All over this town, there are very fine restaurants where you can nibble on young pigeons cooked rare, chew on thin sheets of wonderfully seasoned raw beef or gnaw at ribs smoked and charred over five hours and slathered in tangy sauce. Lamb chops, wild boar, venison, quail, duck, turkey, salmon, halibut, chicken, turkey, bone marrow and steak after thick, juicy steak.
Oh, the horror of it all!
If you have eaten any or all of the above, you would be in quite a predicament in reconciling your lifetime karma score. Fortunately, there is a karma resuscitation program under way on Broadway that is quaint, charming, original, somewhat eccentric, very Buddhist and pretty much delicious.
Andy Nguyen Restaurant is a meatless eatery that serves many meatlike products (raising an issue I initially found cute but provocative and will address momentarily).
You can get drumsticks that look like chicken, thinly sliced pieces of "beef" in a vegetable medley, cubes that pose as ham and bits of "shrimp" that appear in soups, rolls and salads. No animals were harmed in the making of the Andy Nguyen hamburger.
The restaurant, which has been around since 1984, is a prominent patch on the colorful quilt of Broadway's ethnic eateries. Frankly, the boulevard is so eclectic and stimulating that it could be much better promoted as a thriving destination for local foodies and tourists alike.
Andy Nguyen was pretty much a regular Vietnamese restaurant, and a successful one, until a divorce, a life- altering quest, a meeting with the Dalai Lama, a shaved head and, five years ago, pretty much a spiritual cleansing of the restaurant.
Out with the meat, the old way of doing business and all that icky karma. In with serenity, bright plates of vegetables, lively seasonings and guilt-free dining. Oh, and then there's the gong that sounds when your order is ready.
The force behind the move to meatless was Lien Nguyen, and the talent in the kitchen behind the meatless food is her devoted and creative son, Andy Nguyen Jr. He's not a vegetarian, but he embraces his mother's vision and knows how to make food stand tall and sing.
Lien wanted a restaurant that was true to herself and her Buddhist principles, among them karma, the idea that if you live properly, you will be rewarded. If people came and bought into her new ways, great. If not, that would be OK, too.
At first, traditionalists were shocked. Many looked at the menu, scoffed and walked. Heck, if you want meat, you need to go to Jamie's Broadway Grille, where there are even animal heads on the wall.
But Andy Nguyen Restaurant is the story of sticking to one's principles, carving a niche and letting people embrace a new way of being. The restaurant may have one of the most loyal followings in town, a built-in collection of customers ranging from longtime vegetarians to people who simply like to dabble in meatless fare.
Somewhere in between are the folks going meatless on doctor's orders and folks tagging along with vegetarian friends and spouses.
None of them will feel shortchanged.
Now, for the food. Look at the menu. If you're a curmudgeon, you, too, will scoff.
But sit tight, get past the titles of the dishes – Enlightened Mind rolls, Universal Love lemongrass, Karmic Konnection Krepe – and order what might seem appealing. Honestly, if you just close your eyes and point, you're still going to come out a winner.
The rolls, which do well as an appetizer for a group, are precisely wrapped in rice paper and seasoned with mostly subtle touches.
The Treasure rolls ($6.50) feature grilled soy "shrimp" and "ham," slaw, carrots, peanuts and something described as "crunchy strips." With the peanut dipping sauce, it was a serene start. The more vibrant and sharper Asian flavors of the Buddha rolls ($6.50) reflect the infusion of lemongrass flavors with the shiitake mushrooms, along with rice noodles and red onions served with a ginger sauce for dipping.
The soups come in a large pot, from which you serve a smaller portion into your bowl. Soup, too, is a nice dish for sharing. The Peaceful curry noodle soup ($10) is held together with a mild yellow curry broth and features vermicelli rice noodles, button mushrooms, a variety of vegetables, pieces of tofu and, ta-da, our first prominent encounter with fake meat. Swimming along in the broth is a soy "chicken" drumstick. Looks like chicken. Tastes sorta like chicken, with a firm texture that has a meatlike pull when you bite into it.
