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Gluten for Punishment

Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine
Christopher Gardner

Gluten Free: The eggplant with basil is one of many tempting dishes found at Campbell's Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine.

Faux versions of the flesh abound at Campbell's Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine

By Judi Blackwell

LET'S HAVE IT, once and for all. Do vegetarians really enjoy meatless "meat" dishes that look like the real thing, faux versions of the flesh that one becomes a vegetarian to avoid? Myself, I find the thought of biting into a glutenous version of liver or eel disturbing--although my view could be warped: I was raised as a vegetarian and no creature that ever owned a pair of eyes has come close to this mouth.

Suffice it to say I was more than hesitant when asked by several readers to explore the menu at Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine (yes, that's the name), a strictly vegetarian restaurant offering an extensive menu of meatless "meat" dishes and (thankfully) several tempting gluten-free vegetable entrees.

Located within a shopping plaza off of Winchester Boulevard, Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine offers an ambiance as generic as its name. Under the bright glare of fluorescent lighting, powder-blue wood paneling meets white walls adorned with undistinguished prints of fresh fruits and vegetables. A frog-croaking door chime coupled with a bubbling plastic fountain almost creates the atmosphere of dining in a mobile-home park--minus the pink flamingos. At least the company was good.

The menu? Well, the entree list portends a gluten-heavy future, with more than 50 vegetarian entrees: vegetarian eel, shredded pork, sausage, kung pao shrimp, deep-fried fish, ham and squid. Several tofu dishes are also offered, including tofu sautéed Szechwan style and home-style tofu with hot sauce, as well as plain vegetable dishes, such as sautéed string beans, and eggplant with hot sauce.

Though our server was pleasant and quick to offer tea and water, there was a long wait between courses, all of which were served sporadically. And throughout the meal, our emptied soup bowls and appetizer plates were never cleared away, most likely because there was only one waitress working during lunch hour.

Our appetizers, both of which were included in the lunch special, were pleasing enough. The hot and sour soup was above average, as were our egg rolls. Skipping the vegetarian eel and vegetarian fins (both $8.98), my eggplant-loving companion chose the eggplant with basil ($6.98), which arrived promptly, glistening in a light brown sauce sprinkled with bits of fresh basil and ginger. The dish was beautiful, the purple hue of the eggplant shining magnificently against the green of the fresh basil. It was equally delicious, easily the best-executed dish of eggplant I've ever sampled.

My green vegetable with black mushrooms ($5.98) arrived several minutes later--unfortunately, it indeed offered only one green vegetable, as the name implied, and that was bok choy. Fresh broccoli or pea pods would have added much-needed variety to this dish.

In an attempt to be fair to the gluten (for those lucky enough not to have crossed its path, gluten is a tenacious and elastic substance formed when wheat flour is stirred or kneaded with a liquid), we sampled the vegetarian kung pao chicken and vegetarian beef with mixed vegetables ($4.28 lunch specials). The latter, composed of sliced carrots, baby corn, mushrooms, water chestnuts and cabbage, was very mild, almost to a fault. Gluten contributed a spongy and flavor-resistant texture; the strongest taste that emerged was that of ginger, a recurrent theme throughout the meal. The kung pao also disappointed with the underwhelming taste of gluten. Tofu would have been a better choice in both of these dishes.

Less than a year old, Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine has the right idea: The South Bay needs a good, strictly vegetarian restaurant for herbivores. This establishment, however, has plenty to work on. Focusing less on creating dishes that resemble meat and more on the abundance of fresh vegetables, pastas and grains that all vegetarians love would be a step in the right direction.

Tasty Vegetarian Cuisine is located at 2455 S. Winchester Blvd., Campbell, 408/374-9791. Send tips to Vegging Out at 550 S. First St., San Jose, 95113, or email.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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