Sunday, August 28, 2011

Buddhists Know How to Vegan: Golden Era Vegetarian, San Francisco

Let's be honest here. If you're a vegetarian, or even more astonishingly, vegan, you limit yourself from an incredible diversity of food out there. Whatever their reasons for not eating meat, I don't know any vegetarians who can deny the appeal of meat and animal products. I generally have a live and let live attitude towards vegetarians, but my personal stance is that if you're going to be a vegetarian, then give up on the meat substitutes and embrace cuisines that are traditionally vegetarian.


There are plenty of cultures that are vegetarian, either by ideology or necessity. A good example of perfectly acceptable vegan cuisine would be Ethiopian. Many of the traditional dishes have been refined over generations without meat. Indian cuisine is also very amenable to vegetarian options. An example of bad vegetarian food is fake meat, which tends to predominate Western cuisines. I'm just generally against food posing as something else, such as the M Cafe muffaletta. Tofurkey, Boca burgers, soy cheese, fakon, fake meat is usually awful. If you're going to be a vegetarian, then embrace vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, all the diversity that the Earth has to offer. Stop trying to recapture something (meat and cheese mostly) that you've voluntarily given up.

There is one exception. Instead of merely tolerating it, I completely embrace Buddhist vegetarian cooking. True, Buddhist cuisine has fake meat too, usually in the form of soy and wheat gluten, but it has perfected the form over hundreds of years. You'd be shocked at how indistinguishable some dishes are to their carnivorous cousins. Usually my Buddhist vegetarian experience is Chinese, but I had an opportunity to explore Vietnamese vegetarian at Golden Era in San Francisco.

The menu consists of common Vietnamese dishes, pho, bun hue, lemongrass chicken (pictured above). In fact, hardly anything from the menu identified the restaurant as vegan. I had the lemongrass chicken, which tasted a little more like pork than chicken, but still tasted meaty nonetheless. It was delicious and it made me think that I could be a vegetarian if I had easy access to this kind of food. The only thing I was a little suspicious of was the fish sauce. As you can imagine, it's very hard to get the fishy flavor without any fish. Instead, it was sweeter than usual and relied on more of a vinegar base than fish.

If you didn't think you could be a vegetarian before, I implore you to search out cuisines that specialize in vegetarian cooking. You really don't need fake burgers and hot dogs, which are often super processed and not any healthier for you. Embrace the flavors and ingredients of the Earth. And if you really need that meat fix, go with people who know what they're doing.

Golden Era Vegetarian
572 O'Farrell St
Btwn Leavenworth & Jones St
(415) 673-3136


Monday, August 22, 2011

Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco

Most people know San Francisco as a coffee town, but how many know about the wonderful tea options in the city? I recently met up with a friend in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco and he suggested we try Samovar's Zen Valley location.


Samovar offers a full menu with abundant descriptions of dozens of white, green, oolong, pu-erh teas and herbal tisanes. Unless your beverage is actually brewed from tea leaves, herbal "teas" are actually tisanes. The fact that Samovar noted this distinction in the menu gave me a boost in confidence. Samovar also has a food menu, mostly tea related finger foods. Best of all, they have full tea services, combinations of food and tea centered around various themes. For example, there's a Moorish service with mint tea, hummus, Greek yogurt; or if you're channeling your inner caveman, there's even a Paleolithic tea service of raw foods paired with a Japanese houjicha.

Since my friend and I were just meeting up briefly, we opted to just try the tea. With so many selections, we were quite lost. Luckily, our server Yoshi was informative and friendly, more than happy give us some direction. I ordered a peppermint Japanese roasted green tea (houjicha) ($8), pictured above. The fragrance of the mint is the most impactful component of this multi-layered tea. You get a big whiff of soothing mint bringing the cup to your nose. Though strong, the mint wasn't overpowering. The blend of mint with tea also brings out a curious chocolate tone also.

