Counter Culture: Veggies and tofu tie the knot at Loving Hut

05/28/2014 4:00 PM

05/29/2014 8:10 PM

The restaurant Mother on K Street downtown has been a hot spot for vegetarian diners since opening in January, but there are other vegetarian and vegan destinations, too – Sunflower Drive In, Bodhi Bowl, California Fresh, Plum Cafe and Anna’s Vegan Cafe to name some. The website is dedicated to “helping vegans find restaurants for themselves and their non-vegan friends and family.”

Tucked in a little strip mall in Elk Grove is Loving Hut “vegan cuisine,” sandwiched between a storefront with a sign that says “Space Available” and another with a sign reading “Baguettes gourmet restaurant coming soon.” It’s a little hard to find in one of the semi-hidden strip malls that front Elk Grove’s chronically jammed streets.

Loving Hut is a favorite of lunch pal Bruce Forman and his son, Aaron Forman. Bruce is a naturalist with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, an omnivore and veteran explorer of small restaurants. Aaron is a junior at Rio Americano High School and an enthusiastic vegetarian who has taken cooking classes at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op (risotto, veggie burgers). “I do miss chicken, though,” he admitted.

It was noon on a recent Friday, and Loving Hut was mostly empty. “It’s hit and miss,” our server said. “Sometimes it’s crowded, sometimes not. We don’t advertise, so we rely on word-of-mouth.”

“The last time we were here for dinner, we got the last table,” Bruce said. “Timing is everything.”

We sipped freshly squeezed limeade sweetened with agave nectar while sorting out the extensive, bargain-priced and plant-based menu, which leans toward Asian fusion ($3 to $10). It offers appetizers, soups, salads, rice and noodles, tofu and vegetables, and daily specials in an organized jumble of combinations. The nearly 20 entrees have happy names such as Joy Chow Fun, Caramelized Bliss and Lucky Chow Mein.

There’s a lot of soy protein, tofu, noodles, herbs and veggies going on. The array was a pleasant and interesting diversion from the usual burgers-and-barbecue-type fare this column takes on.

Loving Hut is a chain of more than 200 stores in 26 countries, with more than 40 of those units in 14 U.S. states. Sixteen are in California. This vegan kingdom is overseen by Supreme Master Ching Hai, who says she “wants to help the world with a more noble way of living by providing easy access (read: inexpensive) to vegan food all over the world.”

Ching Hai, who lives in Vietnam, is the “spiritual teacher” of a form of meditation called Quan Yin, and heads Ching Hai Association, with international interests in “restaurants, fashion and jewelry design.” Her philosophy is reflected in the hand-painted signs on the walls of the Elk Grove store: “Time to act to save our planet,” “Be a hero – be vegan,” “Honoring all life maintains nature’s balance,” and so on.

Worthy sentiments, and somehow connected to our lunch order: Golden Sampler, Heavenly Salad, a platter of sizzling tofu and a bowl of wonton soup.

While we waited the few minutes for the server to deliver brimming plates, Bruce mentioned that he had coordinated the recent 29th annual Nature Bowl, a competition among students that involves science-based activities, with emphasis on the local environment.

Then he produced a field guide to plants and wildlife, “The Outdoor World of the Sacramento Region.”

“This is the go-to book for learning about nature in our area,” he said.

After pages on lupine, salamanders, butterflies, herons and sturgeon, it seemed strange that the state bird (quail) can be fair game for hunters, but the state flower (poppy) seems to be more protected. “It’s complicated,” Bruce replied.

Soon, we were admiring a spread of good-looking dishes that happened to be vegan. The fried morsels on the Golden Sampler plate (spring roll, wontons, soy nuggets and “vegetable protein with bell pepper, garlic and onion”) were crisp and especially yummy when dipped in the accompanying sauce.

The shredded pile of fresh and crunchy cabbage, carrot, mint, tofu and peanuts served as the Heavenly Salad was made better by the wonderfully tart plum dressing.

Chunks of well-sauced crispy-creamy tofu literally sizzled on a metal platter, and quickly vanished. We skipped the gummy, bland wontons in the wonton soup and enjoyed the excellent broth and al-dente bok choy, celery, broccoli, carrot and cabbage.

“These are not complicated or pretentious dishes, but they have a complexity of flavors and textures,” Bruce remarked.

Well said, but we still want to know more about quail and poppies.

No place like Carmel

If you have a couple of days this summer, one way to beat the Sacramento scorch and grab a great bite is to make tracks for the Monterey Peninsula. Next time you do, try this trio in Carmel, the 1-square-mile seaside village that bulges with 60-plus restaurants. Think in terms of splitting dishes:

Porta Bella: For dinner, introduce yourselves to a wild mushroom Napoleon and a plate of lemon-scented capellini with bay scallops, mussels, prawns and lobster. Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde; (831) 624-4395,

Village Corner: For breakfast, sit on the outdoor patio by the fire pit and share a Mediterranean omelet (tomato, mushroom, spinach, mozzarella) and side of crisp bacon, or calamari steak and eggs. Dolores and Sixth, (831) 624-3588,

Nielsen Bros Market: For lunch, follow the aromas to the charcoal grill in front of the market, a local legend since 1930. Choose from fresh wurst (housemade franks, spicy Polish, hot and mild Italian), baby back ribs, beef and chicken kebabs, and skirt steak. Sit on the weathered-wood bus bench out front. San Carlos and Seventh Avenue, (831) 624-5939,


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