Veggie Vietnamese Noodle Soup at San San Tofu

Vietnamese vegetarian dishes oftentimes imitate non-vegetarian ones, like veggie duck, veggie meatballs, veggie char-siu, and veggie caramelized fish. It's amazing what can be done in shape, color and texture to approximate the real thing, but this culinary art form used to be confined to the kitchens of Buddhist temples.

At San San Tofu house on Wilcrest, however, the enterprising owners had a Buddhist monk train the kitchen staff, and what was once a small market/food to-go shop focused on tofu has gradually morphed into a market/food-to-go/sit-down cafe where you can order expertly prepared vegetarian dim sum, rice plates, and noodle soups. Rice plates are $5.50 for three items with rice and a free iced tea, with a 50 cent supplement for noodles instead of rice. Noodle soups are about $6.

My favorite is the vegetarian version of "bun rieu," a Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle soup traditionally cooked in tomato-based consomme with the yellow innards of a crab. San San's vegetarian version cleverly shapes tofu into cottage-cheese-looking lumps to mimic the innards, and adds large slices of tofu, a firm type of gluten or mushroom, vegetarian fish balls, and shrimp-shaped vegetarian cakes made from what I surmise to be gluten to give the dish some protein.

If you dine in, you order the soup at the counter from one of the nice ladies wearing hairnets and dark red aprons, and someone will bring it out from the kitchen. Served in an impressively large bowl, the soup is hot, steamy, and rich with flavor even though fish sauce is not used. I'm told that they use a mushroom powder, salt, a bit of sugar and sesame oil, along with fresh tomatoes. A small dish of bean sprouts, shredded green and red cabbage and fresh lime wedges is served on the side, which you can add to the soup to taste.

I don't know what type of rice vermicelli they use, but the noodles are thin, softer and lighter than the noodles I get elsewhere. And for a carnivore who happens to love tofu, this soup is wholly satisfying, each bite substantially filled with a piece of tofu or mushroom or veggie shrimp.

Dining here is supremely low-key, and tipping is optional. I generally leave something, but it's not expected. Beware of religious vegetarian days, which happen twice a month. The place gets packed with people trying to fulfill their religious vegetarian mandate, and subsequently the lines and wait can increase to 30 minutes or more.

On normal days, service is quick and efficient. They accept cash and credit cards for payments of $10 or more, so if you're short on cash, you can do as I do and add a freshly made bottle of warm, house-made soy milk, or a few to-go dim-sum dumplings to make up the difference.

This place is open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the last order for soup must go in by 6 p.m.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham