The Houston location of international vegan fast-food restaurant empire Loving Hut opened several months ago, in a dusty-colored strip center in far west Houston that brings to mind vague images of the edge of civilization.
It was an odd choice of location for a restaurant that serves 100 percent vegan food. West Houston might be the most tolerant of all outlying Houston suburbs — after all, this stretch of Westheimer is also home to noteworthy culinary oases like Phoenicia Specialty Foods, Café Pita +, Rioja, Manena's and Lena Verde — but that doesn't mean that the same gracious attitude extends to food made without any animal products whatsoever. After all, the primary demographic out here may be highly multiethnic, but most of those ethnicities eat meat. And the rest of west Houston? You can bet your boot these good ol' boys won't know what to make of a menu featuring items like Noble Broccoli and Silken Moonlight.
To wit, I took my parents to Loving Hut for a meal a few weeks ago. My mother had declined to tell my father which restaurant we were dining at that evening. When he was handed a menu and found that absolutely nothing on it contained butter, cheese, cream or — worst of all these sins — meat, he threw the grown-man equivalent of a temper tantrum right there at the counter.
"You know there's a perfectly good brisket back at the house we could be eating instead, Jo Ann?" he fumed to my mother, who was doing her best to stifle her laughter. And even though he eventually ordered the Blissful Fried Rice and ate every morsel, Hank Hill himself would have been proud of my father's obstinate refusal to admit that he'd liked the food.
On another visit, cozied into a comfortable booth at Loving Hut, I start watching the two giant flat-screen TVs. It looks like they're playing infomercials for going vegan. And they keep mentioning someone named Supreme Master Ching Hai over a discomforting "songs for relaxation"-style soundtrack. There's a peculiar logo in the top corner, a logo that never goes away.
Turns out, Loving Hut is run by a cult.
The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association is based in Taiwan and operated by Supreme Master Ching Hai, a woman who's been called "a tireless publicity seeker" by Newsday's Rafer Guzman and whose claim to fame is the Quan Yin Method, a Buddhism-based creed touted as the "best, easiest and quickest" way to attain enlightenment, according to Ching Hai's own article entitled "Quan Yin Method Is the Easiest Way to God."
Because Buddha was all about taking the path of least resistance, obviously.
The money that Supreme Master Ching Hai gathers from her followers is used to fund things such as her elaborate and expensive outfits; her adventures in creating and selling jewelry (back to her followers at a huge markup, of course); the filming of long infomercials like the ones that play on a constant loop in the restaurant, which are broadcast to followers via the Internet (which is why the movement has been called a "cybersect"); and the founding of restaurant chains like Loving Hut which adhere to one of the most important principles in Quan Yin: vegetarianism.
The Houston Loving Hut is just one of 25 locations across the country — with most of them concentrated in California — and one of nearly 120 worldwide. The highest concentration of Loving Hut restaurants is in Asia, which is no surprise when you learn that the sect is headquartered in Taiwan.
After discussing my findings about Loving Hut back at the office with a coworker, she said a friend of hers had been a Quan Yin adherent for several years. "He did a lot of meditating," she said, "and a lot of cooking."
Not a bad existence for a sect member, all in all. And that devotion to cooking certainly shows in the food that's shipped in directly from the Loving Hut factory in Taiwan to be cooked and sold in restaurants across the world.
Inside its clean, spacious interior, the Houston location of Loving Hut has a table with brochures and various pamphlets on going vegetarian or vegan, along with a wall of photographs of celebrities, all brilliant or beautiful, and all non-carnivorous. If Scientologists were less aggressive and more interested in food, this is undoubtedly the kind of restaurant they would run.
The identically dressed women (I've never seen any men working there) who take your order, cook the food and bus your table are all unfailingly polite and always happy to see you. "Everything we sell here," the Loving Hut cashier explained to me as she gestured to a refrigerator/freezer combo next to the cash register, "is made in our factory in Taiwan, just for us. That way, we can ensure that it's 100 percent vegan and 100 percent safe."
Tofu meatballs shared space with soy protein sardines, while a few shelves up, some plump slices of banana cake waited pertly for a customer with a sweet tooth to come along. Everything was sealed with Loving Hut packaging, the yellow and red heart logo featuring prominently. "The teachers over there," she gestured loosely towards the door, to some school I'm not familiar with, "love this section. They come and buy frozen food here to keep at school and eat at lunch."
