Zen and the Art of Veganism
By Nancy Powell
The Claremont location of the Loving Hut franchise bears little resemblance to its sister stores throughout Southern California. Some locations can really push the sales pitch of a vegan lifestyle into a gentle brainwashing. The Claremont store opts instead to convince diners by experience in the form of a kind, fatherly gentleman named Lawrence Liang. Liang takes Loving Hut in a bold new direction, replacing its largely Vietnamese offerings with contemporary California twists more in tune with an upscale American bistro. And so, in a marked departure from his own Brea location, which adheres to the Loving Hut Asian-based ethos, Liang and his wife (both Chinese) studied American-style foods and designed a menu based around organic ingredients—or, as Liang likes to say, American specialties based on an Asian palate. It’s all part of Liang’s master plan to make veganism accessible to non-vegans and subtly introduce Asian-influenced tastes to a health-conscious crowd. Amazingly enough, Liang’s scheme succeeds.
Case in point—the Gardein Steak Rolls, a cross between an egg roll and burrito. Liang’s wife stuffs hoisin-marinated vegan steak strips and cilantro into a flavorful, Chinese green onion pancake wrap. It’s not obvious to the casual observer, but to an Asian-born eater, the green onion pancake offers a gesture of comfort, a give and take that leads the diner more willingly towards Liang’s journey of spiritual gastronomy.
The second course couldn’t be more American, or rather, Italian. The dish is Wild Mushroom, arugula and caramelized onion pizza with a creamy white sauce and Daiya cheese. Any lingering doubt with Liang’s ability to pull off American cuisine melts away instantly. The pizza dough is feathery light, the mushrooms perfectly sautéed. The Daiya cheese does not have the goopiness some vegan cheeses convey, a plastic, fake Japanese food look that turns people away. Instead, it’s an edible piece of divinity, one that I would willingly share with gourmet pizza enthusiasts.
The first entrée, a basil eggplant and tofu dish, turns out to be the most Asian of the night. Tender cuts of eggplant are sautéed in a sweet and savory sauce with an assortment of bell peppers and orange squash. The second entrée, however, happens to be this location’s most popular—Orange Tenders with Mixed Whole Grain Rice. Most patrons familiar with orange chicken could not separate the difference of Liang’s dish and the meat-laced equivalent. The sauce has a nice, light, citrusy zing and the “tenders” are, deceivingly, little chunks of battered cauliflower florets that render a chicken-like consistency. In fact, the florets have a heartier taste than tempeh, the chicken substitute of choice for most vegans. Those who say Chinese food is bad for you can no longer stake that claim. The judgment is out—kid-tested, mother-approved.
Liang also offers up glasses of vegan red wine to complement the food. All I can say is that this is one wine I can enjoy where “drinking and driving” won’t lead to an automatic DUI. Only 0.5 percent alcohol content is retained, most having evaporated in the wine-making process), yet the texture and essence of “alcohol” convincingly remain.
Liang understands that converting the masses to a vegan lifestyle may prove trying, but with Claremont’s health-conscious attitude already in place, his pathway to success may not be too far behind.
Loving Hut Claremont, 175 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Bldg. A-102, Claremont, (909) 621-1688; www.lovinghut.us/claremont_01. Mon, 11:20AM-3:30PM; Tue-Thurs, 11:20AM-8:30PM; Fri-Sat, 11:30AM-9:30PM. AE, M, V.