There is wizardry afoot in a large number of Washington area restaurants, where the skill for counterfeiting meat has become rather sophisticated. Even without a blindfold, it is often impossible to tell. Get up close and inspect the grain. Breathe deep its waft. Feel it yield to the fork, and to the tooth. Test for "bounce." Mutton isn't dressing up as lamb, soy is.
According to the National Restaurant Association, one in five diners now looks for a vegetarian meal when dining out. And judging by the number of spots offering mock meat, these vegetarians are hungry for something with a bit more bite than a lentil casserole, but just as healthy (high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol).
Raised on the meatiest of British diets, I was the first to sneer at these alleged substitutes. I love my meats -- my roast beefs, my burgers, my porky sausages. Can't get enough of them. So, I proclaimed boldly, let me be the judge of these so-called meats. Hearing rumors of some particularly good versions, I hurried off to the following eateries to taste for myself.
Happy Family. A sticky little take-out place in the dusty crook of a Falls Church intersection, this spot has as much mood as a phone booth. But the soundtrack is good: the thump of the chopping knife, the hiss of wok, the continuous ring of telephone orders. This family business does a brisk trade at all hours and has an extensive vegetarian menu. Don't be fooled by the cow and chicken pictures, this portion of the menu is 100 percent vegan. There's a nice zip to the Szechwan beef and the visuals are key: sinewy, brownish-gray shavings with the kind of muscular channels one expects of meat. Tossed with a host of crisp vegetables, it was almost indistinguishable from the real thing -- and low fat to boot! Other mock meat faves here include cashew chicken, orange chicken and kung pao beef. Prices: $5.50-$9.25. 301 S. Washington St., Falls Church. 703-534-3838.
Hunan Manor. In business for 15 years, the Manor keeps its vegetarian meats simple and only deals in "poultry." General Manager Ping Gu is a calm, self-assured man who has no doubts about his restaurant's product. As we sit to chat in a handsome burgundy booth, he provides a little history of mock meat and its roots in ancient China. He talks about Buddhism and how faux meat is the result of a need to marry carnivorous tastes with vegetarian practice. While we're talking he reveals his kitchen's secret mock meat ingredient: a frozen vegetable and grain protein roll made by Worthington. Wrapped tight in red and white plastic, it looks a bit like a huge Bob Evans sausage. (Worthington's sister line of soy-based products is Morningstar Farms, which is more readily available in stores.)
"The taste is extremely close. People don't know," Ping says. As I ponder the menu, Ping recommends that I try the restaurant's spicy orange "chicken." "Very popular," he tells me.
Sure enough, the scent wafting from the bag I carry to the car is savory, Christmas-spicy and, yes, meaty. When I finally tuck in, these morsels are, no doubt about it, chickeny. And the sauce is heaven -- dusky and caramelized, blistering with whole dried chilies, intense with bits of orange peel. Prices: $6.50-$11. 11237 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring. 301-681-5360.
Java Green. I was thinking I'd seen it all -- mock meats evolved to their fullest capacity -- when a friend asked if I'd had the "chicken legs" at Java Green. Powered only by wind and sun, this eco-friendly eatery feeds 600 people a day. Korean co-owner Chris Kim explains in his gentle manner that Java Green steers clear of anything that causes suffering to animals, and adds that 80 percent of his customers are non-vegetarian. He says most of the dishes begin with some form of textured soy protein (TSP) that is then cooked up in different ways to different effects.
The food here is so bright it glitters, so exciting it blows the beans off nut loaf. Think fiery noodle soups with kimchi; green soups with roasted seaweed; bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef) with jobche noodles and lotus root; and gorgeous bento boxes filled with gimbob (Korean sushi), mandoo (dumplings) and, of course, those dainty little "chicken legs" molded into shape on popsicle sticks. Prices: $3.95-$12.50. 1020 19th St. NW. 202-775-8899.
Oriental Star Restaurant. Did someone say mock shrimp? Yes, the girl behind the counter at this Chinese-Thai fusion restaurant. Oriental has one of the most extensive vegetarian menus because it offers a mock version of almost every dish. But the "shrimp" are particularly remarkable -- little cocked pinkies of dried soybean curd, the closest in comparison to real meat in look, taste and feel. Note the veiny bodies, the bounce-back. I struggled for a texture to compare these beauties with, and all I came up with was this: shrimp. (Oriental's "pork," by the way, is more hammy than ham.) Prices: $8.75-$10.25. 3221 Duke St., Alexandria. 703-370-4100.
The Vegetable Garden. Another business that has cultivated a fine name among the vegetarian and macrobiotic folks is Rockville's Vegetable Garden. Next to dishes like "Leek Buds Sensation" and "Bean Nest," "Sesame Beef" stands out like an uninvited guest. Appearance-wise, it's a winner -- glistening, seed-scattered twists that are chewy-looking and toothsome. The smell is familiar but I can't quite place it. Meaty, and yes, a touch gamey -- perhaps even too gamey for some tastes. General Tso's chicken (a fave of many) is on the menu too: deep-fried, saucy nuggets with plenty of bounce. Prices: $7-$14. 11618 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-468-9301. www.thevegetablegarden.com.