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Tastes like the real thing

Veggie Garden's menu is a vegan's guilty pleasure

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.

Veggie Garden

2464 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View



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4 people like this
Posted by Veggie maestro
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 22, 2015 at 7:26 pm

It should be mentioned that the wonderful Garden Fresh (on El Camino & Shoreline, next to the Baskin & Robbins) has been serving the vegetarian community for decades. The copycat Veggie Garden was started by a relative of the Garden Fresh owners without their blessing. That they set up shop so close to the original points to the bad blood between them.

I have been a very happy customer and friend of Garden Fresh for close to 15 years. I would on principle never set foot in the knockoff Veggie Garden.

Along with Garden Fresh, the above-mentioned Veggie Grill (at San Antonio Shopping Center) and Yam Leaf Bistro (Calderon just off El Camino Real) are also excellent and affordable vegetarian restaurants.

5 people like this
Posted by Au Contraire
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2015 at 7:57 pm

I have been a vegetarian since I was 17 years old. I prefer Veggie Garden to Garden Fresh for two reasons: the food is less oily, and the service is friendlier.

1 person likes this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:57 pm

I heartily applaud the existence and opening of vegetarian and vegan
restaurant alternatives. They are sorely needed, but I have to wonder
why virtually all of them are so bad, and so expensive on top of it?

I have been trying to work my diet closer to WFPB, what they call
Whole Food, Plant Based diet for years. it is difficult, inconvenient
and very expensive to do with restaurant food ... almost impossible to
eat healthy and get enough nutrients and calories.

The first thing is that vegan fare is lighter so you have to eat more
of it to sustain your nutrition. A carnivore can eat a steak and potatoes
and feel full and satisfied for hours, even though they may be creating
unhealthy conditions in their body setting themselves up for heart
disease, stoke, type-2 diabetes and other problems.

So the natural alternative some might want who desire to avoid
these diseases or attempt to reverse them is to eat a plant-based
diet, however you must eat lots and lots of veggies to fill you up,
get enough nutrients and be satisfied.

What that translates to in most vegan places are small "gourmet"
portions that are hardly real meals and if you added up the
nutrition values of them, as on the backs of cans and packages
you would be surprised and aghast at how little actual nutrition
you are getting .... especially for your dollar.

No, you are not getting animal fat, or animal protein which has
been linked by Dr. Colin Campbell and others to different cancers
at least in mice. What you get are the same fillers your get in
other restaurants and usally a small amount of veggies, and you
pay more not less for it than your would in a regular non-vegan

You can still avoid the bad stuff and feel good, like for driving a
Prius or picking up after your dog, but the vegan restaurant in
my opinion does not make economic or nutritional sense at this
point in time.

Another thing is that since you must eat more food as a vegan
it takes longer to eat. Instead of downing a quick burger you
have to sit for an hour to eat a salad. That makes the seats in
a vegan restaurant that would serve you a real full meal put
them at an economic disadvantage. I know I have a big bowl
or oatmeal with flax seeds, blueberries, walnuts, somes times
other things for my breakfast that can take me the better part
of an hour to finish, and sometimes more. Can you imagine
trying to make money with 1 customer taking up a seat for
the entire breakfast shift? It ain't happening, so you get
small portions. It's not that some of them are not very good.

I had a great purple sweet potato dish at a local restaurant,
but there were only 5 small pieces of sweet potato ... at the
store that probably translates to maybe $0.50 cents, with some
greens and rice ... that is not very much input, and the dish
cost over $12. And it is not a real complete nutritious meal.

Like this comment
Posted by Foodie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2015 at 11:41 pm

If you ask at Veggie Garden, they will cook your meal custom with low oil and much spice. I have wanted to love Garden Fresh but found their food way too salty. I do know many people who love both. More options for vegan is great. I actually like Veggie Garden for the ways it is different than GF.

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