Though I’m an enthusiastic meat eater, a really well prepared vegetarian meals makes me entirely happy. And I’m in awe of a skilled vegan chef. Two vegan restaurants just down South King Street from each other have been calling my name for a while, so I took myself to lunch twice last week.
First, I stopped at Loving Hut, 1614 S. King (“Your Neighborhood Healthy Cooking,” www.lovinghut.us/honolulu), a diminutive storefront, brightly decorated in nature’s shades, offering lunch and dinner plate lunches. (I apologize, photos of my Loving Hut plate disappeared from my camera.) On the wall, a flat-screen TV was tuned to SuprememasterTV, where spiritual teacher Ching Hai was holding forth with translations in a half dozen languages. The two women at the counter greeted me brightly and I spent a minute studying the menu. This had a slightly Vietnamese air with spring and summer rolls and pho among the offerings. Also available: salads, soy protein sandwiches, various stir-fries, a curry.
I have a bit of a prejudice about those clunkily named “meat analogs” — vegetable protein mixtures meant to stand in for meats. While they do offer a satisfying chew and often can even fool the unsuspecting (“tastes like chicken”), my question is, If you’re not eating meat, and likely have made this decision for good reason and after much careful thought, why would you choose faux meat? Eat honest, I say: tofu and nuts and beans, not fake steak.
With that rant out of the way, I ordered Golden Nuggets (deep-fried soy protein and wheat gluten with a creamy, spicy sauce, $4.95) and the Lemon Grass Hawaiiana (soy protein with lemongrass, chili and tomatoes) with the day’s special Tofu Scramble (crumbled, stir-fried tofu with tomatoes and mushrooms). Unfortunately for bird-size eaters like me, at lunch you are limited to choosing two ($8.25) or three entrees ($9.25), no minis or single-entree options. That, coupled with a very large scoop of brown rice meant a takeout container for sure. (I saw one young couple order a single plate lunch to share along with an extra scoop of brown rice; wish choice.)
As to the soy protein, it closely resembled chicken breast without the varied textures you get in real meat. The Golden Nuggets were a treat, but you could bread and deep-fry a rubber slipper and I’d consider it a treat.
Be aware, even if the menu calls a sauce spicy, or the ladies tell you a dish is “a little spicy,” the Loving Hut seems intent on saving your palate as well as the planet. The Lemon Grass Hawaiiana with its chicken-like bits of soy protein coated in a thin, reddish glaze and fragrant fibers of lemongrass could have really used some kick. Too, the Golden Nugget sauce had no more heat than ketchup.
Altogether, the meal was, like the ambience, pleasantly innocuous.
The next day at Peace Cafe (2239 S. King, “Vegan Home Cooking”; www.peacecafehawaii.com) was more like it. Here, the focus is on translating familiar dishes and cuisines into a vegan context but without as much reliance on textured vegetable protein. The sandwiches sounded good, with a housemade vegan aioli, and choices including teriyaki tempeh, Italian-style veggies with tapenade and a Vietnamese-style tofu sandwich with peanut sauce ($8.65-$9.25). Among the entrees, I was immediately struck by Heart & Seoul ($9.45), a play on bi bim bap with tofu or TVP instead of egg and kal bi. Moroccan Stew ($8.85) looked interesting, too, made from chickpeas (and they offer a housemade hot sauce for added spice).
I went with the Korean dish with tofu and was delighted with the gorgeous, colorful mounds of namul-style vegetables — ribbons of carrot, chewy greens (kale?), bean sprouts in sesame marinade. What made the dish was a red miso-ko chu jang condiment that topped off the meal and, mixed with the tofu and rice, made music in my mouth. I want to learn how to make this! It reminded me of my favorite lemon-tahini sauce in the sense of being something you could eat with almost anything.
The bi bim bap plate, with some organic, fair-trade iced tea, was offered in so ample a portion even my husband would have been full.
Peace Cafe is — well — peaceful, with world music playing in the background, an exhibit of contemporary photographs on the walls, choose-your-own real wood chopsticks, sincere-looking dairy- and white sugar-free dessert options displayed on the counter. They do vegan lattes, too.
The shops have much in common: Both are the kinds of places where ever T-shirt carries a message and every act is carefully concious. Both use biodegradable containers and charge you for takeout plates (25 cents at Loving Hut, 50 cents at Peace Cafe). Both have parking and serve lunch and dinner. But the food at Peace Cafe was just that much more delicious that it’s the one I’ll be visiting again — to try that Italiano sandwich.