By Blake Sharp
Before I start, I want to preface this article with the fact that I love ribs dripping in barbeque sauce, crispy bacon with runny egg yolks, greasy carnitas burritos and prosciutto (with pineapples, but that’s another debate) draped across a flatbread pizza. That being said, the environmental impact of my diet has compelled me into an attempted pursuit of more vegetarian meals.
In my latest pursuit of a meatless Monday, I tried the restaurant “Garden Fresh” off University Avenue in Palo Alto. Garden Fresh is a fully vegan Chinese restaurant. I love Panda Express probably more than the next person, and over the summer, I fell in love with the Peking duck at Great China in Berkeley. I eat broccoli beef for the beef and order double portions of orange chicken, so vegetables and tofu in Chinese food is a little out of my comfort zone. With a passionate vegetarian mentality, however, I ordered more sustainable takes on my “traditional” favorites.
The restaurant is a little hole in the wall with a shallow dining area of around 10 tables. The feel was very similar to many Chinese-American restaurants I have been to in the past. The wait staff were all very friendly and happy to answer questions about the vegan “meats.” The food was definitely supposed to be served family style, and the take-out boxes were exactly what you would expect from a Chinese restaurant.
I decided to skip appetizers and go straight for the main meal. I wanted to try some of the more inventive entrees instead of vegetable pot stickers or spring rolls, which I felt I could get anywhere. The first main dish I tried was veggie duck. I knew I couldn’t compare my shiitake mushrooms wrapped in tofu skin to the crispy duck rolls I was used to, but I still wanted to see what vegan duck was like. The plate had a large helping of “duck,” broccoli, carrots, onions and bok choy, covered in a light and not overwhelming sauce. The shiitake mushrooms were unrecognizable in their new form, and I was pleasantly surprised when I had my first bite. The lightly fried tofu skin was reminiscent of the duck I am used to, and the texture was very comparable and just slightly chewier. While the mushrooms were less salty than normal duck, the overall taste could have passed for it. It was delicious, but unlike most Chinese food, it didn’t leave me absolutely craving the next bite. For vegan duck, I was very satisfied, but it doesn’t compare to the Peking duck I’ve had in the past.
The second dish I ordered was the kung pao eggplant. If there is one vegetable (technically fruit, but someone seriously challenge me that eggplants aren’t vegetables) I will go out of my way to try in any possible dish, it is eggplant. I have an absolute infatuation with the purple plant. I ordered the dish to be medium spice, but it was very mild on the taste buds. The eggplant was served with tofu, basil and red bell peppers in a Szechuan sauce. The slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauce with a little kick at the end in combination with the soft, melt in your mouth eggplant was a real winner for me. The tofu was a nice addition for some protein and served as another vehicle for which to transport the delectable kung pao sauce to my mouth. Throughout the meal, I couldn’t stop myself from going back for more large chunks of eggplant, despite starting to feel very, very full.
Feeling pretty optimistic, I headed into the third course, basil tempura, with high expectations. I love tempura shrimp and vegetables, so I was ready to love this dish. There are few things better than breaking the crispy shell of a tempura shrimp that has been slightly soaked in tentsuyu sauce. The dish came wrapped in foil, which I hoped would preserve the crispiness of the tofu covering. In addition to the tofu, the dish had basil, chili peppers, onions and red peppers in a sticky warm sauce that I didn’t recognize. Unfortunately, the tempura was chewy, not crunchy and tasted more like oyster sauce than I would have liked. That being said, the onions and red peppers were crunchy and had a much better taste than the tempura tofu.
The last course was the one I was most excited and most nervous for. The orange veggie chicken was served with enough broccoli to make you feel just a bit better about eating the fried nuggets. The syrupy, sweet citrus sauce was generously poured over the shiitake mushroom style chicken. I took the first bite apprehensively. This is my go to Panda Express meal, and I was truly hoping that Garden Fresh would do the classic American Chinese dish justice. After chewing and swallowing, I realized I couldn’t tell that what I just ate wasn’t chicken. The sauce, fried mushrooms and fresh tasting broccoli were absolutely delicious.
Overall, I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed the vegan “meats.” I felt full and satisfied after the meal and enjoyed almost all of the foods I tried. My main takeaway from this vegan Chinese dinner is that almost anything tastes better fried, and Chinese food is more about the sauce than the actual meats (besides maybe the Peking duck). If you’re vegan, vegetarian or feeling inspired to do a meatless Monday or a Thursday, I would absolutely recommend this restaurant as a fun and innovative alternative.