My First Vegan/ Raw Food Restaurant Experience.

The reactions I get from people upon telling them that I am a vegetarian are always very different. Sometimes it’s shock, sometimes general intrigue, and other times, ignorance. I’ve gotten used to these reactions and have found it’s really entertaining to hear the varied responses. If my life were scripted by Larry David, here’s how I would respond in return to some of the more common reactions I’ve encountered.*

“Oh, a vegetarian? Wow, that’s really cool, what do you eat?” Food. Just like you do. Minus the meat. 

“You’re a vegetarian? How do you get any protein?” I don’t because there is no such thing as protein that isn’t in the form of a cheeseburger. Besides beans, nuts, eggs, soy, yogurt, tofu, and like 2,300 other foods.

“I’m a vegetarian too! I just eat chicken and fish sometimes but that’s it.” Nope. Sorry, you’re not a vegetarian. 

“Yeah I only eat fish.” Pescetarian. That’s the name for it and it’s not the same.

“You don’t believe in killing animals?” I’m ethically opposed to factory farming and CAFO’s and corporate greed. And I’m ethically opposed to the abuse and torture of animals though such means. Any other questions?

*Since my life is not scripted by Larry David, this sarcasm is left at home, as it is not well-suited for making and keeping friends and a kind reputation.

I’m not making fun of people who react this way. Really, I’m not. It’s normal. Vegetarianism isn’t familiar to everyone so I have fun with it. It’s become a very regular occurrence that I have conversations about my no-meat diet and after a while, it gets so redundant that it becomes comedic.

I enjoy being a vegetarian. I enjoy it every single day. It’s become a part of my identity and one that I’ve possessed with conviction and dignity and a whole lot of discipline. I can’t say that about many other parts of my life which is why I take pride in this.

Last week was my and the husband’s third wedding anniversary. It was on Tuesday so we decided to do it right and celebrate it on Friday with dinner and small gifts for each other. Tuesdays we both work late and I usually sink into bed with a book by 9 p.m. because I am an old soul like that so we held out for Friday. The husband told me he had a surprise in store so I let him do the dirty work of planning and put on my good tights and a pretty dress, pinned my hair back, freshened up my blush and got in the car to go when he told me to. I had no idea where he was taking me. Thirty minutes later, after bickering over what to play on the iPod while stalled in traffic, we were parked in front of a restaurant tucked away in a shopping center in Fountain Valley. I looked up at the sign and and chuckled. It totally made sense. We were parked in front of Au Lac Restaurant, which is a Vegan/ Humanese restaurant that serves “Vegan/ Living” Food.  Because I don’t eat meat and take an interest in healthy living, the husband assumed this would just tickle me and be a dream come true.

The first words out of my mouth when we got out of the car: oh my.

I had never been to a place like this. It never appealed to me, really. But that’s probably because I’m not vegan and have no desire to be. Bless my loverboy’s sweet heart though, the thought of it meant a lot and I was stoked to see how it would turn out. So we walked in and got ready to eat raw.

Upon entering the cozy, dimly lit restaurant, we were greeted by a young brunette with a big, sweet smile on her face and a soft, slow song by Elliott Smith playing in the background. To our immediate right was a bar and a young guy slouched over a tall glass. I did a double-take as we walked passed it. There was no booze at this bar. In it’s place were an assortment of elixirs and drinks made from things most normal folk have never heard of like Kombucha and Brazil NutMilk and detoxing teas with exotic names that promised to promote relaxation and rejuvenation for $8.00 a cup. We were seated and given a brief tutorial about the very-vaguely detailed menu featuring dishes with standard names like “Steamed Fish” and “BBQ Pork Roll” sans the fish or pork, of course.

There were two separate kitchens in the restaurant, one where vegan cuisine was cooked, and the other where it was prepared raw with no cooking involved. We were told that the head chef, “Chef Ito,” is a quiet man who speaks love to all restaurant patrons through his vegan cooking. My hopes were high at this point. That, or I was just really hungry.

I had a difficult time deciding what to order. The raw “BBQ Pizza” grabbed my attention first, but then I saw “Sweet n’ Sour Shrimp with Pineapple Rice” and “Coconut Curry Chicken” and was torn. I’m not normally a fan of faux meats that are made to look and taste like the real thing but figured if there were ever a moment for me to give it a chance to rock my world, it would be at a place like this.

