Meatless, easy on the message
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, August 31, 2012
Photos of famed vegetarians, including Gandhi, Pam Anderson, Paul McCartney and Bill Clinton, hover over diners at Loving Hut in Falls Church, making for fun gazing but also providing a tip-off of the meal that awaits.
Faux-meat haters, look away: Everything at Loving Hut is vegan, meaning it’s free of meat and dairy. Instead, most dishes are sprinkled with pink “shrimp” made from yam flour, smoky strips of “ham” or chewy wheat gluten “beef.”
Vegetarian restaurants in the area frequently fall into two categories: Rockville’s Yuan Fu and Virginia’s Sunflower have served Chinese-influenced fare, while a stretch of Georgia Avenue near Howard University is thick with vegan soul-food joints, such as Everlasting Life Cafe.
Where Loving Hut excels is in the flavors of Southeast Asia. Many of the delis in nearby Eden Center offer vegetarian banh mi sandwiches, but Loving Hut’s feature a noble attempt to capture the texture of the traditional pt
in mock-meat form. A serving of golden vermicelli noodles evokes bun cha gio, a popular offering of rice noodles, sprouts and sliced spring roll, though this version arrives without the usual meat and fish sauce.
Each Loving Hut (there are nearly 50 in the United States and hundreds worldwide) is free to create its own vegan menu, which could account for why the quiet cafe on the outskirts of a Falls Church neighborhood feels less like a chain restaurant and more like a family-run affair.
Understanding the chain itself is somewhat more complicated. Founded by Vietnam-born spiritual leader and businesswoman Ching Hai, Loving Hut restaurants connect vegetarian and vegan diets with world peace, not to mention reduced deforestation, factory farming and pollution. Though some locations are notorious for screening videos touting such messages, diners, mercifully, aren’t subjected to such baiting in Falls Church.
Instead, it’s easy to be charmed by the casual, coffeehouse-chic space with soothing taupe walls and stark white tables. They provide an ideal backdrop on which to admire the meticulously presented food, which more than once left my fellow diners oohing and ahhing. The club sandwich arrived Lego-like, with perfectly stacked skewers of bread, vegan ham, lettuce and tomatoes, almost too pretty to pull apart. The Loving Hut Salad was an artful pile of tinsel-thin white and aubergine cabbage, so crunchy it was difficult to quibble with the idea of eating it raw. Redolent of mint and cilantro and doused in a mildly sweet vinegar dressing, it reminded me of Thai larb.
The menu includes a handful of mock-meat versions of American dishes, including a hot dog and a “crispy burger” that can be made with a substitute for either chicken or beef. Skip the latter; the region is brimming with veggie burgers less bogged down with oil. More than once, I begged off the fake shrimp or picked around the “beef”; the lemongrass tofu tasted prefabricated and too heavily laced with its namesake herb. Several of the rice entrees looked and tasted as if they had been cribbed from a Chinese restaurant’s “healthy” menu. And though the Vietnamese iced coffee was a plausible stand-in for the condensed milk classic, the soy-based bubble teas were unpleasant.
Loving Hut seems to lead with dessert, with a display counter of doughnuts, cookies and thick, glossy chocolate cakes in the front of the store. The Death by Chocolate is a big seller, as is the Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Bomb. Like most of Loving Hut’s sweets, they’re shipped in from Pennsylvania’s Vegan Treats bakery. Save room for a slice; it’s a decadent reminder that eating vegan doesn’t always have to feel like a sacrifice.
The so-called "cruelty-free" cafe serves American goodies like veggie burgers and sweet potato fries and Asian-inspired dishes like fried rice.