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Pro-Choice

The only "beef" with the Hunan soy slices: You'll run out of them before you run out of appetite.
Troy Fields

Here's a textbook example of what vegetarians love to complain about: I'm at my cousin's house for a family barbecue. Through some miracle of uncharacteristic courtesy, he has bought a package of vegetarian burgers with me in mind. He serves one off the grill, points to a regulation burger still cooking, and asks me why the hell I don't "chow down on this bad boy right here" while pressing on the meat patty with a spatula to create a greasy sizzle of emphasis. He then compares the texture of my veggie burger to that of a communal bath mat in the shower room of a Turkish prison.

In spite of the Turkish people's renowned rug-weaving skills, I take this as a negative. I'm trying to think of a snappy rejoinder when I begin to gag on the first bite of vegetarian burger. He's right; it's horrible. I extract the ersatz meat from the bun and offer it to Penny the cocker spaniel. Penny sniffs it politely, gives me a you-must-be-kidding look that certain dogs are good at conveying, and shuns me for the rest of the day.

So I'm eating a lettuce and tomato sandwich for dinner, my cousin is convinced that I'm a fool, and the dog thinks I'm scum. I'm hardly in the mood to believe that vegetarianism is its own reward, but what really ticks me off is the blithe implication that I had some sort of choice. My only options were to eat the veggie burger or not eat at all.

When this is what happens with family, vegetarians can expect an even more adversarial -- if superficially cordial -- encounter in the average carnivore- oriented restaurant. While vegetarians may see themselves as ecofriendly and enlightened, chances are the restaurant staff sees them as obsessive-compulsive, holier-than-thou social masochists likely to leave a minuscule tip after demanding special treatment. Not that I'm bitter.

What a relief to enter the sanctuary of Tien Ren Vegetarian Restaurant, a place with a multitude of meatless choices and no worries about invisible ingredients like chicken stock or lard. Tien Ren, Chinese for "heavenly benevolence," is in fact a vegan restaurant where no animal products of any kind are used, including eggs or dairy products. I'm not a vegan, but lots of vegetarians talk about becoming vegans -- the same way that lots of meat eaters talk about becoming vegetarians.

Longtime Houston vegetarians may recall that Tien Ren was once known as Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant. Neo-hippies, multipierced X-ers and middle-aged guys dining alone with "recent quadruple bypass" all but branded on their foreheads would congregate there for the popular weekend buffet, along with gaggles of aerobicisers still clad in their new spandex who talked loudly about how "healthy the food is here" and how "we really must come here more often."

Wonderful Vegetarian entered a period of declining quality in the '90s when the late, lamented Green Planet Café farther out Westheimer consistently outshone it. To its credit, however, the restaurant in this slightly down-at-the-heels strip center has never wavered in its commitment to vegan cuisine, despite frequent changes in ownership. Several recent visits under the direction of relatively new management have proved that Tien Ren has again achieved a plateau of overall excellence that rivals the best the city offers in vegetarian cooking.

Tien Ren's minimalist decor and ambience are more sedate than I remember from the early days of Wonderful Vegetarian, which had something of a cafeteria atmosphere. Even the conversation level seems more subdued, and the Muzak -- slow, plaintive melodies that sound like the soundtrack of a Hong Kong action film when the hero is about to get laid -- is unquestionably less intrusive. A nearly unadorned Taoist religious shrine sits near the entrance to the kitchen, but there's no danger of having to deal with saffron-robed religious zealots or revved-up animal rights activists here.

Tien Ren's assorted appetizer platter is a virtual crash course in the variety of meat analogues available to vegetarians. With a selection of seitan, veggie ham, crispy tofu and sesame seaweed strips, this is a first course of impressive substance. The slices of seitan, a derivative of wheat gluten, look exactly like slices of brisket down to their charred perimeters. The flavor is similar to what I recall of the taste of cold roast beef, but chewier and without the unpleasantness of congealed fat. These seitan slices wouldn't taste at all out of place underneath a proper barbecue sauce.

