Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blog Break

The blog is on hiatus for a few weeks while I'm in Asia. I'll have many new vegetarian adventures to report upon my return.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sui Mai

Dim Sum was the hardest thing for me to eschew when I became a vegetarian. I've been on a twenty-year quest to find vegetarian alternatives and have partially succeeded in some corners of the world, far from Los Angeles. You can find decent frozen dumplings at various Chinese and Korean supermarkets and fresh ones at a few choice restaurants. But I have yet to find a good vegetarian Sui Mai in Los Angeles (and I’ve ordered it on every menu where it is listed) which is why I was intrigued to see it first for sale at Ralphs and now in Trader Joe’s packaging in their freezer section.

Unlike other vegetarian versions of sui mai, this product is not stuffed with a loose mince of vegetables but rather a firm mass of moist firm tofu, flecked with chunks of edamame wrapped in yuba (tofu skin). Seasoned with onion, the meaty filling flavor mixed with fresh soybeans imparts a sweetness oddly reminiscent of the sweet snap of shrimp and pork in the real thing.

Trader Joe's on the left, Soyafarms on the right

Soyafarms make the product sold at Ralphs ($3.99 for 7 oz) as well as tofu nuggets, small fried patties shaped like chicken nuggets with the taste of the tofu sui mai filling. They most likely manufacture the product for Trader Joes (11oz for $2.59) as the two are very similar. At half the price per ounce, the TJ’s sui mai are smaller and more flavorful, with extra onion and soy added to the filling. TJ’s made the product suitable for vegetarians (not vegans) by omitting bonito from the surprisingly decent dipping sauce. With a dollop of my favorite hot sauce (a future post), I have a dim sum meal within minutes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chang’s Garden, Arcadia

Known for its vegetarian dishes, the regional food of Shanghai can oftentimes be a source for better than average meatless renditions of normally carnivorous delicacies. One of the finest examples is the rendition of a smoked duck appetizer constructed from multiple layers of tofu skin common on many Shanghainese restaurant menus. Chang’s Garden does not make the vegetarian duck but their cold kao fu (listed as sliced gluten) definitely satisfies the vegetarian meaty appetizer crave. Unlike the "gluten puffs” swimming in brown sauce found in some Chinese restaurants or the gluten appetizers common in vegetarian delis in Hong Kong, Chang’s kao fu is a dry firm, slightly spongy vehicle for the rich savory sauce in which it is marinated. Served with equally flavorful mushrooms, knots of tofu skin, and bamboo shoots, I could have been satisfied with an entrée sized portion of this alone.

We ordered another classic Shanghainese cold appetizer, sweet lotus root. I believe the dish is normally prepared with glutinous rice stuffed into the little holes of the root but this version was stuffed with what tasted like dried fruit. My friend said that some unidentifiable flavor in the dish transported him in memory to many a meal in China. The lotus roots had been braised until softened in a sugary, fruity syrup seasoned with that unknown spice.

I had to try the green bean pancake, a vegetarian version of the beef rolls that have been getting rave reviews over at 101 Noodle Express. Of course, I can’t compare the two, but I’d think that any carnivore would be more than pleased with this hot appetizer. A pancake (similar in texture but thinner than scallion pancakes) is rolled around green beans that have been fried with sliced shiitake mushrooms.

The Hunan tofu (without pork) was a spicy dish similar in appearance to its Sichuan equivalent. Unlike mapo tofu though, the slices of soft tofu were cooked with green onions and thin slices of black mushroom; instead of the heat arising from the numbing addition of Sichuan peppercorn, the oily bright red sauce was cooked with slices of fresh chiles. It was pretty great and was the first item on the table to disappear.

The vegetarian kidneys were made of the stuff sold in the packaged vegetarian meat section of Chinese supermarkets. The waitress couldn’t tell us what was the actual ingredient in the substitution although she said she guessed it was made of grain. The texture is a bit rubbery, the shape is almost accurate and the criss-cross design on the top resembles the pattern cut into real kidneys in Chinese cooking. Stir fried with black mushroom, bell peppers and basil, the bland “kidneys” mostly served to provide texture while the cuttings helped the little nuggets to hold the brown sauce.

Better versions of snow cabbage with tofu sheets and fresh soy beans can be found elsewhere. The greens were tough and the sauce lacked depth.

Upon hearing our vegetarian request, the waitress suggested that anything on the menu in the tofu and vegetable sections could be prepared sans meat. In fact, she was so conscientious that she inquired as to whether or not we could have leeks and garlic (ingredients prohibited by many vegetarian Buddhists). She inspected each dish on our table to ensure that her instructions to the kitchen to omit the meat had been followed.

complimentary boiled peanuts arrived before the meal

Our feast for three, with plenty left over totaled $46. The service was attentive and a vegetarian can comfortably enjoy regional fare here without feeling like you are missing the essence of the cuisine.

Chang's Garden
627 W. Duarte Rd. (626) 445-0606;
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Crumbs, Beverly Hills

I was walking in Beverly Hills to get a cup of coffee when I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, a free cupcake from the new, hyped New York export, Crumbs Bake Shop. The display in the glass case was a vast colorful sugary array. The opposite of the refined decorated mini cupcakes at Vanilla Bake Shop, the frosting and toppings are liberally applied to Crumbs’ gigantic cupcakes. I couldn’t begin to navigate my way through the names of each cake/frosting/filling combination of cupcakes with titles like hostess and devil dog so I settled upon the Reese’s cupcake: chocolate cake, peanut butter frosting and filling inside. I felt guilty about walking away without supporting the business, so I spent $2.25 on a “mini” cupcake, the size of a regular cupcake by most standards.

The smaller sized cupcake had a bland, slightly dry and very sweet white cake with a chocolate cream cheese frosting. Both the cheese and the chocolate in the frosting were completely undetectable leaving only the taste of sweet sweet sweet – a cupcake for a 4 year old.

The chocolate peanut butter cupcake (normally $3.75) was only slightly less disappointing. The cake was moist and unlike the aforementioned frosting, did have some chocolate flavor. At first I was pleased by the presence of what tasted like real peanut butter in the frosting. The frosting however, left an unpleasant shortening like film on my tongue and considering its consistency, there was way too much of it (see below).

On the bright side, there were other, more promising flavors: apple caramel, pistachio, cobbler, key lime, raspberry/blueberry swirl, carrot. Crumbs either possesses gumption or a clever business plan to exploit runoff from the long lines formed at the overrated Sprinkles only two blocks away. Unlike their nearby neighbors, Crumbs also sells scones, cookies, danishes, croissants, (massive) brownies, fruit pies, and full sized cakes. Given the hallow sugar high induced by the partially consumed confections, I don’t think I’ll be returning any time soon.

9465 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Vanilla Bake Shop, Santa Monica

From the stenciled awning to the highly designed interior stocked with miniature desserts and glass jars filled with fake colored coordinated candies, Vanilla feels more like a dollhouse than a bakery.

Perhaps the best part of Vanilla’s offerings is the miniature sized treats allowing for sampling from the impressive variety. Each day features different cupcake flavors (menu is online).

I shared the shot glass of banana pudding in the shop and brought home a half dozen mini cupcakes (secured to the box with a dab of frosting).

The pudding was the perfect little bite presented like a layered trifle: crumbled vanilla wafers topped with custard, sliced bananas and whipped cream. There were other shot glass sized pudding/cream/cake/frosting combos called “ice box minis.”

With flavors like dirt cake (bittersweet Callebaut chocolate mousse, crushed dark chocolate crumbles and whipped vanilla bean cream), triple berry shortcake (raspberries, blueberries and blackberries sandwiched between pound cake, vanilla custard, vanilla whipped cream, layered with Callebaut white and milk chocolate crumbles), and deconstructed key lime pie and meyer lemon tarts, these may well be more worthy of a future visit than the cupcakes. The same are available in larger quantities in varying sized mason jars.

Supposedly the owner of Vanilla has spent years perfecting her vanilla frosting but on the vanilla cupcake I was actually more impressed with the beany aroma of vanilla in the cake than the frosting, tasting like a basic butter cream. If this cake were paired with the vanilla frosting from Big Sugar bakeshop in Studio City, I may actually be sold on white on white cake.

In general all of the cakes, unfortunately more common than not in a cupcake, were on the dry side. The banana chocolate chip cupcake tasted like a day-old banana muffin studded with tiny chocolate chips. The peanut butter cake with milk chocolate frosting was fine but neither the peanut or chocolate was enhanced enough for adult enjoyment. Even when faced with the promising name, bittersweet dark chocolate, I’ve learned not to expect chocolate satisfaction from a cupcake (although the ones at Joan’s on Third come close). The cake, hinting of “dark chocolate” could not hold up to the flavor of the bittersweet chocolate frosting. Frosting for frosting, I’d prefer the layer of ganache coating the chocolate cupcakes at Joan’s. The ideal quantity of frosting on a cupcakes is a point of argument surrounding the cupcake shops around town but I think that if the quality is high, a thin spread is ample and a liberal dollop is not unappreciated.

Cosmopolitans: frosted brownies

Vanilla Bake Shop
512 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA
Tuesday-Saturday 9am - 7pm , Sunday 10am - 6pm

Monday, September 3, 2007

Vegetarian Chinese Food

I’ll never forget my first experience in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. I was young, it was my first time abroad on my own and the first days of my trip landed me in Malaysia. After stumbling into a cheap hotel in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood feeling totally lost in an unknown world, exhausted with the overwhelming sense of wanting to crawl back into my comfortable life, I collapsed. Finally arising from 20 hours of sleep, I ventured disoriented and hungry onto the humid street that had transformed into a night market. I walked past stalls hawking items that I could not comprehend and grooming services that I had only seen performed behind closed doors. With little hope of crossing the language and cultural divide to find something edible, the “Vegetarian Food” sign surrounded by bright Chinese characters appeared like a mirage. Everything about the food stall, including the menu looked exactly the same as the ones surrounding it and yet, I received a positive nod every one of the numerous time I asked “is this food vegetarian?”

The menu was divided into the usual categories: beef, pork, chicken, seafood, etc. There was no indication that the shredded pork listed was not actual meat and thus I made the server affirm with every dish I ordered that it was indeed vegetarian. I had never tried cuttle fish beforehand but was pretty sure that the rubbery strips on my plate were not the real thing. I finally tucked into a meal comprised of foreign ingredients and flavors that nourished me and bolstered the realization, “I can do this.”

Ever since that first bite, vegetarian Chinese cuisine has been a comfort food for me. I am not at all disconcerted by the mock meats and have even sought out the most artful and truthful renditions. Part of what touches me about the Chinese approach to vegetarian food is their love and respect for the original cuisine. The Buddhist monks and practitioners have given attention to every detail from the vein in the shrimp to the skin of the fish to create a cuisine in which no animals have been harmed palatable to all. Rather than making the renunciation of meat a rejection of a culture’s gastronomy, many of the Buddhist vegetarian cuisines of Asia are a celebration of the cultural importance of food and religion.

I have tried most of the Chinese vegetarian restaurants in the Los Angeles area, many of which are situated in the San Gabriel Valley. Succumbing to fierce competition from a high concentration of authentic restaurants representing specialties and regions of China, I’ve watched as vegetarian businesses close their doors permanently only to be replaced by a BBQ or chicken noodle soup shop with nothing on the menu for a vegetarian. Even though I prefer the hallucinogenic blast of chili and prickly ash offered in the Szechuan restaurants and the buns in Taiwanese noodle houses, it is partially out of loyalty, partially due to the safety of the menu, and partially the joy of eating a dish that I can’t have anywhere else that I continue to support the remaining vegetarian establishments. I wish I could say that one stands above the rest as outstanding but each has their strengths and weaknesses. So, for all of you vegetarians out there, here I begin to attempt to outline the vegetarian Chinese landscape of Los Angeles as I’ve experienced it.

Mighty Vege House, Alhambra

Mighty Vege House is located in an Alhambra mini mall built around a bowling alley. I’ve never bowled there but the idea of enjoying lane-side seaweed tofu bamboo veggie ham soup from Mighty Vege House and dumplings from 101 Noodle Express (also in the same mall) is appealing.

Most of the soy or gluten meats on the menu have been disappointing with the kind of off flavor that anyone who has ever attempted making soy milk will recognize as the hardest thing to eliminate in its production. Many restaurants attempt to mask the conspicuous soy flavor by deep frying the “meat” which is why a meal at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant can be a heavy affair. I generally avoid the deep fried dishes which is why I’ve never tried anything from the fried appetizers selection such the veggie kabob with spicy BBQ sauce.

veggie chicken, mushroom, water chestnut, green pepper with Szechuan sauce
I can't recommend the "chicken"

I have however, been impressed with the entire dish as well as the flavor and texture of the “pork” in the steamed veggie pork with pumpkin and lotus leaves and in the veggie pork sliced with cabbage and green pepper.

They offer a decent variation of “veggie five ingredients with chili” sometimes called chili eight (or five) treasure - a stir fry of small uniform sized cubes of bean curd, some other form of soy meat, water-chestnuts, pepper, and sometimes peanuts in a mildly spicy brown sauce.

