Pleasures of the Flesh-Free 

Golden Lotus taste-alikes make born-again vegans nostalgic for meat.

In Supreme Master Ching Hai's world, grilled lamb sizzles. Fish tastes of the sea. Pork teases, just this side of leathery but so smokily sweet you don't mind. Plump pink shrimp, tightly curled, crunch when bitten.

But in Supreme Master Ching Hai's world, shrimp isn't meat. In the master's world, those white spongy spots that look and taste like fat aren't fat.

Oakland's Golden Lotus restaurant is Supreme Master Ching Hai's world.

She isn't actually there, though she smiles down beatifically from a huge framed photograph. That smile, rendered off-kilter and thus a bit sly by the paralysis that affects Ching Hai's left cheek, also beams up from booklets in English and Vietnamese stacked neatly by the door. As pictured within, the master's hair is sometimes yolk-gold, sometimes charcoal-black. She sometimes wears white robes, and sometimes flamboyant ensembles of her own design that evoke Princess Di, Lost in Space, and Angkor Wat. She tosses Jolly Rancher candies to crowds of disciples. Critics call her the head of the world's fastest-growing cult. Devotees call her the messiah. She doesn't deny it.

Born in Vietnam in 1950 and raised Catholic, Ching Hai was married to a German scientist whom she left at 32 to seek Buddhist enlightenment. Fame came in the '80s. She has lectured at the United Nations, organized a benefit concert at LA's Shrine Auditorium with Debbie Reynolds, Bill Conti, and Al Jardine, and donated copiously and controversially to Bill Clinton's campaign. Time called her "Clinton's Buddhist Martha Stewart." She has been carried through Taipei in a sedan chair.

Refusing payment for her lectures, she sells the clothes and jewelry she designs -- diamond brooches, lemony tracksuits, and gowns that go for more than $10,000. She may or may not be the messiah, but she writes poetry. Paints. Composes music. Donates to disaster aid. Performs cosmetic makeovers.

And eats no meat.

Initiates are required to abstain from theft, intoxicants, and extramarital affairs. They must also become vegetarians. Their devotion is our gain, because Ching Hai is affiliated with dozens of vegetarian restaurants around the world, from Jakarta to Melbourne to Phoenix to Oakland.

The Dang family -- Ching Hai devotees who opened Golden Lotus in 1996 -- follow a time-honored Buddhist tradition of crafting analogue flesh out of fungus, soy protein, wheat gluten, vegetables, and nuts: stretched, folded, seasoned, shredded, deep-fried, and steamed. At Golden Lotus, you can have it ninety different ways.

This abundance, in which "Lemon Chicken," "Ginger Abalone," "Seafood Soup," and even "Steak" are served under a sign announcing that none of the meat is real, is a counterpoint to the plainness of the place itself. A concrete parking structure dominates the view through the front windows, beyond a few cheap Chinese paper lanterns. Across 13th Street, the Tribune Tower, the Will Rogers Residential Hotel, and an old brick kung-fu studio evoke a 1930s feeling, as if one's grandfather was about to emerge from a nearby doorway, young, wearing suspenders.

Vermicelli with Grilled Pork was a plate piled with raw bean sprouts, shredded carrot, green onions, rice noodles, peanuts -- a Golden Lotus ubiquity -- and slices of pink "meat" with chewy golden skin. A light sweet sauce was served separately, to be spooned over DIY arrangements of these items. As one who prefers food to be made and assembled before reaching the table, I took more kindly to the Tay Ho Rice Rolls, sleeping-bag-shaped parcels with diced contents tucked into cool rice flour sheets whose soft thickness recalled Ethiopian injera. Tuffy sampled the Summer Rolls, enrobed in stretchy, translucent, paper-thin wrappers, but pronounced them relatively boring, the dull prominence of their mostly tofu contents brightened only somewhat by the tang of a red vinegar dip.

The restaurant was filling up. Some of the diners, apparent regulars, were Asian families. Others were Caucasian hipsters basking in fusions only possible in a strange new world where messiahs make tracksuits.