I wasn't in the mood for frozen food that day, though. I ordered a bowl of Exquisite Curry and some Golden Wontons. My dining companion decided to live adventurously and ordered the BBQ Baguette (Loving Hut's version of beef banh mi) and the Golden Rolls. The back of Loving Hut's menu features an emphasis on freshly squeezed juices of all kinds, so I threw in an order for an Orange Joy — fresh orange and cranberry juice topped with jasmine petals — as well.
The Golden Rolls (fried spring rolls) came stuffed with carrots, cabbage, onions, mushrooms and — to my great enthusiasm — taro. The Golden Wontons had a different assortment of vegetables inside, including leeks and celery, and were wrapped up in the same sort of bubbly egg-roll skin that made me wax nostalgic about the veggie egg rolls at the late, lamented Ming's. Both the rolls and the wontons were surprisingly excellent, and better than any spring rolls I've previously had. They set the bar for an astonishingly good meal to follow.
My Exquisite Curry turned out to be a bowl of traditional massamun curry, served with carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, broccoli and nuggets of soy protein. It's best not to look at the latter, as they have the disturbing visual effect of looking like something that was scraped out of a uterus. The only downside to the creamy, slightly spicy curry was that it was served over soggy vermicelli noodles. A bowl of jasmine rice on the side would have permanently endeared the dish to me.
My dining companion's beef banh mi was the biggest surprise of the meal. The textured soy protein made to resemble strips of grilled beef was amazing: Eaten within the context of the sandwich — which also came with a healthy amount of mushrooms, tomatoes, pickles and a spread of vegan mayonnaise (regular mayo isn't vegan, after all) — they would have fooled all but the most discriminating palates. The egg-free bread, too, was astonishingly good despite having no binder to hold it together. Because of this, the crackly top of the bread substituted quite well for crusty French bread. My friend inhaled his banh mi in a matter of minutes.
He enjoyed his food so much, in fact, that he ordered a container of Sweet & Sour Divine (sweet and sour "chicken") to go, with an eye to having it for lunch the next day, but ate the entire thing on the way home. For my part, I seriously contemplated ordering the sweetly refreshing Orange Joy by the gallon: "I want to drink this every single morning for breakfast," I announced, sucking the last of the juice down.
On the fateful visit with my parents, the food stumbled a bit.
Although my father inhaled his Blissful Fried Rice (veggie fried rice studded with soy protein, tofu, carrots, peas, onions and too much cilantro), I found it bland and in desperate need of something, anything, to perk it up. "I'm bringing some Bragg's liquid aminos next time," my mother quipped. "That would be perfect together."
My mother's SAVE-PLANET Curry was nearly identical to the Exquisite Curry I'd had a few days ago, except that it was 55 cents more. That extra cost included "Indian bread" as promised on the menu, but which ended up being the same egg-free bread used in the fake banh mi. The bread — much like I imagine the beef in the banh mi to be — was not good on its own, and the curry was much blander than it had been only a few days prior.
On the other hand, the faux sushi we ordered as an appetizer was splendid. Sticky rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with pickles, carrots and soy protein was made even better by the tangy wasabi sauce that accompanied it. It tasted exactly like real wasabi — not like horseradish with green food coloring added — a feat that I'm not quite sure how Loving Hut accomplished.
The saving grace of the meal was my GO-GREEN Deluxe, a plate of steamed snow peas and "shrimp" in a slightly sweet brown sauce served alongside a bowl of steamed brown rice. The "shrimp" was actually silken soy protein shaped and painted (yes, painted, with food coloring) to resemble the tiny sea creatures. It even had a similar texture and, all things considered, was pretty good. The bright-green snow peas provided a welcome crunchy texture, and the nutty brown rice tied the entire meal together remarkably well.
Although the meal was passable (I really enjoyed my dish, but I'm far more amenable to vegan food than most), I fear it will be the first and last time my parents eat at Loving Hut. In fact, I fear that most people will go once and never return. There simply isn't enough variety on the menu to attract and keep customers unless they're already devoted vegetarians or vegans. And out here, those people are few and far between.
But maybe I'll be proven wrong. Maybe west Houston can sustain a healthy, vegetarian-focused restaurant out in the dueling wilds of Alief and Royal Oaks. And so what if you're funding a cult every time you eat here? At least the food is good.
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