the homemade bean curd roll ($4.25). I was imagining something close to what Chinese restaurants offers as dim sum, but here, the bean curd is formed into a sort of milky, rubbery sausage that’s served cold. Someone out there might like it, but it’s a big no for me.

As much as we know about nutrition today, I can’t tell you how many people tell me they refuse to eat anything green. I think vegetables and fruits are wonderful in their own right so I’ve never cared for the idea of meat impostors — soy and vegetable proteins charading in meat-like forms. But the closer they get to matching the textures of meat, the more I find myself warming to them. At any rate, they offer a nice transition for those leery of vegetables.

In fact, many are puzzled when they first open the menu and find such dishes as "Sicilian Chickun" and "Shrim Piccata," one letter off to denote these aren’t really chicken or shrimp, but it was just confusing enough to have me going, "Wait, isn’t this all supposed to be vegetarian food?" I heard others in the restaurant ask the same question.

Rest assured that no animals were killed for the sake of your meal, but vegetarian cuisine has advanced beyond the mushy, curdy texture that marked soy-based creations of the past. The chickun — made with a mix of soy protein and wheat flour — actually has the look of chicken tossed with your choice of linguine, fettuccine or penne in a dish of puttanesca ($9.75), and while I expected to bite into something lightweight, the chickun has a density and chewiness approximating meat. It was a little surreal.

Ditto the yam-root concoction pressed into shrimp-like forms and striped with orange coloring to approximate the look of shrimp. The bouncy texture is that of overcooked shrimp, but the sweet flavor hits the spot in a dish of shrimp scampi ($9.55), a boon to those worried about their cholesterol levels.

Starters include tofu, sweet and sour, minestrone or pumpkin soup ($4.25 each). The pumpkin soup was not a creamy one, but coconut-based with a dice of pumpkin.

A slice of vegetable lasagna ($8.25) doesn’t have the richness of a true Italian lasagna, but that’s because it doesn’t contain the oil and cheese that would turn it into a heart attack on a plate.

One dish that did have oil was the unusual roasted platter, with soy protein and bread combined and fried to imitate the crisp fat and texture of deep-fried pork. It was interesting to taste, but like fried pork itself, seemed too decadent to pig out on. This is served with garlic spinach and your choice of white or brown rice.

Just as the mock pork was flavored with five spice, there’s an Asian flavor aesthetic throughout. So the Philly sandwich ($7.95) bears little resemblance to what most of us would expect. Without cheese, but with bell peppers and onions, it’s a stir-fry in sandwich form. But the fries are all-American.

I don’t consider the "misses" to be like other misses. It just takes adjustment to go from a meat-eater’s to a vegetarian’s mindset. I’d like to see more Western diet-inspired vegetarian restaurants open, but with the presence of this and the other new restaurants, I feel I can eat more healthfully without much sacrifice.

That means I can swap out my desire for a personal chef for one other wish. I once read that Christina Aguilera employs a masseuse to give her massages whenever she feels the slightest pain. Add a personal masseuse to my list.


Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail

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