The spicy soup hot pots are a unique feature at Mighty Vege House. Hot pot can be a great joy and it is possible to buy all of the necessary ingredients to make a vegetarian version at home. In restaurants however, the base is a meat broth and even if the restaurant is willing to make a water based broth, the fillings are limited to just a few vegetables. Mighty Vege House brings out every fake meat form in the kitchen from shrimp, to squid, to meatballs to beyond identification for their meat intensive (boiled, not fried) variations of hot pot. The soup is indeed spicy and comes close in flavor to Szechuan hot pot broth.

"many veggie ingredients with spicy soup" (Szechuan hot pot)

I haven’t tried the six hot pots on the menu that are not served in a spicy soup but I assume they are just as laden with a sampling of non-animal protein.

Their steamed vegetable buns (large, round, thick-skinned dumplings also available fried), filled with vegetables and tofu and are satisfying and I would probably order them more often if a superior dumpling were not available a few doors away at 101 Noodle Express.

There are still enough interesting sounding menu items that I’ve yet to try:

dried bean curd & water spinach with Satay sauce
dried bean curd, celery with soy sauce
sour bamboo, veggie pork with soy sauce
veggie sausage, basil, mushroom with soy sauce
vege abalone, Shimeji mushrooms, green pepper, carrot
vege pork steak with spicy black bean sauce
vege ham in honey with sliced bread
Chinese herbal yam, green vegetable, veggie pork
sesame gobo
special tofu with green sauce

The average price for dinner menu items are $8 with $4.50 lunch specials.

1400 East Valley Blvd. (West of New Ave.) 626-293-8189

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hwa Sun Ji Traditional Korean Tea House, Koreatown

We stepped into the teahouse ready to collapse from the heat and traffic on Wilshire Blvd. As the only non-Korean patrons in the shop, we shared the tea house with a few other parties: a couple of monks, a well heeled trio of middle aged women, a group of teenagers sitting on cushions at one of the floor tables, a family, and a group of young men. Thanks to the hanging transparent bamboo screens, it felt as though each group had their own private alcove.

The menu is divided into several categories of Korean tea: green, medicinal (vegetarians beware: some have animal ingredients such as deer antler), ginseng, loose leaf, adlay, citrus, fruit, root, flower, and traditional drinks (dessert drinks and juices). A few snacks are also available: shaved ice, sweets, ice cream, and cheesecake. Although the sign on the street advertises tea and coffee, coffee appears only in the snack section of the menu and only in two forms: “coffee” and “iced coffee.” For a $10 reservation fee, the teahouse offers a traditional tea ceremony featuring their finest quality green tea.

We wanted to avoid caffeine or anything heating so we ordered a Mo-gwah Cha made of slices of Chinese quince fermented in sugar along with the traditional dessert drink Su Jun Gwa (described on the menu as Korean punch) made with dried persimmons and cinnamon. The latter was served in a bowl with a wooden spoon to scoop out the floating crushed ice and re-hydrated persimmons. It was cold, sweet and pleasantly spicy – the perfect refreshment.

When I inquired about the consistency of the Shik-heh, another dessert beverage, the waitress offered to bring me a sample, a full sized bowl of a sweet (less so than the persimmon punch) icy liquid with cooked rice grains marinating on the bottom. Shikheh is made by steeping cooked rice in malt water, boiling the strained liquid with sugar and cooling. All three beverages were garnished with a sprinkle of pine nuts that added a round fullness to each brew.

Had we known we would be served a plate of complimentary rice cakes and puffed rice squares, we probably would not have ordered the Ho-du Gwa-Ja, a walnut shaped cake filled with sweet red beans. While these “cookies” are widely available at Asian markets, coffee and sweet shops, they were particularly delicious served warm, not overly sweet and imparted a nutty flavor that is not always detectable. They tasted best in combination with a sip of the quince tea.

I’ve never been to Korea other than the 8 hours spent in the Seoul airport where I was mesmerized by candy makers spinning thousands of fine threads of sugar that they rolled as a blanket around minced nuts.

The house rice cakes reminded me of those delicate confections and it was here that I think I’ve found my newest vice. Looking like edible white cat’s paws, the slightly chewy crispy mochi exterior gave way to a cloudlike hollow interior. As light as they were, the hint of oil betrayed the fact that only deep-frying could elicit such perfect puffiness.

The waitress was extremely hospitable and yet discreetly allowed us to enjoy our little retreat. Like summoning a flight attendant, each table was equipped with a button to connect us at any time to our server. When she saw that we enjoyed eating the persimmon in the Sun Jun Gwa, she brought us a complimentary plate of Kkot-Gam-Mal-E, dried persimmons rolled around walnuts. After clearing our table, we were presented with complimentary cups of warm barley tea.

The soundtrack of Korean lute music, the homey and clean décor, and artistic elements throughout the room created a peaceful and pleasing atmosphere. All drinks and snacks were presented on lovely ceramic cups, mugs and bowls (tea pots, bowls and cups were also for sale). We emerged onto Wilshire Blvd. feeling calm and refreshed as though for the price of $15 we had just returned from a vacation in a foreign country.

3960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Maroccino @ Caffe Luxxe, Santa Monica

Guest entry submitted by the Coffee Correspondent

While extremely kawaii, the maroccino (mini cappuccino) a sort of overblown macchiato takes away from the psychedelic intensity of the luxxe espresso standard double shot while not providing the down comforter quality of a well crafted cappuccino or the cloud nine sweetness of a con panna. But maybe I'm just a stick in the mud traditionalist. The maroccino still beats every other coffee I've had in town because it contains the aforementioned shot.

925 Montana Ave (310) 394-2222
Open: Monday to Friday 6:30am-6pm, Saturday & Sunday 7am-5pm

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Smoked Tofu

Unlike many smoky tofu products out there that are coated in a liquid smoke enhanced marinade, Pete's Soyganic Smoked Tofu has actually been smoked. The smoke flavor infuses the brick of tofu throughout. The water has been pressed out of this firm meaty square of bean curd. I found it for $3.99 at the Wild Oats Market in Santa Monica.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Milk, Beverly Blvd.

The milkies (ice cream bon bons) are 50 cents a pop.

Mint ice cream dipped in good dark chocolate rolled in crispies
Coffee Ice cream dipped in same chocolate with toffee chunks

Perhaps the perfect treat, the ice cream bar:

My new favorite flavor, creamy Banana ice cream scattered with pockets of dulce de leche is dipped in a thick, crisp butterscotch shell with roasted almonds. Need I say more?

7290 Beverly Blvd (at Poinsettia) 323-939-6455
Closed Mondays

Friday, August 24, 2007

Osteria Mozza, Hollywood

Our dinner at Mozza was a last minute detour and we weren’t prepared for photography so unfortunately I have no accompanying pics (they would have been beautiful but you’ll have to use your imagination). We had ringside seats at the mozzarella bar directly in front of Nancy Silverton’s station and involuntary eavesdropping on her unabashed food fondling proved an entertaining distraction to our conversation. From poking her thumb into the center of an artichoke heart, tossing salads with both hands, or plumping a freshly sliced slab of mozzarella, she left her stamp on all food leaving the bar. I watched as she inspected a plated salad and the unused portion of the fennel bulb, instructed the salad chef on how to ascertain the quality of fennel, tasted the tossed salad and throw the less than perfect dish in the trash while selecting a more suitable specimen. Indeed, everything coming out of her station was a celebration of high quality ingredients.

Our palate was whet with a taste of things to come with the complimentary rollatini, pinwheels of capers, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and olives rolled in a sheet of mozzarella.

There were three choices for the house bread: white, whole wheat, and whole grain. The whole grain was nutty and sweet, the white was chewy and light, but the sour hearty wheat was my favorite. The bread and water kept coming. The service was attentive, friendly and not at all pushy.

The menu is divided into antipasti, mozzarella dishes, pastas, entrees, and sides. Unfortunately I didn’t see the cheese tasting menu until after the meal and although I had been eying the cheese selection displayed on cake plates at the bar all night, there was no room by the time the dessert menu arrived. Not that I needed anymore cheese. As a vegetarian, there were plenty of options but almost all included cheese. It was not a light meal and this restaurant has little to offer vegans who would only be able to eat a few of the side dishes.

The antipasti and entrees had no vegetarian offerings for which I was actually grateful to help me to narrow my choices. With the prospect of watching our dishes constructed before our eyes, we opted for three dishes from the mozzarella menu, all of which celebrated the freshness and ripeness of the cheese with generous portions of cheese in each serving.

