You can go vegan for a day or for a lifetime, and there are compelling reasons to do so. Perhaps it's for ethical and environmental reasons, or maybe it's just to keep your waistline in check.
But for me, it all boils down to one simple thing: Is it delicious? I'm living proof that it's possible to win my heart through my stomach, and I'll patronize a vegan restaurant as much as a steakhouse if I get a craving for it.
That's why it was fun to sample the completely meat- and dairy-free cuisine at Loving Hut, in north Glendale, with a few carnivorous friends in tow. Would they balk at eating faux meat, or would they gobble it up, guilt-free?
3515 West Union Hills Drive, Glendale
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
BBQ rolls: $4.50
Paradise salad: $6.50
Mongolian Wonder: $7.25
Happy Go Lucky: $3.25
First time around, I went with an open-minded omnivore with whom I've shared plenty of meaty comfort food, as well as a Southerner with a fondness for fried chicken — and who goes veg on weekdays to keep cholesterol in check. On later visits, I was joined by a burger-loving buddy, and a gal who loves foie gras.
Nobody the place left a convert to veganism, but we all thought the food was pretty tasty — a pleasant surprise for those of us who've had some strange prior experiences with pseudo-meat. Why aren't there more Loving Huts in the Valley? There are locations all around the world, but as of now, this is the only one in the Phoenix area (each is individually owned by followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai; the Vegetarian House restaurant on East Indian School Road will soon become a Loving Hut location as well).
Loving Hut made a positive first impression, with sun shining in the large windows, lots of crisp white and soft buttery hues in the dining room, little vases of flowers, and slogans about saving the planet painted on the walls. It was clean and bright and cheerful, with tables full of Asian families digging in to plates of noodles. After considering the colorful food photos on the menu, we ordered at the counter and then took a seat.
The menu was mostly Asian food — stir fries, noodles, etc. — with a few Western dishes. Every meal started with a complimentary bowl of soup, bits of carrots and corn and celery in a mild vegetable broth flecked with black pepper. Nothing special, but a nice gesture, given the cheap prices here.
We were crazy about the specialty beverages, which looked like frou-frou cocktails but contained no booze — just different juices or chai, perhaps combined with soy milk or citrus. My favorite was Happy Go Lucky, a sweet, refreshing mixture of lemon, lime, rose, and slivers of lime zest, with a pinch of dried rose petals on top.
Among the appetizers, BBQ rolls were the most intriguing, prepared identically to Vietnamese summer rolls, except instead of grilled pork, they contained slices of soy protein wrapped up in rice paper with the vermicelli and veggies. Flavor-wise, they were very close to the real deal, especially when dunked in sauce with crushed peanuts. Spring rolls filled with jicama, tofu, carrots, leeks, and lettuce had a similar appeal.
We shared a Paradise Salad, but the dish would've also made a decent entree. Bright shreds of cabbage, both green and purple, were tossed with tangy peanut dressing, carrot, fresh cilantro and big chunks of "chicken" — that is, a remarkable kind of soy protein that not only tasted very similar to chicken, but even had the same meaty texture. For my friend who loves fried chicken but has to keep an eye on his cholesterol, it was a revelation.
I'm a big fan of pho, and almost always get it dac biet — the special version, with all the cuts of beef and tripe and whatnot. Loving Hut's vegetarian version of pho was an interesting approximation of that, with tender slices of fake beef that tasted quite beefy, and various bits of tofu and soy protein that somehow replicated the texture, if not entirely the flavor, of all the other meats, even the tripe.
The vegan noodle broth was lighter than the beef-based kind, but dressed up with onions and sprouts, a squeeze of lime and sriracha and hoisin, it really had me fooled. The only difference was that I felt lighter after slurping it all down.
Likewise, the BBQ Baguette — a vegan banh mi sandwich, with soy protein, onion, tomato, mushrooms, lettuce, pickles, and Veganaise — was surprisingly flavorful and filling.
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Loving Hut's Indian curry, packed with tofu and an assortment of vegetables, had a pleasant flavor but not much kick. Silken Moonlight (flat rice noodles, bok choy, tofu, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, cabbage, onion, and mushroom) was also low on spice. A bottle of sriracha came in handy for that.
I had better luck with the stir-fries, made with more robust sauces. Mongolian Wonder, another faux beef dish with vegetables, was salty and bright with ginger soy sauce, while Go Green Deluxe contained fascinating "shrimp" (they tasted like fish cake) and snow peas in sesame-flecked teriyaki sauce.
Dairy-free desserts don't sound appealing to me (give me butter!), but these vegan sweets were pretty satisfying, especially moist banana cake with creamy frosting, and a dense carrot cake studded with raisins. There was also lightly sweet, silky flan, and hot, crispy banana fritters dusted with powdered sugar. Cleverly, the menu does not point out that there's no dairy in these, and once you take a bite, you completely forget about it.
Which is why I ultimately liked Loving Hut. When it came down to my one simple question, the answer was always yes.