Back when I still wore Dr. Martens boots with vintage dresses, I dated a vegetarian fond of textured vegetable protein (TVP). Purchased from the local co-op from bulk bins or prepackaged in cellophane bags, dry TVP could be easily confused with dog kibble. To prepare, one soaked the knuckle-sized chunks in liquid until they swelled and took on the texture of wet knots of soiled kitchen sponge. To make edible, one smothered the pulpy chunks with sauce.
The texture of fake meat has come a long way since then. The taste, while certainly better than the days of chewy kibbles, still has room for improvement. If you shape a slab of 21st-century TVP into a fillet and tell me it's vegan halibut, it's going to have to come with sauce. Lots of sauce. And Veggie Garden, a vegan Chinese restaurant on El Camino Real in Mountain View, makes good sauce.
Truth be told, the restaurant does a reasonable job with its vegan garlic fish slice, too. I ordered the entree for a take-out lunch with miso soup, brown rice and a lychee smoothie. The surprise ribbon of seaweed wrapped around the fillet's edge, coupled with the crunch of a shredded bean sprout garnish, brought to mind memories of the sea. The white miso soup with torn leaves of soft wakame was the perfect complement, and the steamed brown rice brought everything into balance.
Veggie Garden is a vegan's guilty pleasure in the guise of a Chinese restaurant. Open at 2464 W. El Camino Real for almost two years, it's a great place to have a casual meal with friends or pick up a quick lunch-to-go. It's among several options in Mountain View that offer vegan and vegetarian food at a similar price point -- among them Garden Fresh Chinese Vegan Cuisine, vegan chain restaurant Veggie Grill and vegetarian Latin Yam Leaf Bistro. The problem is the name, which conjures a verdant field of fresh produce rather than a strip mall on a busy commuter road.
If you can move beyond that, even the most die-hard omnivore will have a good time at Veggie Garden. Just don't expect fine dining. This is a small restaurant that doubles as a take-out spot. Up front are two wall-mounted screens displaying rotating images of menu items. The well-lit seating area is clean and pleasant, but compact, with a modern gray-and-brown motif.
On a recent Saturday evening, an eager server brought us to our table. We ordered a large bowl of hot-and-sour soup ($7.95) that was thick with tofu, bean sprouts and cabbage. It was comforting enough, but not as sharply spiced or as sour as it might have been. The pot stickers ($5.95) were fresh and delicious, as were the basil moo shu rolls ($2.95) with finely julienned carrots, cucumber and mushrooms bound together in large basil leaves and soft rice wrappers. What let these appetizers down were the dipping sauces. The peanut sauce meant for the basil rolls was too thick and lacked bite, while the pot stickers arrived with a small bowl of sticky sweet plum sauce. Our server noticed our reaction to the plum sauce and returned to our table offering soy sauce and chili oil.
We were still working our way through the pot stickers when the entrees arrived. I ordered the general's chicken ($9.95), a Hunan dish that features battered, deep-fried nuggets of chicken smothered in sweet and spicy gravy. It was served with a side of broccoli.
General's chicken should not be confused with health food, even if it's served in a vegan restaurant. The deep brown sauce was rich and salty, the nuggets fried and crispy. My taste buds were having a party. My coronary arteries? Not so much.
My dining partner chose vegan duck: a combination of tofu skin and shiitake mushrooms in a light sauce served with a side of the ubiquitous broccoli. One bite into the dish, he proclaimed loudly, "Hey! This tastes like duck!"
He was right. The texture was miraculously meat-like; there was no soy aftertaste. When I took a taste of the sauce on its own, however, it was heavily salted.
The food at Veggie Garden begins with beautiful intentions. It's meat-, dairy- and egg-free; the ingredients are fresh and the dishes are served with enthusiasm. If you have food allergies, employees will do what they can to accommodate you. But if your idea of vegan food is a handful of bamboo shoots nestled on a bed of raw kale, you won't find it at Veggie Garden. Some items on the menu feature raw and lightly processed vegetables -- like the side salad and moo shu rolls -- but most dishes are a little naughty. And that's fine by me. Sometimes, even vegans need to indulge a little.
2464 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View