1905 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
“This place is run by a ‘Supreme Master’?” says my buddy Lee. He’s driving us to a vegan eatery with an innocent name, “Loving Hut.”
“Yeah,” I say. “But we’re cool. It’s the food. Good for you. Guaranteed.”
I’ve read about this new chain. Serves nothing unhealthy. Desperate to check it out. Trouble is, it’s run by acolytes of a “Supreme Master,” someone who, like, tells you how everything is supposed to be.
“I don’t want to get mixed up in some cult,” says Lee.
Lee’s a college-lecturer type. Known him for years. And anyone claiming “supreme authority” has committed the worst crime in his book: intellectual mediocrity. ’Course, he considers my mind too soggy to worry about.
We pull in next to this little place that couldn’t look more clean and healthy. Yet I can’t help thinking of that Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach, how everything was perfect, too perfect — before it went south.
Loving Huts, I hear, are springing up like mushrooms, around the world and across the U.S. Anybody can go. Nobody makes you hold hands and chant before you eat. But once inside, I see that the hanging flat screens are all spouting “Supreme Master” television, praising the work of this lady they call Ching Hai.
We sit down at a table. The place is mostly full. Normal-looking families, couples, oldies. We should be looking at the menu but can’t help being drawn to the TVs, the Supreme Master’s pearls of wisdom. The message is world peace and veganism. Fine, but it’s also about how She, the Master, can “take you home” through Her wisdom. And, yep, like God, She gets Caps all the Way.
“Jim Jones,” mutters Lee. “Mind control. I don’t like it. I don’t care how beautiful her ideas are.”
“Let’s see if the food clarifies our feelings,” I say.
Must say, the place is all airy, new, and prosperous-looking, with butter-cream walls and gold columns and big, clean, cream-colored floor tiles. A sign says “Be Veg., Go Green, Save the Planet.” The word “Love” is painted in flowery script across the ceiling.
Pleasant young guy named Ted comes up with menus. Heck, for vegan, they have a lot. Starters, salads, vegetables, noodles, rice dishes, “fish” dishes, even “ham” burgers and spaghetti. It’s fusion, but without killing anything — that can run away, anyway.
We start out ordering golden wontons with a dipping sauce ($3.25). A coffee for me ($2.50) and a (nonalcoholic, natch) piña colada for Lee ($2.95). The wontons are a good price, and danged good-tasting, with — is that sour cream inside? — a side of plum sauce to dip them into. We get a plate of “fresh summer rolls” ($3.25). These are delish, too, about ten of them, thin rice-paper wraps stuffed with carrots and jicama, with a bit of basil tossed in. They come with a similar dipping sauce topped with nuts.
Except Lee’s not eating.
“I’m from Wisconsin. What does that say to you?”
“Uh, you’re a meat ’n’ potatoes guy?”
“We do have a Loving Hut burger,” says Ted. “The patty is soy, not beef. But it tastes pretty similar.”
“Aha! Saved by the bell,” says Lee. And when it comes (with french fries, lettuce, pickles, mushrooms, and onions, $4.95), he dives in. Three minutes later, he comes up for air to pay a high compliment: “For a non-burger, that’s not a bad burger.”
While he’s burgering, I order one more thing. Seeing as the Supreme Master comes from Au Lac in Vietnam, it seems only right to taste the soup named after, uh, Her region — Au Lac Sweet and Sour soup ($5.75; a larger size costs $6.75).
It’s not bad. Has “shrimp” that could pass for shrimp, peppers, chunks of soy and pineapple, celery, tomatoes, bean sprouts, okra, basil, and taro stems. It’s a pho, I guess, but with a strong, sweet pineapple flavor.
“Where do you think they get the money to open up all over the world, and a dozen new places in the U.S.?” I ask Lee, in a whisper, as if Correctness Guards might haul us off for being too curious.
“The internet, I bet,” says Lee. “Why don’t you go ask?”
So, what the heck, I do. Problem is, Ted the server doesn’t really want to talk Supreme Master stuff. “I don’t know too much,” he says. “Better just go online. They can explain.” And that’s it.
I sit back down. One flat screen is now showing “good news” from around the world, read cheerily. The other has the Supreme Master Herself, sitting on a dais in front of hundreds, lapping up Her every word.
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing,” I say to Lee as we leave. “Maybe ‘Supreme Master’ is just a compliment, and we resent it because she’s not an old European male. We have popes, archbishops…I mean, main thing is the food here was fresh, a helluva deal, healthy, right?”
“For crying out loud,” Lee says. “Why don’t we just give over our hearts and minds to The Organization? Why did we fight for democracy? They’re conquering us through our stomachs.”
“So would you come back and eat again?”
He thinks for a moment. “Probably.”
“But I thought you hated mind control.”
“As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’ ” Lee sighs. “Plus, that was a damned good burger.”
The Place: Loving Hut, 1905 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park 619-683-9490
Type of Food: vegan, Asian-American fusion
Prices: Golden wontons with dipping sauce, $3.25; fresh summer rolls, $3.25; Loving Hut burger (soy patty with french fries, lettuce, pickles, mushrooms, and onions), $4.95; Au Lac Sweet and Sour soup (with shrimp, soy, pineapple, celery, okra, taro), $5.75 medium, $6.75 large; heavenly salad (with soy chicken, peanuts, shredded cabbage, carrots, onions), $6.25/6.95; grilled “chicken,” with lettuce on rice, $6.75; Guru fried rice (with carrots, peas, onions, curry flavor), $5.95/6.75; vegan cheesecake dessert, $3.50
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., 5:00–9:00 p.m., Monday–Friday; 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Saturday; closed Sundays
Buses: 1, 15
Nearest Bus Stops: El Cajon Boulevard and Georgia