Eating 8th Avenue: Lucky Vegetarian

My friend Andy, a long-time reader of this blog, knows how to express criticism in the kindest and most constructive way. For example:

“Don’t take this wrong, but all the bird stuff is a little boring. I wish you’d write more about food.”

When I do write about food, he provides positive re-enforcement. And when I go a long time between food posts – like this past month, say – what does he do? Why, he organizes a food outing.

That’s how Eric and I ended up with Andy, his wife Priscilla, and a few other friends in the basement of a Buddhist temple on Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue this past Sunday. The “Lucky Vegetarian” is part business – you enter, you sit down, you eat and you pay, like any other restaurant – but also part of a longstanding religious practice and cultural tradition. Priscilla, whose relationship to Buddhism sounds similar to Eric’s relationship to Judaism, spoke of going to eat vegetarian temple food on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month. It’s good luck, supposedly, and more to the point – it just makes you feel good.

Open the (extensive) menu, and you may be surprised to see a wide range of meat dishes, from hot and spicy whole fish to Peking-style spare ribs and Kung Pao chicken. They are, of course, not really meat. This is understood by the restaurant’s usual patrons – hence, no need to describe them as “mock” – but a bit jarring should you just stumble in from the street. (Though I doubt its bare-bones sign will inspire many casual passersby to descend the steep stairs that lead to the subterranean dining room.)

I should confess up front that I am not a fan of mock meats, so my heart sank a little when I saw the extent to which they dominated the menu. I’ve always thought vegetarian food should have the courage of its convictions. I scoured the menu for “real” vegetarian options, and settled on the clay pot eggplant, which I more-or-less-insisted we order.

Other than that, Andy and Priscilla did most of the ordering. We had to get the lettuce wraps, and the roast pork (“it really does taste like pork,” Andy promised). And how about crispy noodles? Sara requested a mushroom dish, so mushrooms with three cup sauce it was. And mahogany fried rice, at Priscilla’s suggestion (“will it taste like wood?” Melissa wanted to know; “it must be the color, right?” I opined, wrongly). Oh, and dumplings, of course.

It was a lot of food. The dumplings didn’t pretend to be anything other than delicious vegetarian dumplings. The lettuce wraps, with a finely-chopped fake meat filling, were tasty, as advertised. The fake roast pork did in fact both look and taste remarkably like pork. The crispy noodles were great. The mushrooms included tender slices that were easy to identify as mushrooms, along with chewier, fried nuggets that were maybe mushrooms? maybe more of that good, good fake meat? and indubitably delicious. But the sleeper hit of the spread was the mahogany fried rice with egg. It did not taste like wood, nor was it mahogany brown. It was in fact pale green from the young leaves of Chinese Mahogany (Toona sinensis), which gave it a hauntingly complex flavor, mixing herbs with onions. Priscilla buys prepared Toona paste to flavor soups and stew, and now maybe I will, too.

The least interesting dish? Why, my clay pot eggplant, of course.

We did not eat in true Buddhist monk fashion, which as Matthew, a former Buddhist monk, explained, involves shoveling down one’s food as quickly as possible, in silence – and then rinsing off the dishes with warm water or tea and drinking the rinsing liquid so that nothing goes to waste. We did shovel it down, but in a convivially greedy fashion, savoring every bit. And while we left our plates clean, they were not quite tea-rinsed clean.

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Lucky Vegetarian, 5101 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn