At vegan Loving Hut, a carnivore’s search for inner peace


Non-beef with broccoli with brown rice at the vegan restaurant Loving Hut. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
February 27

Contrary to what some carnivores may think, vegans are not a militant tribe of soy-gobbling killjoys, bent on ripping the meat straight from our mouths, mid-bite. Okay, some are. But most vegans I know deprive themselves the pleasures of the flesh out of a profound respect for animals and the planet we call home. They humble me, sometimes vocally.

Vegans also are not monolithic in diet, as if they all survive on granola, tofu and wheatgrass-and-green-apple smoothies. Some vegans live essentially on Fritos, Oreos and other junk food, happy to gobble down any snack so long as no critter was abused in its production. Others dine on mock meats meant to trick the mind, if not the palate, into thinking they’re chewing the fat. Then there are vegans aligned with the whole-food movement, insisting on something fresh and healthy on their plate.

Vegans of almost every stripe, however, can find something satisfying at Loving Hut, the Falls Church outlet of a worldwide chain inspired by Supreme Master Ching Hai, a spiritual leader as controversial as a PETA protester shrink-wrapped in a meat tray. Local Loving Hut owner Vincent Nguyen met Ching Hai in 1989 and has been a student of her teachings ever since.

Religion, like diet choice, is a touchy subject. I’m loath to pass judgment on how one finds inner peace during our short, fumbling existence on Earth, even if it comes from a figure whose organization has been called a moneymaking sham. One of the five precepts of the Supreme Master’s meditation technique is to “refrain from taking the life of sentient beings,” which translates into a vegan lifestyle for her disciples.

The only animals at this restaurant — the lone Washington-area location among the 40-plus Loving Huts in the United States — are the customers who feast under the golden cursive “L” affixed to the ceiling. The menu is a love letter to animals and a testament to the open-source nature of the chain: Nguyen says he cobbled together his Vietnamese menu (with Chinese and American accents) by visiting other Loving Huts and similar vegetarian restaurants, where owners willingly passed on recipes, unconcerned about competition or remuneration.

“We want more people to join the plant-based food movement,” Nguyen says, explaining the data share.

If everything here were as fresh and invigorating as the Loving Hut salad, I’d happily walk in lock-step with the vegan army. The salad is a confetti explosion: strips of purple and green cabbage, slivers of goldfish-colored carrots, leaves of emerald-green mint, a dusting of chopped golden peanuts, all covered with a sweet-and-sour dressing. The appetizer, a vegan riff on goi ga salad, echoes the finer characteristics of Vietnamese cooking: the contrasting textures, flavors and hues. It would be perfect with fish sauce.

Memory remains the carnivore’s worst enemy at Loving Hut. Unlike some vegans, who have either forgotten the buttery satisfaction of animal fat or willingly sacrificed the part of their brain that responds to it with visceral delight, carnivores remain crippled by their recent experiences with beef, pork and chicken. So despite Loving Hut’s every effort to make its pho mimic the real thing — down to “meatballs” formed with chestnuts, soy and mushrooms — I could only sit there and pine for a broth rich with rendered fat. This bowl is content to coast on its sweet vegetable-based liquid, fragrant with a fistful of star anise.

The vegan banh mi struggles even more to channel the Vietnamese original. My sandwich was served on dense, multi-grain bread, not a crusty baguette, a questionable substitution that buried the other ingredients under an avalanche of poppy and sesame-seed flavors. The textured vegetable protein used as a meat analog only served to remind me that I need to check the tread on my tires.

Time and again, I found myself taking issue with the mock meats, these pre-fab cutlets that only baffle me when it comes to a certain segment of vegan psychology: If the goal is to avoid animal products, why maintain little reminders of the poor creatures on your plate?

The mock meat in my “non-beef and broccoli” looked genuine enough to confuse friends when I shared a photo on Facebook. The illusion would quickly be dispelled, however, with one bite: The non-beef had a gaseous flavor, as if soybeans could barf.

Largely, I enjoyed the dishes that relied on ingredients that could be prepared in a kitchen, not in a lab, with the notable exceptions of the fried wontons (nice and chewy, with a ginger-heavy dipping sauce) and the “golden nuggets,” these processed rounds with an extraterrestrial crunch (think McNuggets without the pandering to children). None of the ingredients in the lemongrass tofu with mixed vegetables would require a chemist to explain them, and its vegetarian-based “oyster sauce” tied the components together in simple harmony.

Conversely, I struggled to find harmonic convergence with the golden vermicelli with shredded soy protein, a take on a Vietnamese rice noodle dish with pork spring rolls. Loving Hut’s interpretation relies on crisp-but-starchy rolls stuffed with shredded taro root. The flavors don’t combine as well with the sweet soy-based sauce, a stand-in for the umami-rich nuoc mam that typically brings order to the dish. But a generous application of tabletop hot sauce at least provides an all-consuming heat, if not cohesion.

As a counter to my meat-based bias, I asked a vegan colleague to join me on my last visit to Loving Hut. We were quite a pair: I longed for the unctuousness of bovine fat; she wanted a fresh dish not drowning in sodium. We reached consensus on that Loving Hut salad, apparently the only dish here that brings a Supreme Master-like peacefulness to carnivores and vegans alike.

Loving Hut

2842 Rogers Dr.,
Falls Church.
703-942-5622. www.lovinghut.us .

Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Nearest Metro: Dunn Loring-Merrifield, with a 2-mile trip to the restaurant.

Prices: Entrees, $4.95-$9.95.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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