Restaurant Reviews

Vegan Surprise

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."

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Katharine Shilcutt