Sum Veg Goo at Vegetarian Dim Sum House; Veg-City’s Like Ye Olde (Dairy-Free) Malt Shoppe

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Is the idea
behind the fake meat served at vegetarian restaurants that vegetarians sorely
miss the sensation of animal flesh in their mouths? Tempeh and soy are to beef
and chicken as methadone is to smack? Makes little sense to me. I support some
aspects of the vegan vision (particularly the part about returning to an America
that doesn’t subsist off factory slaughter), but cannot relate to this
glass-half-empty vegetarianism. The satisfaction that comes with disciplined
self-denial is a weird thing to concentrate on while moderating your animal-product
intake–especially if you’re just going to redirect dairy lust into
a vat of soy cheese. I suppose it makes sense in a culture where smoking pot
without inhaling can be a notch more ethical than enjoying the high.

A more sensible–pleasurable–realm
of focus for vegetarianism would be: vegetables. They might even be better for
you than seitan mcnuggets, but, more to the point, life with vegetables gets
increasingly tasty and satisfying as you pay closer attention to them. Scrutiny
in the marketplace, seeking out varieties grown for flavor (instead of for weight
or ease of shipping or appearance–all that’s required for discernment
is a working nose), is at least half the battle. Optimal preparation also demands
keen awareness. Vegetarian or not, that sharp, intuitive, discriminating quality
of attention to food–involving all five senses, the tongue usually last–is
the foundation for good cooking. The rest is recipes.

If anyone should
know this well, it’s vegetarians. A decent entree is so much harder to
fake without a slab of juicy muscle to overwhelm the finer faculties. If it
weren’t for their puritanical strain, American vegetarians would demand
that meatless restaurants be vegetable specialists. Apparently, this line of
thinking exists in Indian- and Korean-immigrant New York, hence the excellent
Vatan and HanGawi. In veggie Chinatown, though, it’s all about not inhaling.

The prospect
of vegetarian dim sum comes close to inviting the meat-substitute menace. But
since vegetable cooking lends itself to a variety of compact dishes, the reality
could have transcended mere imitation. Also, the dim sum experience is one meat-consumption
ritual that vegetarians might reasonably want to enjoy their own way. The chance
to see what you’re ordering is usually a plus when eating cheap, and choosing
your dishes off of wheeled carts in an enormous room is fun.

No roving carts
at Vegetarian Dim Sum House, however. That’s probably a trade-off against
catering to a more selective clientele, to whom the Pell St. establishment offers,
the menu says, "Dim Sum Serving All Day." No doubt it also helps the
restaurant move more dim sum. Surrounded by dozens of noodle joints and Buddhist-friendly
wok shops in the densest part of Chinatown, even a pious vegetarian has multiple
dining options. As a guy who simply likes vegetables, if I’d seen entire
cartfuls of Vegetarian Dim Sum House fare rolling my way, I’d have probably
turned tail and fled, hungry. Sights unseen, as they were, I ordered five of
the $2 plates.

Sweet and salty
dumplings arrived immediately, looking just like glazed donut-holes. Honey-colored
and at room temperature, they screamed Middle Eastern-dessert right up until
the first bite, which disclosed an interior layer of glutinous rice surrounding
a core of mildly salty goo. Suspended in there were some carrots and cabbage,
giving the goo the flavor of a generic, though unusually syrupy, Chinese soup
base. Glutinous rice is a moderately sweet, ultra-starchy dough, more filling
than anything. So while the dumpling’s overall taste made good, technically,
on the "sweet and salty" promise, the inclusion of two more of them
on the plate proved excessive.

I pined for
something hotter and less unpleasant. The spring rolls demonstrated how bad
it can be to get half of what you wish for by releasing a flood of scalding
grease upon my starch-laden tongue. After a period of cooling off and congealing,
the crispy roll’s filling revealed itself to be a goo made from carrots,
cabbage and corn starch. The difference between it and the dumpling’s innards
had been the temperature.

My gamely chosen
option for steamed dumplings was the "mock shrimp" type, which come
packed with rice, plus a peanut-sized nugget of something like watercress. My
pain is what Vegetarian Dim Sum House was mocking now. Even if I’d selected
spinach dumplings I’d have lost, because VDSH fashions its noodle wrappers
from rice flour. The restaurant’s gray, shiny, gooey dumplings could not
possibly satisfy a diner expecting a pocket of moist and pliant wheat pasta,
which tastes good even when prepared cheaply, and doesn’t adhere quite
so much as if epoxied to its banana-leafed steamer bowl. The grim noodles returned,
by now expectedly, via Rice Flour Rolls with Chinese Kale. Sheets of them–suggesting
wallpaper manufactured from shirt cardboard–formed a tube around some oversteamed,
stringy stems of broccoli rabe. It’d be unthinkable almost anywhere else,
but here it made sense to wonder if the cook had thrown the vegetable’s
delicate florets away.

The missing
green matter certainly hadn’t come anywhere near my Treasure Balls with
Assorted Flavor. The best of my five, these turned out to be large, spherical
variations on the Tater Tots theme. The crust was satisfying french-fry material
that broke cleanly when pinched with chopsticks. Inside might have been potato,
or maybe some related root vegetable–it was too whipped and deep-fried
to tell. Also in there were some crumbs of fake ham, which do their job well
in such small bits. Though a sorry excuse for a Buddha-referencing meal, my
Treasure Balls gave me a warm feeling. I think it was the vegetarian equivalent
of wolfing down pigs-in-blankets and curly fries at a high school football game.
Block that kick, Buddha.

Dim Sum House also has also has a full menu of non-dim-sum entrees, priced $6.95-$10.95,
with headings for the various false meats and nauseating noodles. One chapter
is dedicated to mushrooms. As I didn’t get any, I’d recommend that
section as a best bet.

Dim Sum House, 24 Pell St. (betw. Mott & Doyers Sts.), 577-7176.


Another fun
restaurant experience that vegetarians have reason to covet participation in
is that of the Greek diner. Veg-City Diner supplies the means, including such
crucial details as a rotating dessert-display case, here packed with vegan treats.
Meat mockery is, again, at the heart of the matter, though at least at Veg-City
the joke isn’t on the customers. By keying in on every vegetarian’s
experience of sifting through an eight-page diner menu in search of its paltry
three or four veggie-friendly listings, Veg-City laughs with them.

Their Buffalo
Style Wings, for instance, come breaded and fried, atop carrots and celery,
all slathered in the exact same tangy vinegar hot sauce that anoints little
drumsticks. The soy strips are layered and rubbery to evoke chicken’s incisor-resistant
property, but Nerf meat isn’t expected to carry the dish. That powerful
orange sauce is the ballgame. Rather than stage a ritual of denial to mirror
meat-eaters’ pleasure in flesh, Veg-City invites vegetarians to share in
a spicy joy that’s otherwise off-limits. Just as people averse to cheap,
gristly chicken might enjoy a buffalo wing now and then, a dedicated meat-lover
could swallow Veg-City’s wings without choking.

That brings
up the positive side of being a vegetarian who doesn’t love vegetables:
at least you’re not a freak in America. Veg-City concentrates on cultural
belonging and community comfort. The Phony Island Corn Dog and FauxPhilly Cheesesteak
succeed not only because cornbread/mustard and peppers/onions/cheese are more
important to those dishes than their skanky, painlessly substituted-for meats–it’s
also that being alienated from those regional flavors can feel bad, like being
a stranger in one’s own homeland. It’s unsurprising that a large part
of Veg-City’s clientele seems to be vegetarian college students, given
that many such people are both literally and culinarily far from whence they

It helps that
the restaurant occupies a space that had housed a traditional diner. (A former
Veg-City location, at 3rd Ave. and 9th St., is now closed; plans for additional
locations are in the works.) The place feels welcoming–not just to Birkenstock
types but to everyone. It charges regular (remodeled) diner prices. The neon
sign’s skyline logo is outdated since 9/11, but the idea it expresses,
refuting veggie exclusivity and veggie ghettoization both, anticipated the galvanizing
aftermath. Upon entering, patrons get ice water and a big, fold-out menu, with
dairy-free options flagged by a proud, yellow "V." The place is usually
busy. Plus, there’s a full bar. If you’re going to make a vegetarian
restaurant that doesn’t specialize in vegetables, this is how you do it.

Our first time
at Veg-City, we treated it just like any other diner. I ordered from the breakfast
menu; my girlfriend tried a salad. Both were a modest cut above the norm: the
eggs are organic, yielding a fluffier, fresher-tasting omelet, and Veg-City’s
greens are clean–not greenmarket delicacies, but never brown or wilted,
either. Knowing that the place could be relied on as a normal diner made us
wonder what else it could pull off.

visits found us gravitating, without really realizing it, to Veg-City versions
of foods from our youths. I was glad to have trusted its cooks to provide me
a club sandwich. It’s a triple-decker with zucchini, peppers and eggplant
on top, sadly lacking charcoal flavor yet definitely passable as grilled. Below
the mezzanine slice of toasted seven-grain (thankfully, the superfluous grains
stay out of the way) is the BLT portion. The smoky fake bacon triumphs amidst
so much crunchy camouflage, in the manner not of an impostor, but of an understudy
backup singer who nails that tough note, even though she probably didn’t
really, but it doesn’t matter because you’re caught up in the show
and it was plenty close enough. An honest deli pickle and cup of slaw play their
stock roles.

choice of shepherd’s pie (she’s from England) brought a confrontation
with the one weakness Veg-City needs to address. The dish wasn’t bad. It’s
a mash of lentils, corn, onions and celery, topped with strong mashed potatoes
(didn’t have butter and didn’t need any) and a sprinkle of parsley.
The latter was a helpful touch, and like real shepherd’s pie, this meatless
entree was wintertime belly-warmer stuff, earthy and stewed brown. But it was
bland. We’d have asked for HP sauce if the waiter had returned to see how
we were doing, but he didn’t, and we doubted he had any. It’s a sad
truth that a lot of vegetarians like their food spiceless. Veg-City Diner, with
those hot pseudo-wings and also five different veggie burritos on its menu,
should confront that regrettable fact with increased freedom of choice. I suggest
furnishing each table with at least six bottles of spice concoctions from around
the globe. True, you wouldn’t find those in an everyday, hometown diner.
Even while toying with conformity, though, vegetarians would rather eat well
than pretend to.

Veg-City Diner,
55 W. 14th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 490-6266.