I've heard other vegetarians say that veggie ham is problematic -- only because it can taste so much like its carnal counterpart. Tien Ren's soy-based version may be milder in flavor, but the textural consistency remains remarkably like that of pork, at least to a person who has only a vague recollection of eating pork. I'd like to get about a half-pound of this stuff to take home for grilled fake ham and real cheese sandwiches.

 

The sesame seaweed strips are less successful. The fishy aroma of the seaweed and a gummy, cloying sesame seed coating overwhelm the shoestring-shaped pieces of bean curd; three or four of these go a long way.

The tofu cubes have their problems, too. An acceptable tofu dish is fiendishly difficult to prepare and all too easy to foul up. It requires a deft touch with the wok and, for my money, a heavy hand with the spices. The crispy cubes in this appetizer have the requisite seasoning -- cayenne pepper and cilantro -- but they look a bit forlorn with no accompanying sauce to bring them to life. All the seasonings on the shelves of Asia couldn't rescue them from dryness.

The braised tofu entrée, however, is a different story. No less true for being a cliché, tofu is like a sponge that absorbs the essences of other ingredients. Here the humble bean curd is in its element, with tomatoes, white mushrooms and whole green soybeans all harmoniously commingling in a savory brown sauce. This is an ideal entrée for someone who wants to go easy on the hot spices without sacrificing significant taste. It's the vegetarian equivalent of a hearty chicken soup, nourishing on more than one level but without the chicken and the schmaltz.

Curry vegetables are listed as an entrée but are more appropriate to split as a side dish. As a vegetarian who's managed to marginalize himself even further by never being all that crazy about actual vegetables, I'm hoping the kitchen will dress this dish up in a major way. That it's a medley helps. I'm going for the mushrooms, the potatoes and the carrots, in that order. I'm saving the broccoli and cauliflower for last so they can draw the satiny curry sauce into their cruciferous crevices. The vegetables are expertly done. They aren't so crunchy as to make me think I'm eating a de facto salad, but neither have they turned to mush. Still, it can't honestly stand alone.

Tien Ren's kitchen plays more directly to my taste with their Hunan soy slices. The restaurant's omnipresent and affable waitperson justly recommended these small discs of TVP (textured vegetable protein, a meat substitute made from defatted soy flour) that are seared with an orange glaze and layered atop orange slices and lettuce. The meaty texture belies its vegetable origins. The initial flavor is one of citrusy sweetness, but it's quickly followed by an ever-intensifying wave of heat from the dried chiles. All that has come before takes second stage to this zesty exemplar of vegetarian cooking. I find myself popping these bite-sized morsels into my mouth one after another, luxuriating in the cumulative effect of the potent peppers. My only beef -- if I haven't given up the right to employ that term -- is that I run out of soy slices before I run out of appetite.

At the risk of sounding like my cousin the meat-pusher, the appeal of vegan desserts has always eluded me. Without the eggs or dairy products that give, say, a slice of cheesecake its hedonistic mouth-feel, healthy desserts seem needlessly ascetic. After a dry and unsweetened piece of vegan cake at Wonderful Vegetarian years ago, I firmly placed the concept into the "why bother" category, with things like decaffeinated coffee, nonalcoholic beer and phone sex. But since this meal is on the company tab, I figured I'd give it another shot. When you're expecting nothing, you're grateful for anything. Tien Ren's vegan cake -- a raisin, spice, walnut affair with a thin, translucent, suitably sweet icing -- turns out to be surprisingly moist though considerably denser than traditional baked goods; it's closer to a brownie than cake. For a true vegan with even fewer choices than I allow myself, the act of eating this otherwise forbidden dessert must be downright heady.

I would be remiss not to mention the splendid buffet at Tien Ren. The trick with any buffet is to get there early, before it starts to look wan and picked over. (Of course, meat is usually the first thing to look desiccated after too long on the steam table, so there.) Start with a robust corn and mushroom soup, indulge in egg rolls and too many hot dishes to recount, and by all means, try the pineapple pudding, which achieves its gelatinous quality through a clever use of water chestnut flour.

In a city, state and hemisphere woefully lacking in vegetarian restaurants, almost any one is a good one just for existing. But Tien Ren can rightly take its place among excellent restaurants of any stripe. My cousin doesn't know it yet, but he's going there for his birthday next year.


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