“What’s the shrimp made from?” I asked our waiter, realizing just how ludicrous such a question would sound to someone like my mother who believes that God gave us animals so we can cook them up and serve them over penne pasta.”The shrimp are made from soy and you’d never taste a difference,” our waiter said with a smile. I thanked her and continued studying the menu for something more enticing than soy made to taste like it came from the ocean. The “Coconut Curry Chicken” continued to tease me with the allure of fresh carrot and onion swimming in a bowl of coconut milk-based curry with faux chicken. I’m biased toward fake chicken over fake seafood because fake chicken feels less risky and generally tastes better to me. So that’s what I ordered.

We started out with vegan garlic bread with olive oil for dipping. I figured that it couldn’t be possible for anything involving carbs and garlic and olive oil to taste bad.

And I was right. It didn’t taste bad. But it wasn’t awesome. I wouldn’t even say it was good, but there was enough flavor and texture to make it eat-able and decent tasting. I wouldn’t write home about it, though, and it fails miserably as an alternative to what I’m used to when I order a bread basket at a restaurant. (Butter + soft fluffy white dough). However, if I were to eat strictly vegan, I could understand how a plate of this would taste like heaven. The husband went crazy over it, he said the bread reminded him of the type of bread his mom used to buy at a health food market when he was a kid that he loved. This was a surprise to me, to say the least.

Our entrees came and that’s when things got interesting. The husband ordered the “Dragon Roll.”

My Coconut Chicken Curry (brown rice on the side):

I wasted no time and dug right in. My first sip of the hot, creamy curry was rich and delicious. I did not feel like I was eating Vegan until I got a bite of the faux chicken, which wasn’t bad after marinating in and absorbing the flavors of the curry. Across from me, however, the husband struggled.

Oh how he struggled.

After trying one piece of his “Dragon Roll” he looked at me like a little boy looks up at his mom when he is unsure of what to feel or say or do, needing affirmation and encouragement that everything is going to be okay. “How is it?” I asked.

I didn’t need him to tell me. He hated it and I knew it. “Please eat as many of these as you can,” he begged, pushing his plate toward me as I slurped up my curry. I giggled and portioned him out some of my meal, which he did like, and I ate a few pieces of the roll from his plate. His food wasn’t completely awful, but to someone who eats meat daily, I could see how it would taste like a pile of compost.

On a scale of 1-5, I’d give my meal a 4. I’d rate the husband’s as a 2. And the “garlic bread” was a 1 for me.

After the waiter fetched our plates and left us with the bill, I looked over at the husband and said: well, at least we tried it. Next time you should get the curry.

We both smirked and got up to leave, just as the Friday night crowds began to trickle in. Yes, there really were crowds of people flooding a Raw Food restaurant on a Friday night. We walked to the car and I remembered something our waiter said after explaining the menu:

Raw-foodists from all over Orange and L.A. County come just to try Chef Ito’s food. It’s that good.

She was right. The people piled in and as we drove away I wondered, what might those people say or think upon talking with me about their dietary choices, if I were to ask them questions about why they eat the way they do. Probably something very similar to what I say or think when I’m asked about being a vegetarian. Minus the Larry David snarky-ness, I’m sure. Most vegans I’ve met are peaceful and serene people to talk with, which makes me feel a bit like an ass sometimes for getting annoyed with what people have to say about vegetarianism.

This experience, while not perfect, was valuable for me. Here’s why:

a) I got out of my cushy food bubble and ate a meal that wasn’t familiar to me.

b) I discovered that the husband likes vegan bread.

c) I saw that there are a lot of people who do care about what they put into their bodies and that makes me happy for them, and hopeful for societal progress in this area.

Most importantly, though, I was able to experience a culinary way of life that is very much outside of what I’m used to and what I’ve deemed as “normal” and “acceptable” in my mind. This was good for me — for now I realize that the way I interpret such a radical lifestyle like raw-foodism and veganism, is similar to how others may view my choice to eat vegetarian. And while it’s easy to have fun with the reactions and conversations I have with others about my ethical reasons for eating the way I do, it’s a sobering thing to remember that to someone else’s radical or against-the-norm lifetstyle, I probably seem clueless too — a girl who could never, ever be convinced to pay $8.00 for a cup of tea unless that cup of tea could give me super-powers or make me stop biting my nails. And also someone who could never be “into” eating shrimp made from soy unless I was starving and had no other options.

Until then, I’m happy eating my cheese and ice cream. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t come home from that meal last Friday and wolf down a bowl of Cookie Dough ice cream. Plus a cream puff. (Or two).

Raw-foodism is wonderful and I admire and respect those who embrace it– it’s just not for me. And I feel qualified to say so now that I’ve been to the other side for myself.


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June 27, 2012