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Meatless Nirvana

Lu Lai Garden
For Pot Sticklers: Lu Lai Garden is one of the few Chinese restaurants to focus on meat-free dim sum, making it popular among vegetarians.

Hard-to-find vegetarian dim sum expands herbivore options at Lu Lai Garden

By Andrew X. Pham

VEGETARIAN DIM SUM is a rare find. The last time I ate dim sum of the herbivore variety was in a Buddhist monastery. It is little wonder, then, that Lu Lai Garden's vegetarian dim sum and other meatless pleasures draw a wall-to-wall riot of vegetable lovers. Not exactly an easy place to find, the restaurant is crowded into Milpitas Square, a thriving strip mall of Asian businesses. "Vegetarian," in big green lettering, marks the spot. During lunch hours, look for a herd of patrons queuing right out the front door, patiently looking over the menu during the half-hour wait for a table. Dim sum is served between 11am and 2:30pm and ranges from $1.70 to $3. Weekend brunches tend to offer a larger and fresher selection than weekday lunches, when many patrons opt for regular meals (lunch specials are $3.99) over dim sum.

Lu Lai Garden is no garden, but a fluorescent-washed Chinese cafeteria guarded by a two-tier cabinet--the top shelf reserved for Buddha, the bottom for the Kitchen God. Service is adequate, although a little slow during the lunch rush. Prices are basement bargains, and quantity and freshness rate fairly high.

Choice dim sum items include fried imitation shrimp balls; spring rolls fat with Chinese mushrooms, onions and scallions; pot stickers full of vegetables; and steamed imitation pork buns. Dumplings are best eaten with a dab of monk hot chile paste made with puréed red chile pepper and fermented soybean, a sweet, nutty and tangy complement to the spiciness. The best dim sum, without a doubt, is the lotus rice--plump, glutinous rice embedded with fried tofu, peas, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and onion, all wrapped and steamed in a fragrant lotus leaf.

The dim sum selection is modest, so forays into the regular menu are a good idea. Lu Lai's 203 menu items don't disappoint--they provide the same plethora of choices one finds in Chinese restaurants, only sans meat. Chinese vegetarian cuisine evolved largely thanks to Buddhist monks, whose religiously observed denial of the pleasures of the flesh spurred ingenious creations of "vegetarian meats." These include renditions of shrimp, lobster, chicken, duck, pork and beef, all of which appear in Lu Lai's repertoire.

Though the restaurant serves some very good imitation meats, Lu Lai's real forte lies in artfully cooked vegetables. Soups here are very simple and flavorful. The tofu in curry sauce ($5.95) is a spicy dish quite big with the regulars. But the really tasty choices are the sizzling platters ($7.25, choice of ingredients) and the clay pots ($6.50, choice of ingredients), both styles incorporating good spice infusion and sauce caramelization that amplifies flavors.

For men of the cloth the world over, food is the one earthly temptation not abandoned for higher levels of enlightenment. But then even the staunchest Buddhist would admit that excellent vegetarian dim sum is one way to sample Nirvana.

Lu Lai Garden is located at 210 Barber Court in Milpitas. 408/526-9888.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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