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Eat, pray, love at cozy vegan restaurant

Update: March, 11/2013 - 02:04
All set:Loving Hut offers a balanced, healthy meal for the price of a bowl of street food.

Good vegetarian fare is hard to find at the best of times, more so in Viet Nam where meat consumption has increased 110 per cent in the last 10 years. However, Elisabeth Rosen discovers a spot that puts a vegan spin on classic Vietnamese dishes.

Morsels of tender beef jostle for space with faintly charred curls of mellow onion, all of it piled on a bovine-shaped iron skillet. While bo bit tet translates literally as "beef steak," the dish is more like Korean barbecue than your average porterhouse, although its juiciness could rival any imported Western cut.

But wait: this isn't beef.

The cozy vegan restaurant on Quan Thanh Street is the third Ha Noi outpost of a global empire founded by Ching Hai, the 53-year-old was reportedly born to a Vietnamese mother and an ethnic Chinese father in Quang Ngai Province. More than 200 franchises from New York to Shanghai offer inexpensive meatless food that purports to nourish the soul as well as the body.

As the chain expanded, someone made the shrewd marketing decision that each

Meatless magic:Vegetables shine in asalad of gluten "chicken" and fresh herbs.

Loving Hut should feature the local cuisine. This means that in New York City, you'll find burgers and quesadillas, with the only Asian-inflected option a "mildly spicy Thai curry", while in China, the menu is heavy on dumplings and noodles.

In Ha Noi, vegan versions of Vietnamese classics - summer rolls, boiled chicken, bun bo nam bo - stick as closely to those time-tested favourites as they do to your ribs.

You wouldn't quite mistake the meat at Loving Hut for the real thing. It's a bit chewier, a touch less fibrous. But in many cases, this represents an improvement over the original. Order boiled chicken in a bia hoi (draught beer shop), and you'll be forced to contend with layers of fat, gristle and slippery skin. In contrast, Loving Hut's wheat gluten chicken is pure protein, a master at absorbing whatever sauce it comes into contact with.

In cold appetisers, where herbs traditionally play a starring role, you barely miss the meat. Bun tron (VND30,000), or rice vermicelli salad, might elsewhere be topped with beef. But it feels just as vibrant adorned with strips of gluten and the bright crunch of fresh lettuce. The same goes for summer rolls (nem cuon, VND7,000) and ga tron rau ram (VND55,000), an addictive dish of gluten strips thrown together with Vietnamese coriander and crunchy peanuts in a snappy dressing.

Warm dishes present a more significant obstacle. It's difficult to approximate the juicy tenderness of beef, or the more delicate texture of chicken. Even harder is to convince diners that a meat substitute can compete with the real thing. But Loving Hut rises to the occasion. Thrown onto its cow-shaped skillet, bo bit tet (VND65,000) has a uncannily meaty texture. So do mushrooms, cut in thick strips and heaped into a wok with lemongrass, onion and the stray red chili (nam dong co xao sa ot, VND55,000).

Don't try to order beer - Loving Hut serves no alcohol. Instead, start out with a warm tea (VND5,000) or homemade soy milk (VND10,000). Rich and creamy, with a touch of sweetness, it feels far more wholesome than any bia hoi beverage.

 

Love shack:The cozy interior is far more comfortable than "hut"implies, with soft yellow walls and photographs of famous vegans (not pictured). VNS Photos

Some dishes don't shine as much as others. Ironically, my local bia hoi serves better tofu in tomato sauce (dau phu sot ca chua, VND40,000). The sauce should be slightly sweet; here, it was uncomfortably salty, with the pungent flavour of fish sauce (or a vegan substitute).

Another mystery: on my first visit, I saw a man eating his set meal with brown rice. But it's not listed on the menu, although a request on a return visit proved successful.

Loving Hut

Address: Lane 192/House 4 Quan Thanh (Location 2: Lane 2/House 10 Tran Quy Kien; Location 3: Lane 40/Alley 8/House 2 Ta Quang Buu

Tel: 04 6273 7403

Price Range: VND25,000 - VND200,000

Comment: Vegan chain that offers excellent meatless versions of traditional Vietnamese dishes. Dishes to try: Chicken with herbs (ga tron), skillet beefsteak (bo bit tet), set meal (com xuat)

 

Brown rice mystery aside, the set meal (com xuat, VND25,000) might be the best deal in Ha Noi. As at traditional Buddhist vegan restaurants, you get a heap of rice surrounded by smaller piles of vegetables and bites of tofu and fake meat.

The portion isn't extravagant, but for the price, it's more than adequate.

The dining room is far more pleasant than the name "hut" implies. Soft yellow walls plastered with photos of famous vegans (including, surprisingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger!) give the space a cosy, home-like ambience.

Loving Hut's slogan is "Be Vegan, Make Peace". Indeed, after just a few plates here, you won't feel like making war with anyone - except for the person across the table eying the last piece of tofu. — VNS



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