Veganism—the practice of avoiding animal products, dairy, gelatins, beeswax and the like, in cooking and lifestyle—is, if nothing else, a nice place to visit from time to time if one doesn’t wish to take up permanent residence. When I think about the commitment—especially in the IE—it seems utterly impossible to go full vegan; it’s completely at odds with the mantra of eat fast, often and voluminously from the most convenient outlet that dishes up immediacy.
This little kitchen is brightly lit, with four large booths with cherry-wood tables, four tables and a two-top. Soft Thai music plays over the scene, and it’s only swelled under by the occasional hiss of the grill. Matter of fact, it’s exactly the kind of place you’d find in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The chef is in plain view, right behind the counter, and the steam of his creations wears over him like an ethereal mist. All is soft tones and Christmas lights, and there’s a knee-high shrine as you walk though the doors. A pretty fancy milieu for a place that has been around only four months.
My little party of three decided on a smattering of dishes, and chose from a yard-long menu the Bright Rolls as an appetizer, some Tom Kah soup, chicken nuggets for the youngster in the group, Spicy Mint Leaves with beef and the Thai Yellow Curry with chicken. Obviously, the chickens and shrimps and beefs are mimics, which boggles the mind while fooling the senses. The Bright Rolls are diaphanous rice noodle wraps that burst with minty flavor (which is actually mint’s understudy, basil). The house vegan sauce is the color of apple butter, only with chopped nuts and Fong sauce puddled in a corner of the dish for spice. There’s never a moment when the soy chicken presents itself as a fake here.
Meanwhile, the Tom Kah—a coconut milk with lemongrass and mushrooms soup—exploded with favor. The dried galangal bark (like ginger root) floats and also adds distinct flavor to the mix.
But the real surprise was the chicken nuggets. Ordinarily, if you order chicken nuggets you get the old parts is parts meats cobbled and fatsy-pasty into a fried, breaded nugget. This is a white meat replica, but it is honest to Pete like eating the freshest, most flavorful chicken nuggets possible. In other words—this is closer to the concept of a perfect chicken nugget than anything that is literally the breast meat of poultry. Soy chicken, the other other white meat.
And those Spicy Mint Leaves ($8.25) aren’t joking around, either—these are intimately spicy morsels of beef strips, sautéed with (ambushed by?) fresh chili, garlic, onions, bell peppers and, of course, mint leaves. The head clears up with every bite of this one, so be forewarned. If there’s a knock, it’s that beef remains inimitable, even at this remarkable culinary clone shop—the consistency is off, more chewy than beef, but ultimately still very good (and even preferable to actual strip steak). The sticky brown rice is lightly lacquered in something sweet, also excellent.
As for the Yellow Thai Curry ($8.25), this is on par with anything you’d get from Anarkali, with a much milder chili paste and coconut milk covering potatoes, onions, peas and carrots—the safest way to go if you’re a recovering meatlover with a fetish for taste-explosive foods.
In the end, Bright Star is a perfectly satisfying place to dine no matter what your eating preferences are. It’s a much needed addition to Rancho Cucamonga’s dining choices—and a welcomed one!—and it’s gastronomic conscience is infectious. You’ll notice a tip jar for the chef on the way out—you’d do well to drop a little token of appreciation, if you enjoy it as much as I did.
Bright Star Thai Vegan Cuisine, 9819 Foothill Blvd., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 980-9797; Open daily 11AM–10PM; D, MC, V