Critics Claim Supreme Master Ching Hai's Followers' Restaurants Featuring Tasty Vegan Fare Front For an Exploitive Movement.

Page 2 of 8

Hai's devotees counter that their goal is the greater good of changing people's minds about veganism, and if that's accomplished, where's the harm?

"If we want people to be vegan," Tran said, "then we have to have a sample, so we can say, 'Here's how delicious vegan food can be.'"

Indeed, there's little argument when it comes to Loving Hut's preparations or the concept itself, which have earned plaudits from restaurant writers, customers, and even competitors.

Damon Brasch, the chef behind the popular vegetarian restaurant Green in Tempe told New Times he frequents the Glendale location and is not put off by the affection the owners have for Ching Hai, though he does not follow the guru.

"I go to their place," Brasch said of the eatery. "And I send people over there. There are a lot worse things you can pick on than the message they're spreading."

VegNews, the bimonthly Bible of the vegetarian community, recently awarded Loving Hut USA with its Readers Pick award for Restaurant of the Year.

Its editors concurred with the results of the reader survey, writing that the concept's branding and mainstream appeal have helped it "spread like wildfire into 39 countries" after the opening of the first Loving Hut in Taiwan in 2008.

Joseph Connelly, VegNews' publisher, expressed to New Times that the attitude of the vegan and vegetarian community toward Loving Hut has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We love Loving Hut, no pun intended," he said. "It's great to be in a place and see there's a Loving Hut there, and know that if you're vegan or vegetarian, you can go and eat and not have to worry about what's in the food."

Connelly's praise is notable given that the magazine also recently ran a profile of Ching Hai and the Loving Hut franchise by writer Abigail Young that recounted some of the troubling issues surrounding Hai's Association, and debated whether or not Hai's organization is a cult.

Though the article "Supreme Mystery" was unbiased by journalism standards, followers of Ching Hai took great exception to the discussion of the Association's alleged cult status and flooded VegNews with angry responses.

Vegan author Will Tuttle, a Hai ally, denounced the piece in a shrill, over-the-top online essay that called the article "an act of unprovoked violence" against fellow vegans by those in the same movement.

"The feedback generally fell into two different categories," Connelly said of responses to Young's piece. "Those that felt the article was even-handed, almost neutral. And feedback coming almost exclusively from within the Loving Hut organization that was critical of us."

Such controversies have not dampened enthusiasm for Loving Hut's product. Even longtime meat-lovers have taken to the eateries. Former New Times restaurant critic Michele Laudig, calling herself an "open-minded omnivore," gave the Glendale location high marks, labeling its use of faux animal flesh "deceptively delicious."

Not that Loving Hut is anything but transparent about its recipes. General ingredients are mentioned on the menus, and the fake meats that have become Loving Hut's calling cards can be purchased for home preparation.

The yam-based faux shrimp could fool a fisherman, even in their frozen state, when they resemble giant prawns. Fried golden in a tempura batter, the texture and the taste, given a kind of fishiness through the use of seaweed, is tantalizingly close to the real thing. These fake crustaceans are the basis for one of the restaurant's most popular items, dubbed Spicy Cha-Cha.

Another customer favorite is the faux beef of the Mongolian Wonder (also Mongolian Delight), which comes as dry as potato chips and is hydrated for cooking. When warm, the thin slices of compacted, brown-black soy approximate closely the taste of cow flesh.

There's even a faux fillet of fish called Seaweed Ocean, also molded from soy protein. A partial seaweed crust adds a briny quality. This one won't trick seafood lovers, but it's tasty all the same.

The ersatz "chicken" of several dishes is less successful, and the soy patty of the eatery's Hawaiian burger is no match for an In-N-Out double-double.

But most of the Asian-inspired cuisine is successful, largely because of the spices employed — and the preparation. Indian-style curries and bowls of pho brimming with savory broth are already palate pleasers, with or without the addition of tofu or phony animal flesh.

Because each Loving Hut is individually owned, the menus and preparations can vary. The faux meats are supplied by various sources, such as the San Francisco-based company ecoVegan, the main provider of vegan "meats" to Loving Hut restaurants, and the Canadian company gardein, as well as others.

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and other outlets offer pre-packaged faux animal flesh, too. But there is a certain convenience in being able to purchase it at a Loving Hut, after sampling the product in one of Loving Hut's recipes.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons