Rarely does a restaurant’s name describe its most salient qualities as succinctly as Thai Vegan. Ironically, while the name may turn away some rabid omnivores, many of those may not have even noticed the lack of animal product if they hadn’t been tipped off. More of them still would probably be surprised by how much they like it.
It’s amazing what can be done with vegetable proteins. The Thai Vegan menu includes fake shrimp (complete with pink patches), fake chicken and fish (both of which have convincing textures), and fake slices of pepper steak.
That said, it isn’t the sophistication of their fake meats that makes the place so good. In fact, to me it’s a distraction that smacks of unnecessary apology. I can’t help but wonder: If you don’t want to eat real shrimp, why would you go out of your way to eat fake shrimp? It reminds me of vegetarians eating Tofurky on Thanksgiving in hopes of fitting in.
No, Thai Vegan’s food isn’t amazing because of the fake meat. It’s amazing because the cooks really know what they’re doing, and they use quality ingredients. Both the red and green curries perfectly nail the traditional Thai balance of lemongrass, lime leaf, ginger and coconut milk, even without the assistance of fish sauce. I prefer mine with tofu, which has a nice crisp and none of the existential issues of fake meat. But the fake chicken is pretty good, too—not because it tastes like chicken, mind you, but because it so excellently absorbs the sauce. Eggplant, juicy and soft like an errant piece of fat, might be the meatiest-tasting part of the dish. The rice served alongside it is an intriguing blend of red, purple and brown grains that requires no sauce to be satisfying.
Flat noodles are broken into short stubs. All the better to hold the flavor of a dark, spicy sauce that I must confess tastes really good with fake pepper steak. The soups feel purifying and have a way of pulling sweat from your pores. Black pepper is a distinguishing flavor in the vegetable soup, a clear broth in which rice noodles, dumplings, and bright florets of broccoli and carrot slices float. The seaweed soup, also in a clear broth, contains several varieties of seaweed and a strong celery flavor. The tom yum is a beautiful dance of tomato and lemongrass.
The dining room is highlighted with gold paint—on moldings, on lotus pads that adorn the ceiling, on the occasional Buddha statue—giving this space a peaceful, monastery-like quality. The servers are friendly and helpful, and cute little messages are posted here and there, saying things like “changing is good,” and “eat for life, life for eat.” A tank full of fish just adds irony.
It’s also funny that a Thai restaurant serves homemade Italian dressing, but the flavor of that dressing is nothing to scoff at. It goes well on the hefty side salads that accompany many of the dishes, as well as the immense “green power salad,” plush with edamame, crispy walnuts, avocado, tomato and a diversity of greens.
More than any Thai iced tea I’ve had in recent memory, the Thai Vegan version brought me back to Bangkok. As I sipped the golden-orange beverage, strong tea overwhelmed by sweet creaminess, I forgot so completely I was in a vegan restaurant that I began feeling guilty about all of the sweetened condensed milk I was drinking. At the end of my final sip, I caught the telltale grainy flavor of soy milk and thought, Interesting; they blended soy milk with their sweetened condensed milk. When I asked the waitress about it, she reminded me that the place is vegan. Also not lacking in decadence are deep-fried dessert egg rolls filled with molten chocolate and warm banana.
The menu betrays just how highly evolved the kitchen is by offering a side of Vegenaise for a dollar extra. When I saw that, I felt like I was home, where nary a meal goes by without a dollop of Vegenaise. The side I ordered with my flat noodles made me wonder if I’m unreasonably harsh on those who like fake meat. I like a dollop of Vegenaise on my food not because it’s fake mayo but because it’s better than mayo.
I walked out feeling full but light. And maybe even a tad enlightened.
• Green or red curry
• Seaweed soup
• Green power salad
• Banana chocolate chip egg rolls
5505 Osuna NE, 884-4610
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (lunch) and 5 to 9 p.m. (dinner) Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Price range : $2.95 (bowl of miso soup) to $10.95 (some dinner combination plates)
Vibe: Mellow and buoyant
Veggie options: Every single thing on the menu