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Supreme Master Ching Hai Vegetarian House, 4812 North Seventh Avenue, Phoenix, 264-3480. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.
Over the years, my bodily temple has taken a considerable beating. It's been ransacked more often than Tutankhamen's tomb. Just ask my friends in the organic and vegetarian movements. They say I've been corroded by chemicals, fouled by fish, polluted by poultry, maligned by meat and defiled by dairy.
It's true: When it comes to healthy eating, I'm about as pure as the driven slush. And that sure makes my life easier. The nut-and-berry folks don't have too many eating-out options in this town. Generally, their bill of fare seems to consist of massive piles of sprouts, cucumber and bean curd, served by the rail-thin acolytes of a sect that meets expenses by selling dead flowers at the airport.
No wonder the two most popular words at Valley restaurants are "medium rare." Two new places are trying to fill the local good-for-you gap. Each targets a different segment of the healthy-minded: One aims at strict vegetarians; the other caters to the organic crowd.
Ching Hai is the name of a spiritual leader (a woman, by the way) who has a worldwide following, at least according to the eponymous restaurant's helpful pile of informational pamphlets. Phoenix disciples have decided that our community is now ready to benefit from the vegetarian philosophy of the Supreme Master. It's a rigorous one: no meat, no poultry, no fish, no eggs, no dairy and, not surprisingly, no alcohol. What's promised, according to the menu, are "transcendental delicacies," all made "gently and lovingly."
The place occupies the site of a defunct Chinese restaurant, and more or less looks it. The room, ringed by booths with tables in the center, has a fresh coat of paint. Well-worn Asian art hangs from the walls, as do photos of the Supreme Master. The patrons are a mixed group, ranging from the curious to the true believers. The guy at the next table, overhearing our questions, told us he had seen the Supreme Master on Dimension Cable's Channel 22 one afternoon, and that the encounter had transformed his life.
Intrigued, I tuned in to a 4:30 p.m. broadcast a few days later. I can report that Channel 10's rating for Jeopardy, which is on at the same time, is unlikely to experience a significant decline. While my first televised brush with the Supreme Master didn't change my life, the kind of meatless cooking she espouses did dent some of my stubborn skepticism. Vegetarians accustomed to sprout-laden platters might do a double take when they get their first glimpse of the Pan-Asian menu: There's Vietnamese roasted "eel"; Thai-style lemon-grass "chicken"; and Chinese twice-cooked "pork." Tofu and wheat gluten are the principal ingredients employed to try to trick the tongue into believing there's animal protein between the chopsticks. There's nothing tricked up about the Heaven Rice Rolls, though. This Vietnamese-inspired appetizer featured two rice-paper wrappers stuffed with fresh vegetables, nuts and greenery. A tart dunking sauce furnished a pleasing taste contrast. An even better starter, I thought, was vegetable roasted eel, layered sheets of bean curd with a crispy, charred edge. Vegetarian goose is somewhat similar in taste, but lacked the crunchy texture. The leaden, pan-fried dumplings, however, didn't compare well with the pork-filled pot stickers you get at any Chinese restaurant.
The menu lists some 50 main-dish items, which should please variety-starved vegans.
Among the better items is spicy lemon-grass chicken, a full-flavored platter with a hot-pepper kick. The "chicken" comes in thin slices, not chunks, but it was close enough to the real thing to fool my kids.
Twice-cooked pork can also deceive the unwary, since it somewhat approximates pork's taste and texture. Mixed with the usual Chinese-restaurant veggies, it tastes like your basic, neighborhood-chop-suey-parlor fare. Actually, the dishes I enjoyed most were the vegetable dishes that didn't emphasize ersatz meat. Two-flavor stuffed tomato brought three fresh tomato halves filled with the delicate scents of tofu, mushrooms and vermicelli. Yui-shan eggplant, a Chinese-restaurant staple, is well-prepared--the not-too-greasy model served here presses both taste and nutrition buttons. The house chow mein does a decent job satisfying noodle fans. Thick, starchy noodles come sprinkled with vegetables and chewy bits of "chicken," "pork" and "shrimp." The least appealing of the entrees highlight "seafood." The kitchen does an amazing job of concocting something that looks like shrimp. But while it passes the eye test, it won't tantalize nonvegans' other senses. The seafood sizzling hot plate relies on seaweed to bring out the briny aroma of the sea, but it's a pretty pale substitute.
"To eat vegetarian food often," proclaims the menu, "will be beneficial to your health, and remove miscellaneous matters from your bodies and help enhance happiness and wisdom." Well, maybe. But if I were a taste-conscious Valley vegan, I wouldn't care about removing bodily impurities or enhancing wisdom. I'd be thrilled just to have a place to eat outside my four walls.
C. Steele for the Farm at South Mountain, 6106 South 32nd Street, Phoenix, 276-6360. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.