22 NW 4th Ave.
One of the strangest aspects of a modern vegetarian diet is navigating the dicey realm of faux meat.
Accordingly, there are various camps of vegetarians/vegans who either love the art of meat fabrication or consider such tributes a sacrifice on the altar of human butchery. Either way, most vegetarians I know love fake meat. The appearances of places like Food Fight, and now Vegetarian House, are a crossroads where supply meets demand. Indeed, considering all the fake meat eaters at this newspaper, the battle to be the one to pen this very review was ironically a near bloodbath itself.
Vegetarian House's menu has abundant choices, including the familiar combinations of vegetables, rice, and tofu that vegetarians know from the 10-item list we're usually relegated to when eating at a Chinese-American restaurant. The difference here, specifically the source of the buzz, are the 50-plus menu items featuring "beef," "chicken," "fish," or "shrimp." Everything on the menu with an animal's name is entirely vegetable-based. In order to check my own enthusiasm for such mock delicacies, members of both the vegan and carnivore sects also sampled the House's dinners with scrutiny.
The appetizers came in the way of potstickers and crab Rangoon. The potstickers arrived hot and fresh, browned but not greasy. I heard someone say, "If I could eat these all the time, I would never eat meat potstickers again." Indeed, the content of these golden pockets of joy was indiscernible from their usual pork filling. The Rangoon, while delicious, suffered by comparison. I noted a mysterious absence of crab, and an overabundance of plain cream cheese. I found my energy rewarded more triumphantly by focusing on the potstickers.
Next came the most generously assembled hot & sour soup any person at the table had tasted in their lives. Vegetarian House's hot & sour soup is refreshingly un-cornstarchy, has plenty of arboreal fungus, and offers a friendly, peppery ambiance in a place where I expected none.
Each of the piping hot entrées arrived without question as to which meat they feigned. We agreed that the veggie beef with tangy sauce was delicious, but the "meat" seemed more like a marinated glutenous noodle than cow flesh. While still exceedingly edible, a cutlet or slice presentation would have been preferable. Similarly, the fish in hot bean sauce didn't seem quite like its aquatic counterpart, but in cutlet form, with a flaky texture, lifelike flavor, and a seaweed skin, it was consumed ravenously anyway. Also from the "ocean" came the curry shrimp. Of all the "meats," these come closest to mimicking the real thing. Shape, texture, and the appearance of a mock vein contributed to the illusion, while the curry sauce offered a thick, creamy blanket of spiciness to complete the veil. The final entrée to arrive did not mimic a known beast at all, unless a tofu hushpuppy counts as meat. Made of hand-formed balls of cornmeal, then fried, these hushpuppies were utterly delicious and rounded out a great meal with their ping-pong ball-sized, golden-fried tastiness.
With a $5.95 lunch buffet and the cleanest environs in Old Town, props must be given to this truly inspired restaurant, and especially the waitstaff, whose keen perception guided us away from ordering three items with the same sauce. At present the question is not "Will you eat at Vegetarian House?" but rather, "How often?"