We kept saying that at least one of us really ought to order the vegetarian kung pao kidneys. In the picture taped to the front window, they looked so much like real kidneys: red and firm and shiny. But — as in some scene in a funny film about a cowardly army platoon — there were no volunteers.
This drew out to ridiculous lengths the task of preparing to place our order. Which was made all the more awkward with the server buzzing around with pen and pad, the only task worth her while right then, being that Mother Nature Vegetarian Restaurant, with its view of Albany Hill rearing like a fog-blurred peak in a Song Dynasty ink-painting, was otherwise empty. The restaurant’s vast size — better suited to a church than to a small-town Chinese restaurant, with a lofty wood-beamed ceiling and skylights ramping up the ecclesiasticity — just made it more obvious.
The server, whose cousin is the chef, laughed nervously and said she’d need to come up with new ideas for attracting customers, for announcing that the strictly Buddhist-style restaurant had been open since June — and used neither MSG nor GMO ingredients, nor flesh, nor anything canned.
Sipping his tea, Tuffy suggested that she advertise in local Chinese newspapers. The server laughed. “Chinese like to eat pork,” she said. “Our customers aren’t Asian, they’re American.”
True enough, but even those found the place mostly deserted. All too sad, since the Stuffed Vegi Delight was a tour de force entailing peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, creamy small eggplants, and spunky chunks of bitter melon packed with a nutty filling, swimming deep in a dark gravy whose sweet-and-sourness lingered like a tune. And the asparagus beef had no beef in it at all, of course, but featured rich brown strips of gluten expertly textured to a striated sponginess, stir-fried with crisp young spears in a mock-oyster sauce whose assertiveness was all the more startling when you consider the chef uses neither garlic nor onions, in accordance with a Buddhist prohibition.
Justly hailed as a house specialty, Pine Nut and Seaweed Fried Rice came studded with toasted pine nuts so fresh they were almost sweet, and tiger-striped with dark shreds at first sharp on the tongue but then subtle and clean: a taste like sunlight penetrating surf. It’s all cooked deftly, using top-grade ingredients. The seaweed, for example, is of a special expensive type from which every last grain of sand has been painstakingly removed. So … where was everyone?
Well, that’s just it. Being vegetarian these days means having almost too many choices. Even steakhouses offer veggie options, as do fast-food joints. So it stands to reason that a fine, unique, and innovative new flesh-free restaurant might stand nearly empty.
Exiting the UC Berkeley campus through its north gate leads you to another veggie-only oasis on the first block of Euclid Avenue. Stars Veggie, part of the international Golden Lotus chain of restaurants, is operated by followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese-born ex-Catholic Buddhist who is either the messiah or the leader of the world’s fastest-growing cult, depending on whom you ask. Her devotees forswear flesh, and their restaurants serve some of the most persuasive fake meats to be found anywhere.
Stars has the stuff in spades. Its teriyaki salmon is a winning pink and melts in the mouth, with pliable black seaweed “skin” for added authenticity. Resting on a snowy cloud of vermicelli, Stars’ Mongolian beef replicates thinly sliced lean beef, right down to the diagonal grain and that teasing stubbornness between the teeth. Mesmerizing veggie ham and veggie tuna fill Vietnamese-style sandwiches on thick French rolls, with similar analogues stuffing savory crepes. This tiny slot of a restaurant — only six tiny tables, four of them tables for two, plus a short counter facing the wall — was until recently a creperie, and paintings of the Champs-Elysées compete for wall space with original works by Master Ching Hai.
Stars is nothing if not daring. Among the sweet crepes on offer is an avocado-syrup combo, and an avocado smoothie stands out among the tapioca-pearl drinks and strong, darkly orange Thai iced coffee and tea. Thick slices of vegan chocolate cake with proud high crests of mocha frosting seem out of place in a mainly Asian restaurant, but that’s not to say they’re unwelcome. The most outrageous of the main-dish fare is a fleshless riff on Philly cheesesteak, available tucked into either a French-roll sandwich or a double crepe. The latter, which arrived with rustic flair in a paper plate atop a flat basket, contained delicately sweet nonmeat layered with red onion, mushrooms, bell pepper, lettuce, and cheese, all sliced paper-thin inside the pale wrapper, whose standup heartiness bore a strong resemblance to a mu shu pancake.
Tuffy’s pho, meanwhile, aped the Vietnamese classic ably, with a peppery broth that shrieked “beef” for all it was worth (it was lying), in which cauliflower, cilantro, mushrooms, bean sprouts, emerald-green broccoli and carrots crowded spicy nonbeef balls, slabs of grilled nonchicken, and hunks of grilled tofu determined to disprove the tofu-is-tasteless-food-for-zombies trope.
As a grim counterpoint, our pot stickers were leathern and the portion was small — only five on the plate. A sad choice, when right next to it on the menu, even cheaper, were the fresh spring rolls: soft rice-noodle skins densely and snugly stuffed with tofu, nonmeat, and shredded vegetables, with a spicy-hot dipping sauce on the side.
Back at Mother Nature, we ordered Creamy Unfish Noodle Soup for lunch. Based on a Malaysian recipe — the chef is Malaysian — the broth was creamy and gingery, with soy milk substituted for the traditional but so much fattier coconut milk. Seaweed and diced pickled greens conferred a fishy taste on the broth, but the slabs of fleshless “unfish” tasted more like hamburger than anything that swims — which is fine for those who love and miss hamburger. Unfish balls bobbing in the broth were a bit more convincing, while the bok choy, tomato, and black mushroom were so tear-jerkingly fresh and tender as to seem mere minutes away from some farmers’ market. More mushrooms jostled with green beans, peppers, cashews, and faux fowl in the kung pao chicken, whose vivid, plummy sauce made the very idea of adding extra soy seem barbarian.
Malaysian satay tofu was a mountain of housemade tofu cut into huge pillowy triangles deep-fried a pale gold and sunk deep in a thick salty-sweet peanut sauce with festoons of crunchy shredded cucumber. Given the quantity of high-protein tofu and substantial sauce, one serving could comfortably feed two diners. But this otherwise exciting truth brought to light the sole problem with our order. It was the last thing you’d expect — the steamed rice. You can get brown or white, but in either case the portions are absurdly small. So order more than the server predicts you will need.
Canto-pop tinkled through the speakers, drifting between us and the couple two tables away, our only fellow diners. The other couple finished and got up and left. The music swirled through the emptiness uninterrupted, sleeking along the bare walls and rolling back off the beams like a mountain wind. One day, we said — one day we’ll order those kidneys. Let’s just hope the restaurant is still there.