The sheep’s milk ricotta with lemon zest and hazelnuts was like a whipped cloud of cream drizzled with honey. The cheese, fresh and very mild, would have satisfied as a dessert. The Buffala mozzarella with pesto, salsa romesco, tapenade, and caperberry relish was everything one could hope for in an appetizer. The soft blooming cheese arrived unadorned in the middle of the plate surrounded by 4 small cups of sauces and three pieces of grilled bread. The red romesco made with breadcrumbs, almonds, and tomatoes was perfect. The spread of pickled caperberries tossed with minced onion tasted like the kind of relish you always hope the green sweet goop would taste like (if it did, you’d be eating a lot more fast food). There were enough flavors dancing on my plate in three thimbles of paste that I didn’t even miss the black olive tapenade (prepared with a heavy dose of anchovy) that I avoided.

My favorite of the three appetizers was probably the burricotti with braised artichokes, pine nuts, currants and mint pesto on grilled bread. I must admit that I was never excited about mozzarella as the centerpiece of a dish until I tasted the burricotti on a mozzarella Monday at Jar.

We decided on the bavette cacio e pepe (linguine with Pecorino Romano and black pepper) for our entrée. The house made pasta was served conspicuously al dente and absorbed the round smooth film of a sauce that hinted of cheese and shouted pepper. There are two types of recipes that intimidate me into not making them at home, those that are too complicated and those that are too simplistic. Ordering either in a restaurant is a treat and this instance was no exception. The pasta with cheese and black pepper validated the marriage of three simple and yet perfect ingredients.

The side of cannellini beans dressed in lemon and olive oil served with Italian parsley and sweet grape tomatoes was a palate cleanser between all of the wheat and cheese. We were discussing with a woman at the bar sitting next to us, a restaurant owner from D.C., the ideal hour to nab a table prior to the L.A. dinner crowd. I remarked on the irony of the fact that restaurants don’t get crowded until 7:30/8pm but are empty by 11pm. Our neighbor lamented missing the opportunity to sample the pizza next door on her last night in town when Nancy Silverton chimed in that Pizza is served at Mozza until midnight and recommended that she should return later in the evening. Hey, why wait until later, we thought; we can go around the corner and finish off our meal with a pizza now. But alas, we were having too much fun and decided that we had to order another dish, goat cheese ravioli with 5 lilies (onions). The buttery onion, leek, garlic sauté atop the mild ravioli was the perfect sweet rich finishing touch; it was our dessert.

One thing I appreciate about Nancy Silverton’s cooking is that she knows how to use salt to tease the flavor from everything. While she employs it liberally at every layer to brighten each ingredient, the salt is present, but never cloying as it rides at the edge of efficacy. The crust on her pizza is a seasoned element that nobody dares discard once the toppings disappear.

Osteria Mozza
Corner of Melrose & Highland (310) 297-0100
Menu posted at:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

101 Noodle Express, Alhambra

The search for the perfect vegetable dumpling continues

My idea of heaven was a plate of Mandarin Deli’s steamed vegetable dumplings prepared only at their Little Tokyo branch. The delicate skins containing a steamy bomb of fluffy tofu, scallion, vermicelli, something substantial that I suspect was egg, shot through with the essence of ginger. The texture had bite and the flavor was so complete that it didn’t require dipping sauce. Just when I finished lamenting the closing of the Little Tokyo branch, I discovered the steamed vegetable dumplings at 101 Noodle Express.

The dumpling skins are thick and durable, not the refined wrapper designed for careful handling at Mandarin Deli. But the filling, although a bit scant and lacking the body of MD's dumplings, has the same flavor profile – most importantly the perfume of ginger penetrating each bite. This dumpling can handle a little dipping sauce, if not just to coat the meaty noodle wrapper. Next to the canisters of chili sauce on each table is the wonderful house made cilantro sauce/spread that is a cross between Indian green chutney and pesto; it could alone, sauce a plate of fresh noodles.

I haven’t had much luck ordering other vegetarian items on the menu. The servers always try to recommend “vegetarian” dishes containing fish or shrimp and once convinced me to order the leek and egg omelet, which was full of some sort of ground meat. They do however have some vegetarian pre-packaged cold appetizers. On my most recent visit, I picked up the soybean, green vegetable, bean curd salad which was deliciously spicy, dressed with a hint of Szechwan pepper oil. While you may not want to make an entire meal of dumplings, 101 Noodle Express is in the same mini mall as a vegetarian Chinese restaurant, Mighty Vege House.

If you’ve discovered other vegetable dumplings of note, please share. The search continues.

101 Noodle Express
1408 E. Valley Blvd (626) 300-8654
Open: Mon–Fri 10am–3pm, 5–10pm Sat–Sun 10am–11pm