Dining out vegetarian-style

Finding a healthy, delicious vegetarian meal is easy ... if you know where to look

by Cliff Liu
ining out can be a trying experience for a vegetarian, even in a health-conscious city such as San Diego. While most restaurants here serve dishes without meat, the vegetarian searching for Asian food sometimes finds himself unable to order anything on the menu or discovers that his "vegetable dish" contains lard. However, San Diego also has some Asian restaurants with a full selection of vegetarian dishes.
There are three main types of vegetarians, which I refer to as semi-vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and vegans. Semi-vegetarians avoid red meat but not chicken or fish, usually for health reasons. Semi-vegetarians have no difficulties in Asian restaurants because these items are always available. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat no meat and gain their protein from dairy products as well as vegetable sources. Vegans eat no animal products, obtaining their protein purely from vegetable sources. Asian food rarely contains milk products so vegans have almost as many choices as lacto-ovo vegetarians, except for eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans often are motivated by their religion and/or compassion for animals. Regardless of the reason, confirmed vegetarians must avoid meat, animal-based soup stocks and lard because these will be indigestible.
Current nutritional thinking holds that protein is necessary in one's diet but not in the high quantities suggested by the United States Recommended Daily Allowance. A 170-pound man performing light work requires around 25 to 30 grams of protein each day, which may appear to be small. What is important is that the combined protein sources in one's diet contain all of the amino acids needed by the body. Meat and dairy products contain all of these amino acids. Vegetable protein sources must be combined to complete the amino acid requirement. The most common combination in Asian food is legumes (usually soybeans) and rice, followed by legumes and wheat. Interestingly, rice and wheat also form a complete protein. Many forms of mock meat, which is available in cans in Chinese grocery stores, are made from high gluten wheat.
Tofu, or soy bean curd, is the undisputed king of vegetable proteins. It has little intrinsic taste but soaks up the flavors of the ingredients around it. Tofu comes in several forms - fried, dried, baked and frozen, as well as the normal white blocks seen in grocery stores. Restaurants usually serve the normal and fried varieties, the latter because it is tastier and more closely resembles meat in texture.


lthough the Chinese eat tofu often, it is ironic that the Chinese restaurants here cater the least to vegetarians. In my experience, Chinese restaurants almost always use chicken stock or lard when they prepare vegetables, based on the mistaken notion that meat is necessary for taste. Some Chinese restaurants catering more to American taste do not follow this practice, but it is discouraging to visit an endless stream of restaurants serving Buddha's Delight and Tofu with Vegetables.
A vegetarian can enjoy the Northern Chinese breakfast consisting of shao-bing (a bread resembling pita and a Chinese doughnut - this has to be experienced; it is unlike anything I know of) which is served on weekend mornings at the Mandarin Garden (8242 Mira Mesa Blvd). This is traditionally eaten with warm soy bean milk which is available in both salty and sweet versions. Although this meal is inexpensive and extremely tasty, it is full of saturated fats and contains no vegetables. Normal dim sum and Chinese appetizers must be avoided because they are prepared with meat beforehand with the exception of the delicately layered scallion pancakes.
Unfortunately, these are deep fried and are rich with saturated fats.


vegetarian has more choices at a Japanese restaurant. When people think about Japanese food, they usually think of sushi. While most varieties of sushi contain fish, a vegetarian can always eat cucumber rolls which are refreshing to the palate but otherwise rather bland. If the restaurant has a sushi bar, the preparer may be able to conjure up several varieties of vegetarian rolls. At Sushi on the Rock (1277 Prospect in La Jolla) I sampled three varieties of vegetarian rolls. The cucumber roll with avocado was light and rich at the same time. The sweet potato roll was slightly sweet as expected, with a crunchy texture derived from fried flat noodles. While this should have filled me, I asked for another, different roll. The sushi maker produced a spicy eggplant and broccoli roll which was rather heavy in texture. These special rolls averaged about five dollars apiece.
For sukiyaki lovers, Ichiban (1441 Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach) features an inexpensive vegetable sukiyaki consisting of rice topped with tofu and vegetables. Served with Miso soup, salad and drink for less than five dollars, this dish is delicious, nutritious, as well as affordable.
I have found at least two Japanese noodle dishes containing no meat. Zaru Soba, a cold dish eaten on hot summer days, consists of soba (buckwheat) noodles sprinkled with seaweed with a dish of sauce on the side that resembles teriyaki. The Noodle House (4646 Convoy in Kearny Mesa) and Chopstix (4633 Convoy across the street from Noodle House) both serve this dish which is high in carbohydrates and contains some protein, but would benefit from a side order of vegetables. Chopstix also serves Miso Ramen, a soup noodle based on a spicy miso (fermented bean curd) stock. Beware, the soup often is extremely salty and those on low-sodium diets are advised not to drink it. With bean sprouts, cabbage and carrots and a generous pile of ramen, this dish covers the nutritional bases. Those worried about protein can order a side dish of Inari (rice wrapped in tofu sheets).


