Nhà Hàng Chay Hoa Từ Bi Tâm may the toughest restaurant name most of us will ever try to remember, but I’d recommend trying. While the English portion of its sign reads, “Organic-Veggi Restaurant,” only some of its produce is organic. I prefer the phrase I was able to piece together from online translation tools. Accordingly, Nhà Hàng Chay Hoa Từ Bi Tâm could mean, “Compassionate Mind Vegetarian Restaurant.”
4591 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights
Either makes sense. The place opened in the Little Saigon section of City Heights this January, offering a menu of all vegan and vegetarian dishes, hand-written in little black college rule notebooks. Even if the restaurant’s name is tough to recall, this part won’t be: each entrée costs a mere five bucks.
A couple of months on, the hand-written menus have been replaced with printed ones, but the five dollar prices remain the same, as do the options to make any dish on the menu vegan if it isn’t already, and gluten-free upon request. A couple dishes default to feature egg or dairy, but there’s no meat.
Items range from lemongrass fried rice to bánh mì, to a variety of noodle soups in vegetable broth. At the top of the entrees menu, Cơm hoa từ bi, gets translated as “combination rice” (though Google claims it to be, “Loving Kindness Rice”). The simple plate includes a scoop of steamed white rice, and a sampling of ingredients that appear throughout the menu: assorted fresh and pickled vegetables, crispy onions, fried tofu, a soy-based BBQ pork substitute, and the house faux pork belly.
That last one especially caught my attention. It uses a combination of bean curd, baguette crust, and soy-meat to recreate the three-part texture of crispy, fatty pork belly. It doesn’t perfectly mimic pork belly — nothing could — but it holds its own with a marvelous, salty-savory flavor I would look for again.
For example, in the restaurant’s bun, where it’s also joined by the crispy onions and “BBQ pork,” along with carrots, cucumber, jicama, mung bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and cilantro, atop cold vermicelli noodles. There are chopped mushroom and yam eggrolls on there, and vegan nước chấm on the side for dressing. Mixed all together, fragrant, sweet, sour, and salty dish stands up to any bun I’ve tried, with or without meat. And, again, it only cost 5 dollars, a cash-only charge that apparently includes tax.
Though I occasionally dabble, I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian in my day to day. Usually, when I choose to eat plant-based meals, I do so consciously. Maybe because Paul McCartney talked me into adopting Meat Free Monday to save the planet. Or maybe because I spent the entire weekend eating burgers and ribs, and feel the need to eat a couple vegan meals to balance the ledger, so to speak.
But Nhà Hàng Chay Hoa Từ Bi Tâm doesn’t merely answer the question, Where can I get a good vegan meal?, or, Where can I get a good cheap meal? Whenever I try my darnedest to remember its name, it will be in response to the thought, I feel like Vietnamese food.