By Benjamin Leatherman
The Vegetarian House in east Phoenix: part restaurant, part temple. (Courtesy of VegGuide).
Everybody deserves a second chance.
Case in point: In 1999, my sister -- who was at the time a hardcore vegetarian -- treated me to dinner at the Vegetarian House (3239 East Indian School Road, 602-264-3480) in east Phoenix. She'd been continuously singing the praises of the meatless eatery and enthralling me with tales of its Asian-inspired dishes, which feature faux versions of beef, seafood, and chicken. So one evening we supped at the joint (which also goes by the impossibly long name of "The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association Vegetarian House") and it was a major letdown.
The so-called faux meat in my dish of Kung Pao chicken was entirely devoid of any flavor, consisting of a bland clump of soy. It also tasted vaguely like dirt. I'd also tried some of my sister's cashew shrimp and got much of the same result on my tastebuds.
So almost a decade after my initial encounter with the restaurant, I'd decided to give the place another try and see if it had improved any since my last visit back during the Clinton administration.
The answer? Not very much.
I was very willing to give the Vegetarian House the benefit of the doubt, considering there's a scant amount of restaurants in the PHX that are completely dedicated to the veggie crowd. But since the Greens and Pita Jungles of the Valley have set a pretty high standard in terms of taste and quality, I feel like the SMCHIAVH (whew) should be much better than it is.
First, some quick backstory on the place. The restaurant is based around the recipes and philosophies of one Master Ching Hai, a cult-like female figure who claims to be the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. She has millions of followers worldwide and preaches a dogma of obtaining wisdom and happiness through achieving a balance with nature and by not chowing down on animals (or their byproducts) in any fashion. While I'm totally down her worldview and philosophies, I'll have to admit, for a alleged godhead, she sure has some pretty weak recipes.
The Master Ching Hai: a great quasi-deity, but a rather sucky recipe maker.
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During my recent visit to the Vegetarian House, I chose an appetizer of some pan fried dumplings, which came eight to a plate. The rice-like dough surrounding the faux pork was crisp and delicious, but the "meat" itself was a bland and tasteless as I remember. The diced veggies (onions, herbs, and such) were pretty delicious, which set the tone for my visit: fake meat=bad, veggies=good.
I also chose a plate of tomatoes stuffed with tofu and garnished with herbs, which was the highlight of my visit. The tomatoes were very fresh and flavorful, in contrast to the bland tofu.
For my main dish, I went with the "Veggie Eel" and an order of "House Special Chicken." As I said before, the non-meat portions of each dish was quite good, filled with flavor, and delighted my tongue. Everything else? Not so much.
So much for second chances.