y experience with Korean cooking is limited, but I have found that Korean restaurants usually have no vegetarian items on their menus. In a pinch, I order Bibimbab which is a rice dish topped with various vegetables, meats and egg, specifying that I want the meat left out. Eating rice with the spread of little side dishes is very satisfying. These dishes contain various forms of kimchee (pickled vegetables) and numerous other delights.


any Vietnamese restaurants also do not have vegetarian items on the menu. When you special-order a dish, you usually get a stir-fried tofu dish and rice. The Vietnamese restaurants that offer vegetarian dishes usually offer variations of this same dish, which is so savory that the lack of choice is not a problem. For example, the Vietnam Seafood Restaurant (6931 Linda Vista Road, near Vien Dong) has a vegetarian menu section with four items: vegetables with rice noodles, rice, egg noodles, or fried egg noodles. I have tried two of these and have found that they are much the same except for the noodles and are made with a delightful combination of mushrooms, pineapples, carrots, bamboo shoots, broccoli, and tofu. In my experience, Vietnamese restaurants do not cook their dishes in animal fat. An added bonus is that the food usually is inexpensive. As in Chinese restaurants, the appetizers are usually off-limits to vegetarians as they have been prepared with meat beforehand.


he vegetarian fares the best in Thai restaurants where the menus abound with specialties containing no meat. Thailand is the home of many Buddhists and vegetarianism is a part of the culture there as it is in India. In my experience, the San Diego Thai restaurant catering most to vegetarians is Taste of Thai (527 University Ave in Hillcrest) where every type of food is available prepared without meat. Karinya (4475 Mission Blvd. in Pacific Beach) and Thai House Cuisine (4225 Convoy) also are contenders.
Thai soups are especially enjoyable; Tom Yum is made with lime juice, lemon grass, and green peppers, and Tom Ka is like Tom Yum except with coconut milk. These soups are available in vegetarian versions at the above-mentioned restaurants but not all Thai restaurants. At Taste of Thai, half of the appetizer choices are available without meat. I tried the spring rolls which are like small delicate egg rolls. (In Chinese, the deep-fried rolls containing pork and vegetables are called spring rolls, "spring" referring to the season. The dish called egg rolls consists of meat wrapped in a crepe-like pancake made entirely of eggs. Somewhere between China and America, the spring rolls lost their original name and most, but not all, of their meat.) Like their counterparts in Chinese restaurants, these spring rolls consist primarily of cabbage and taste rather bland even with the sweet and sour sauce.
Usually Thai entrees are served with a choice of different meats, seafood, or tofu. At Karinya, a gluten-based mock meat version is available. The entrees include the trademark red and green curries (spicy!), the Indian-influenced yellow curry, hot basil, sweet spicy, and the more Chinese-influenced cashew nut or broccoli in oyster sauce. The chef will be happy to tune the spice levels to your taste.
I had the chance to sample two of the specialties at Taste of Thai. The Spicy Bean had green beans, napa cabbage, and mock meat and was sweet and slightly spicy at the same time. A very interesting dish was the Love
Boat Vegetarian with glass noodles (a clear noodle made from mung beans), mock meat, napa cabbage, mushrooms, and celery wrapped up in aluminum foil and steamed. To serve it, the waiter cuts open the resulting puffed up package producing a boat. This dish was spicy and especially healthy as it was steamed and not stir-fried.
Thai salads, noodles, and fried rice also are available without meat. Thai restaurants are not inexpensive, but their elegant atmospheres compensate for this (except for Taste of Thai which is rather noisy.) Incidentally, Thai restaurants usually do not set the table with chopsticks because the Thai people do not normally use them, except to eat noodles.