We ordered "fish." I hate actual fish. It's the bones: pin-thin, tailor-made to catch in throats. And let's not mention scales and slime. Ask a restaurant to endear you to a fake version of something you hate -- now there's a challenge.

Fried Fish in Tomato Sauce was a halibut-shaped plank smothered in chunky crimson sauce flecked with chili and raw cilantro and tasting frankly, innocently of the sea. Its white nonflesh pulled away reluctantly from black seaweed skin in realistic soft, white flakes. Like all fake meat, it vouchsafed comfort, revelations, right after that flash of panic when a vegetarian's neurons shout Slaughterhouse! Stop chewing! Spit it out!

A similarly red bath with a similarly hot, surprising kick swathed the Salmon in Pineapple Sauce. (If you don't like spicy dishes, ask your server to specify which is which, as the menu has no symbology along these lines, and while some dishes have "spicy" in their titles -- like the duly incendiary batter-fried Spicy Shrimp Barbara ordered -- a lot more don't, but are.) Raw broccoli formed a ring of too-crunchy buoys around deep-pink "salmon" slices whose grainy density yielded intense savor: that sea taste, concentrated, plus the sharp smoke of beach campfires. Eating this, eyes wide, I felt as if I were getting away with something, tapping into that sense of superiority that comes with eating fish -- biblical, nautical, the brainfood of the Ancient Mariner, but without bones. Or hooks. Or mercury.

Just as Supreme Master Ching Hai never stints on lipstick, gems, bubblegum colors, and polka dots -- what's so bad about looking good, she demands -- the Golden Lotus doesn't stint on thick, bright, bold, but carefully orchestrated sauces. Buddhist minimalism lay light-years away from our Spicy Potato and Chicken Curry, whose yellow-velvet depths simply begged for a ladle. Potato ziggurats absorbed the coconut milky sauce and melted dutifully in the mouth, contrasting with the sweetly snappy sliced carrots. Large pale irregular "chicken" chunks did what chicken does: conveyed sauce to the mouth, with a texture airier than that of the real bird but just fibrous enough to keep it there longer than tofu.

The restaurant does bean curd and vegetable dishes, too. It seems a crime to order these when good fake meat is relatively rare and vegetables are available virtually anywhere -- if you want veggies, you can buy a V8 in a liquor store. Nevertheless, Stanley ordered Thousand Layers Tofu-Eggplant Claypot. As in the curry dish, the sweet-salty sauce was halfway between a thick soup and an entrée all its own, this time confettied with black pepper and limp bits of onion, and so beefily hearty and beefily brown that you'd swear ... if it weren't for that sign on the wall. Tofu cubes and plugs of Japanese eggplant soaked it all up engagingly, like edible sponges.

Some of the dishes served here are Chinese-restaurant standbys -- sweet-and-sours, potstickers, wonton soups with dumplings like stout white flowers and strips of "fatty" "pork." Also here are Vietnamese staples -- the noodle soup pho, and fried Imperial Rolls, best when cut into bits and served over vermicelli. Others are originals, as was the Tamarind Beef that one of our group ordered but then, because its fellow dishes were so pink, so yellow, so brimful, sat unattended near the soy sauce for a long time.

Barbara tried it first, wrinkled her nose, and called it "too sweet." Others followed suit, tasting the reddish-brown strips in their plum-dark sauce both on and off the deep-fried wonton skins served alongside, tortilla-chip style.

"Too sweet" is always music to my ears. Beef is the meat I miss most. Sweetened beef is the beef I miss most. Teriyaki. Cocktail meatballs. Burgers drowning in relish.

The reddish strips played that beefy bite-my-sinews game that longtime vegetarians forget. Generous scatterings of fresh mint and sesame seeds formed sharp and nutty counterpoints to the strips' assertive sweetness and the sauce's tamarind tartness. Even while Gene and Stanley shared a flan and Tuffy sank into his chair at the richness of the Vegan Mocha Chocolate Cake, I was still nibbling the "beef," making up for lost time, for years of steaks renounced, for gristly burgers by the thousands condemned to the shady vales of dream and fantasy.

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