What are we to make of this? Don't vegetarians want to get away from meat rather than devour something that looks and tastes and smells like meat but isn't?
So I thought.
When I asked a vegetarian friend at work about this, she told me that she also blanched initially at the idea of the tofurkification of Andy Nguyen. What won her over? The food. It's simply good food. And if you're not into tofurkey, there are enough items on the menu with meatlike products to appeal to you, too.
For new visitors, I recommend trying the Universal love lemongrass ($10) because it gives a sense of the signature flavors that make this style of cuisine stand out. It comes with sautéed soy "chicken" and mixed vegetables in a bright, balanced lemongrass sauce.
For those who don't want a drumstick or a hunk of faux beef on the plate, go with something like Flower Adornment Sutra ($9) – with those toothsome sautéed shitakes, tofu and broccoli in a basil sauce that is spicy with a touch of sweet.
For something charmingly different with a touch of the exotic, order the aforementioned Karmic Konnection Krepe ($11). The crispy crepe is made of rice flour and contains soy "shrimp," "ham" and mushrooms. We broke off pieces of the crepe and wrapped it in the large pieces of leafy greens for a mild-mannered treat. There were no explosions of flavors here, but it was a pleasant, interactive dish.
Whenever I go to an Asian restaurant, I order the spaghetti – yes, spaghetti – if I see it on the menu. I had the excellent spaghetti at the Thai fusion Boon Boon Restaurant farther up Broadway, and I enjoyed a superb spaghetti at Andy Nguyen. It's called Monk in Italy ($11). No marinara and parmesan here.
You get a mixed stir-fry of vegetables, tasty oyster mushrooms, bamboo shoots and baby corn in a tomato sauce that nods toward the Italian incarnation while singing out that it's very much Vietnamese. A cool dish I would gladly have again.
On and on it goes at Andy Nguyen. Our karma cleanse kept mounting. When four of us stopped by for lunch, we ordered enough rolls to require a doggy bag (if we're allowed to use such a term). In fact, lunch is a good way to try Andy Nguyen. It seems quicker, and there are several nice lunch specials.
If there are any issues with the restaurant, they involve the occasional systemic lapse that can result in slow, disorganized service. We found the service mixed – very prompt one time, inordinately slow another.
But at a place where you come for karma and a touch of Zen, tantrums are not in order. If you get some of the slow service, you'll need to muster an equal helping of Zen.
The wait will be worth it when you get to the food. And you'll know it comes from a way of life that is earnest, authentic, karmic and, in the end, charming.
For more images of food at all- vegetarian Andy Nguyen, go to sacbee.com/photos
ANDY NGUYEN RESTAURANT
2007 Broadway, Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday; noon-9:30 p.m. Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? No alcohol, but lots of flavorful teas.
Overall: 3 stars (good)
This restaurant is unlike any other around. It is casual, vegetarian and earnest. The cooking, the mix of colors and flavors, is balanced and often exciting. The service can be hit or miss, but there is a charm to the place – and a karmic connection – that wins out.
Food: 3 stars (good)
The cuisine starts with Vietnamese flavors and moves outward, taking on a fusion of Asian influences. All of that is handled deftly. Then come the faux meats that are made of soy and look like anything from a drumstick to a piece of beef. How you feel about that is up to you, but start with an open mind. I didn't like the idea, but except for the burger, I was won over by the taste.
Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
I liked the gong in the kitchen, struck when an order is up. The seating is cozy, and the energy in the room is often brimming. People like this place, and it shows.
Service: 2 stars (mixed)
Snappy and friendly sometimes, slow and sullen at others. Hey, it ain't easy working a packed room. But if systemic issues can be addressed, the missteps in timing won't be so glaring.
Value: 3 stars (good)
I don't know the price of good karma, but the cost of the food here is pretty reasonable for the creative cooking, the freshness of the ingredients and the eclectic offerings on the menu.