While the peppermint tea was delicious, we didn't have nearly the same ceremony for it as we did for our next tea. We were intrigued by the special 1989 aged pu-erh that the waiter was promoting, but ultimately couldn't bear to pay the $24 for a pot of tea that we weren't familiar with. We chose an entry-level pu-erh instead. Per our waiter's instructions, the maiden's ecstasy pu-erh ($9) was supposed to be steeped for only 25 seconds. The above picture is us timing our steep with an iPhone to get that perfect tea. After pouring the hot water into the tea pot, we waited the requisite time and did an elegant pour over two cups. It makes for a pretty cool experience. The flavor of the tea was Earthy, but not rich. It makes a good entry to pu-erh teas, which are post-fermented teas that are aged. The actual distinctions and classifications of pu-erh teas are better explained in its Wikipedia entry.

All in all, I had a wonderful experience. Both my friend and I enjoyed trying something different than meeting up at a Starbucks and I'd love to come back for a full tea service. Also, I walked by the Yerba Buena Gardens location and would recommend that as well since it's more convenient but subsequently more crowded.

Samovar Tea Lounge
297 Page Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(It's in a residential neighborhood in Hayes Valley)
(415) 861-0303


Saturday, August 13, 2011

My First Filipino Restaurant: Sa Aming Nayon

Filipino cuisine has not made a huge impact on the American dining scene. You're hard-pressed to find a Filipino restaurant in any area without a large Filipino population. Luckily, when two of my Filipino friends were talking about a new restaurant open in East Village, I jumped on the opportunity to go with them.
Even in large Filipino enclaves there are seemingly few restaurants. After asking around my Filipino friends, my guess is that two major factors make these places so rare.

Little Market Penetration

Unlike other Asian cuisines, Filipino cuisine has little recognition in America. With Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian being the dominant Asian flavors, there is certainly an entry space for Filipino food. However, it is relatively unknown. Asked to name Filipino dishes, I could only come up with a handful--lumpia, adobo, pancit, lechon, sinigang, halo halo. Many of the flavors of this cuisine are amenable to the American palate. The food is not that exotic (with the clear exception of balut), given the other mainstay Asian cuisines in large American cities these days.

Unfortunately, most Americans experiences with Filipino food are in Jollibee and Goldilocks. Neither of those chains have the diversity of dishes that I believe America is ready to receive.

Mama Makes It Best

The other factor I frequently hear is that Filipino food is very tied to homecooking. Having never been to the Philippines, I couldn't tell you how prevalent restaurants are, but every Filipino will tell you that the best place for food would be at home. Although Sa Aming Nayon was my first Filipino restaurant, I've had Filipino food at home dinners, debuts, and weddings. I'll agree, some of that food is fantastic, but I don't see how the better of those cooks can't translate those dishes to a commercial setting.

Sa Aming Nayon

I came to Sa Aming Nayon with two Filipino-Americans. We started with a lumpiang Shanghai, a Chinese style lumpia with pork and shredded cabbage. Reminiscent of Vietnamese chả giò fried spring rolls, I always find the smaller size of lumpia much more appropriate than the gigantic Chinese-American egg rolls.

For a vegetable dish, we ordered a pinakbet, a Ilocano dish of boiled vegetables with a strong anchovy or shrimp paste. One of my contributions from my limited Filipino vocabulary was the chicken and pork adobo. Adobo, from what I've heard, is an incredibly simple and satisfying stewing dish that you can make yourself. And that's inherently what most of Filipino cuisine is--cheap comfort foods. For starch, we had a pancit palabok thick rice noodles mixed with a savory sauce. Previously, I though pancit was stir-fried, but the dish we had was not. Of course, since this is a Filipino restaurant, we also received several bowls of white rice.

The biggest dish we had was the crispy pata, pictured above. A deep fried pig knuckle, we weren't quite sure how to dig into it. The skin was so thick and tough that the butter knife the restaurant gave us to carve it up proved less than sufficient. We eventually sent it back to the kitchen to be chopped up. Delicious crispy skin well flavored meat, as difficult as it was to eat.

Giving us a dull knife for the pata was just one example of how this new restaurant is still getting on its feet. We had quite a few issues with service. The table next to us received the wrong check and had to wait twenty minutes or so to clear up the problem. Our own check was incorrectly calculated at first. However, for a New York restaurant, the food was appropriately cheap; the four of us got out for about $16 per person. I'd like to come back when their operations are more polished.

Sa Aming Nayon
201 1st Ave
(between 12th St & 13th St)
East Village, Manhattan 10003
(212) 388-0152