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There are plenty of dense, chewy Chinese brown mushrooms tossed with the penne pasta. And just as I requested, the tomato sauce is heavily spiked with fiery chile peppers. The dish is anchored by the salty flavor and meaty texture of long skinny strips of protein -- something that tastes like ham. But of course it can't be ham because I'm eating dinner at Soya Cafe in Spring Valley, a new all-vegetarian restaurant.
I am very impressed with the pasta. Sure, I'd rather eat the penne with Italian sausage in tomato cream sauce at Candelari's Pizzeria, but for vegetarian food this is awfully good. In fact, I barely notice it's vegetarian at all. One of my dining companions gets the pita pocket, a sandwich of ersatz meat, imitation cheese and real avocado, lettuce and tomatoes. She fakes enthusiasm. My other dining partner, a former vegetarian, gets the Soya yummy platter, which turns out to be soy protein in the form of fake codfish covered with a black seaweed skin, and dense soy patties with tangy Parmesan on top. I like the flavor of both the Parmesan tofu and the faux fish, but my companion turns up her nose.
"Why would you want to make tofu smell like fish?" she wonders.
"Tastes good to me," I say with a shrug.
We also get some deep-fried Soya nuggets, which taste like hush puppies stuffed with carpet padding -- but in a good way. Our efforts to get some other appetizers are denied by the Chinese woman who waits tables, does the cooking and generally runs the place.
"That's already enough food," she says, waving off our attempt to order more.
It was sad to discover that Soya Cafe is located in the space once occupied by Janina's Polish restaurant. I will miss Janina's ruskie pierogi, but evidently the Polish community in Houston wasn't large enough or hungry enough to keep the place in business. Are there more vegetarians than Polish food lovers in Houston? I don't know. I get a lot of e-mails asking me to write about vegetarian food and none so far about Polish food. On the other hand, why isn't Soya Cafe already packed with hungry vegetarians? Of course, the restaurant is new, and many people haven't heard about it yet. But there may be a few other problems.
The National Restaurant Association decal that reads, "Eating Out Is Fun!" is significantly absent from Soya's front door. The interior of the restaurant is austere; the sounds are corny classics like "Danny Boy" performed on the pan flute. Or is it a synthesizer? And on each tabletop there is a tent card with an illustration of the food pyramid. On the other side is a chart listing the calories expended by various sports and forms of exercise. It is an aesthetic and an attitude more appropriate to a fitness center than a restaurant.
While we eat, two men, one wearing a large wooden cross around his neck, come in and sit down. They are the only guests besides us. They request two cups of coffee. The Chinese woman tells them the restaurant doesn't serve coffee. They request iced tea. She tells them the iced tea consists of a pot of green tea and a glass of ice cubes. They are confused, but they agree to drink the green stuff. But they know better than to ask for Sweet'N Low.
I suspect that one reason there aren't any vegetarians at Soya Cafe is that, despite the wonderful food, they find the self-righteous attitude annoying. There is nothing more irritating than people who tell you what you should eat. The meat look-alike products are another problem.
On my first visit to Soya Cafe, I was reminded that vegetarians are pretty evenly split between those who like their soy protein products to look, smell and taste like meat and those who find such carnivorous illusions repugnant.
Because the rolls were too small for the veggie burgers, the Soya whole wheat hamburger I ordered for lunch was served on two buns. Each was topped with a slice of soy cheese that looked exactly like a Kraft single. I was happily gnawing away on my pair of protein patty sandwiches when I noticed all was not right with my vegetarian dining companion.
I had asked her to join me so I could get a vegetarian's perspective. While she liked Soya Cafe generally, she shoved several items from her barbecued kabobs off to the side of her plate. She found the Chinese brown mushroom caps questionable. I explained that they had a meaty texture because they were reconstituted dried mushrooms and that they were quite an expensive delicacy. But she didn't like them anyway. She also rejected the rounded triangles of soy that looked and tasted like Spam. Personally, I thought the Spam tofu was Soya Cafe's crowning glory. All the salty, greasy, sweet flavor of Hormel fake ham without the saturated fats. What's not to like?
"I don't want my tofu to look like pink pig flesh," she said. "I wonder why someone would want to replicate something that's disgusting in the first place."
One man's barbecued Spam is another woman's disgusting pink pig flesh, or something like that. "But what should tofu look like?" I asked her.
"I think if tofu looks like tofu, that's probably best for everyone," she replied. I shook my head agreeably, but kept trying to picture tofu in its natural state. All I could come up with was an image of drywall mud.
So what did she like about the restaurant? She noted the fresh taste of the fried rice made with lots of vegetables and very little oil -- not something I would have singled out for praise.
Maybe this is why I don't write about vegetarian food too often. The very things I like at Soya Cafe are the things my vegetarian friend despises. And the things she likes taste like monastery fare to me. Given my devoutly carnivorous viewpoint, I suspect Houston's vegetarians may be better off without my observations.
The other good thing about Soya Cafe is that vegetarians don't have to ask a lot of questions here. They can order anything on the menu, she told me. It would also be an excellent place for vegans. The only non-vegan things on the menu are the Soya cheese, which contains a trace of powdered milk, and the Parmesan, the proprietress tells us. But I doubt that the restaurant will ever attract much of a vegan following. Most of the vegans I've met eat in bars so they don't have to extinguish their cigarettes while they drink beer and eat french fries.
Once upon a time, vegetarianism was associated with a Hindu moral system that also banned the use of tobacco and alcohol. But American vegetarianism is seldom associated with an ascetic lifestyle anymore. The average Houston vegetarian would rather go to a Mexican restaurant and get a frozen margarita, chips and salsa, and a spinach enchilada, than eat in a place like Soya Cafe, my friend told me.
"Why?" I wondered.
"Because the food tastes better, there's alcohol in the drinks, and there's cute guys to look at," she said matter-of-factly. The fare at Soya Cafe is outstanding, for vegetarian food. Maybe if they added a bar and a smoking section, they'd attract more vegetarians.
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