Sum Veg Goo at Vegetarian Dim Sum House; Veg-City's Like Ye Olde (Dairy-Free) Malt Shoppe
Is the idea behind the fake meat served at vegetarian restaurants that vegetarians sorely miss the sensation of animal flesh in their mouths? Tempeh and soy are to beef and chicken as methadone is to smack? Makes little sense to me. I support some aspects of the vegan vision (particularly the part about returning to an America that doesn't subsist off factory slaughter), but cannot relate to this glass-half-empty vegetarianism. The satisfaction that comes with disciplined self-denial is a weird thing to concentrate on while moderating your animal-product intake?especially if you're just going to redirect dairy lust into a vat of soy cheese. I suppose it makes sense in a culture where smoking pot without inhaling can be a notch more ethical than enjoying the high.
A more sensible?pleasurable?realm of focus for vegetarianism would be: vegetables. They might even be better for you than seitan mcnuggets, but, more to the point, life with vegetables gets increasingly tasty and satisfying as you pay closer attention to them. Scrutiny in the marketplace, seeking out varieties grown for flavor (instead of for weight or ease of shipping or appearance?all that's required for discernment is a working nose), is at least half the battle. Optimal preparation also demands keen awareness. Vegetarian or not, that sharp, intuitive, discriminating quality of attention to food?involving all five senses, the tongue usually last?is the foundation for good cooking. The rest is recipes.
If anyone should know this well, it's vegetarians. A decent entree is so much harder to fake without a slab of juicy muscle to overwhelm the finer faculties. If it weren't for their puritanical strain, American vegetarians would demand that meatless restaurants be vegetable specialists. Apparently, this line of thinking exists in Indian- and Korean-immigrant New York, hence the excellent Vatan and HanGawi. In veggie Chinatown, though, it's all about not inhaling.
The prospect of vegetarian dim sum comes close to inviting the meat-substitute menace. But since vegetable cooking lends itself to a variety of compact dishes, the reality could have transcended mere imitation. Also, the dim sum experience is one meat-consumption ritual that vegetarians might reasonably want to enjoy their own way. The chance to see what you're ordering is usually a plus when eating cheap, and choosing your dishes off of wheeled carts in an enormous room is fun.
No roving carts at Vegetarian Dim Sum House, however. That's probably a trade-off against catering to a more selective clientele, to whom the Pell St. establishment offers, the menu says, "Dim Sum Serving All Day." No doubt it also helps the restaurant move more dim sum. Surrounded by dozens of noodle joints and Buddhist-friendly wok shops in the densest part of Chinatown, even a pious vegetarian has multiple dining options. As a guy who simply likes vegetables, if I'd seen entire cartfuls of Vegetarian Dim Sum House fare rolling my way, I'd have probably turned tail and fled, hungry. Sights unseen, as they were, I ordered five of the $2 plates.
Sweet and salty dumplings arrived immediately, looking just like glazed donut-holes. Honey-colored and at room temperature, they screamed Middle Eastern-dessert right up until the first bite, which disclosed an interior layer of glutinous rice surrounding a core of mildly salty goo. Suspended in there were some carrots and cabbage, giving the goo the flavor of a generic, though unusually syrupy, Chinese soup base. Glutinous rice is a moderately sweet, ultra-starchy dough, more filling than anything. So while the dumpling's overall taste made good, technically, on the "sweet and salty" promise, the inclusion of two more of them on the plate proved excessive.
I pined for something hotter and less unpleasant. The spring rolls demonstrated how bad it can be to get half of what you wish for by releasing a flood of scalding grease upon my starch-laden tongue. After a period of cooling off and congealing, the crispy roll's filling revealed itself to be a goo made from carrots, cabbage and corn starch. The difference between it and the dumpling's innards had been the temperature.
My gamely chosen option for steamed dumplings was the "mock shrimp" type, which come packed with rice, plus a peanut-sized nugget of something like watercress. My pain is what Vegetarian Dim Sum House was mocking now. Even if I'd selected spinach dumplings I'd have lost, because VDSH fashions its noodle wrappers from rice flour. The restaurant's gray, shiny, gooey dumplings could not possibly satisfy a diner expecting a pocket of moist and pliant wheat pasta, which tastes good even when prepared cheaply, and doesn't adhere quite so much as if epoxied to its banana-leafed steamer bowl. The grim noodles returned, by now expectedly, via Rice Flour Rolls with Chinese Kale. Sheets of them?suggesting wallpaper manufactured from shirt cardboard?formed a tube around some oversteamed, stringy stems of broccoli rabe. It'd be unthinkable almost anywhere else, but here it made sense to wonder if the cook had thrown the vegetable's delicate florets away.
The missing green matter certainly hadn't come anywhere near my Treasure Balls with Assorted Flavor. The best of my five, these turned out to be large, spherical variations on the Tater Tots theme. The crust was satisfying french-fry material that broke cleanly when pinched with chopsticks. Inside might have been potato, or maybe some related root vegetable?it was too whipped and deep-fried to tell. Also in there were some crumbs of fake ham, which do their job well in such small bits. Though a sorry excuse for a Buddha-referencing meal, my Treasure Balls gave me a warm feeling. I think it was the vegetarian equivalent of wolfing down pigs-in-blankets and curly fries at a high school football game. Block that kick, Buddha.
