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One recent evening at Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant, I came to the startled realization that though I was still in Houston, a city that for culinary, as opposed to religious, reasons holds the cow only slightly less sacred than does New Delhi, I had entered very, very deep into the realm of the meatless. My epiphany came as the result of a recommendation from the proprietor. My dining party had already sampled the buffet, stocked with reliable Asian-style vegetarian basics such as steamed mixed vegetables, curried potatoes and brown rice. But then it was sweetly suggested that we try the duck.
Duck? I had to wonder if I'd heard right. Though many of the Houston restaurants known for vegetarian food throw meat into their menu mix to appeal to a broader crowd, Wonderful Vegetarian isn't one of these. It's vegetarian to the core, a place where slightly preachy tracts that promote the benefits of a meat free diet are left unobtrusively lying around.
Yet duck was what I was being offered, all right. Only it was a duck that had never come close to taking flight; it was a vegetarian simulacrum, a duck made completely out of vegetable components. When it was placed on our table, I was startled to realize that, had I not been wearing my contacts, the substance before me would have indeed looked like duck, albeit boneless. It was sumptuously brown and striated like the flesh of a fowl. And how did they make the surface look like an agreeably crisped skin? It turns out that the main building block here is layer upon layer of bean curd sheets, a substance best described as the phyllo pastry of the soybean world. Cooked in soy milk so that the top layer puckers up and forms a skin, resolutely chewy like duck, browned and sliced into croissant-sized pieces, zapped with a hint of citrus, this pseudofowl, aided by the diner's imagination, almost brings to mind duck à l'orange. Almost.
It's curious that Wonderful Vegetarian and Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe, two of the Houston restaurants most completely committed to the value of the plant kingdom, both seem compelled to play at this game of mock meat. Located within a few lights of each other on Westheimer, Wonderful Vegetarian and Green Planet are a pair of cafes that know their way around a soybean. Both of these restaurants feature reasonably priced, remarkably varied buffets that change daily. Both are basically Asian in their approach. And both restaurants can introduce the typical middle-of-the-road omnivorous diner -- if perhaps not the militant meat eater -- to the pleasures of sticking strictly to the edict "Eat your veggies."
Yet there those faux filets are. Oh, well, if that's what it takes to survive in this flesh-obsessed culture, so be it. Indeed, this diner, who enjoys her regular ration of beef as much as the next Texan, was won over by the "totally vegan" buffet at Green Planet Vegetarian Cafe. On my first visit, wary of vegetarian dishes trying to be something else, I let my companion help himself to the servings of soy beef with broccoli and turnip greens with soy bacon. The "beef" patty looked too much like Spam for me, though it turned out to be surprisingly palatable. And the soy bacon was too evenly striped and had an alarming petroleum aftertaste.
Instead, give me seconds and thirds any day of Green Planet's mild and briny tofu with seaweed, or the dense and vigorous soy gluten and bean soup. Certain Americanized Chinese standards, such as the rice noodles and the curried vegetables and rice, definitely satisfied, while others, such as the doughy and grassy-tasting egg rolls and the hot and sour soup, which, although hot, was not sour, did not. Also interesting were the superbly gingery collard greens and carrots and the kidney beans with coconut (a Chinese version of red beans and rice?). But other than to fill space, I saw no reason for the inclusion on the buffet of coleslaw and potato salad. We all know there exists a vegetarian version of mayonnaise, so why bother with these pedestrian occidental salads?
It was on that first visit, while pondering the offbeat music wafting over the speakers -- sort of a Chinese tango -- that I discovered the sesame veggie balls. These crunchy, fried little fellows cloaked in their ethereal jacket of golden sesame seeds won't appeal to everyone. They are, in fact, a rather base indulgence -- much in the same vein as eating raw cookie dough, my companion observed. Try them with hot mustard to atone for their exuberant sweetness, but do try them. This is surely Chinese comfort food.
On my next visit to Green Planet, the appeal of the mock meat proved irresistible; I had to try some of the curious sounding dishes. How in the world, I wondered, could they pull off a vegetarian kidney? (While Wonderful offers a variety of vegetarian poultry, beef and pork dishes, the real oddities, such as vegetable shellfish and vegetable organ meat, seem exclusive to Green Planet.) I was ready to have some fun.