Vegetarian Dim Sum House also has also has a full menu of non-dim-sum entrees, priced $6.95-$10.95, with headings for the various false meats and nauseating noodles. One chapter is dedicated to mushrooms. As I didn't get any, I'd recommend that section as a best bet.
Vegetarian Dim Sum House, 24 Pell St. (betw. Mott & Doyers Sts.), 577-7176.
Another fun restaurant experience that vegetarians have reason to covet participation in is that of the Greek diner. Veg-City Diner supplies the means, including such crucial details as a rotating dessert-display case, here packed with vegan treats. Meat mockery is, again, at the heart of the matter, though at least at Veg-City the joke isn't on the customers. By keying in on every vegetarian's experience of sifting through an eight-page diner menu in search of its paltry three or four veggie-friendly listings, Veg-City laughs with them.
Their Buffalo Style Wings, for instance, come breaded and fried, atop carrots and celery, all slathered in the exact same tangy vinegar hot sauce that anoints little drumsticks. The soy strips are layered and rubbery to evoke chicken's incisor-resistant property, but Nerf meat isn't expected to carry the dish. That powerful orange sauce is the ballgame. Rather than stage a ritual of denial to mirror meat-eaters' pleasure in flesh, Veg-City invites vegetarians to share in a spicy joy that's otherwise off-limits. Just as people averse to cheap, gristly chicken might enjoy a buffalo wing now and then, a dedicated meat-lover could swallow Veg-City's wings without choking.
That brings up the positive side of being a vegetarian who doesn't love vegetables: at least you're not a freak in America. Veg-City concentrates on cultural belonging and community comfort. The Phony Island Corn Dog and FauxPhilly Cheesesteak succeed not only because cornbread/mustard and peppers/onions/cheese are more important to those dishes than their skanky, painlessly substituted-for meats?it's also that being alienated from those regional flavors can feel bad, like being a stranger in one's own homeland. It's unsurprising that a large part of Veg-City's clientele seems to be vegetarian college students, given that many such people are both literally and culinarily far from whence they came.
It helps that the restaurant occupies a space that had housed a traditional diner. (A former Veg-City location, at 3rd Ave. and 9th St., is now closed; plans for additional locations are in the works.) The place feels welcoming?not just to Birkenstock types but to everyone. It charges regular (remodeled) diner prices. The neon sign's skyline logo is outdated since 9/11, but the idea it expresses, refuting veggie exclusivity and veggie ghettoization both, anticipated the galvanizing aftermath. Upon entering, patrons get ice water and a big, fold-out menu, with dairy-free options flagged by a proud, yellow "V." The place is usually busy. Plus, there's a full bar. If you're going to make a vegetarian restaurant that doesn't specialize in vegetables, this is how you do it.
Our first time at Veg-City, we treated it just like any other diner. I ordered from the breakfast menu; my girlfriend tried a salad. Both were a modest cut above the norm: the eggs are organic, yielding a fluffier, fresher-tasting omelet, and Veg-City's greens are clean?not greenmarket delicacies, but never brown or wilted, either. Knowing that the place could be relied on as a normal diner made us wonder what else it could pull off.
Subsequent visits found us gravitating, without really realizing it, to Veg-City versions of foods from our youths. I was glad to have trusted its cooks to provide me a club sandwich. It's a triple-decker with zucchini, peppers and eggplant on top, sadly lacking charcoal flavor yet definitely passable as grilled. Below the mezzanine slice of toasted seven-grain (thankfully, the superfluous grains stay out of the way) is the BLT portion. The smoky fake bacon triumphs amidst so much crunchy camouflage, in the manner not of an impostor, but of an understudy backup singer who nails that tough note, even though she probably didn't really, but it doesn't matter because you're caught up in the show and it was plenty close enough. An honest deli pickle and cup of slaw play their stock roles.
Elisabeth's choice of shepherd's pie (she's from England) brought a confrontation with the one weakness Veg-City needs to address. The dish wasn't bad. It's a mash of lentils, corn, onions and celery, topped with strong mashed potatoes (didn't have butter and didn't need any) and a sprinkle of parsley. The latter was a helpful touch, and like real shepherd's pie, this meatless entree was wintertime belly-warmer stuff, earthy and stewed brown. But it was bland. We'd have asked for HP sauce if the waiter had returned to see how we were doing, but he didn't, and we doubted he had any. It's a sad truth that a lot of vegetarians like their food spiceless. Veg-City Diner, with those hot pseudo-wings and also five different veggie burritos on its menu, should confront that regrettable fact with increased freedom of choice. I suggest furnishing each table with at least six bottles of spice concoctions from around the globe. True, you wouldn't find those in an everyday, hometown diner. Even while toying with conformity, though, vegetarians would rather eat well than pretend to.
Veg-City Diner, 55 W. 14th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 490-6266.
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Summer in the City