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Review: Di Lac
Di Lac in San Jose aims to change meat eaters' minds with vegetarian Vietnamese dishes
by Stett Holbrook on Dec 10, 2009
THE WEEKS after Thanksgiving and before Christmas offer a respite from feasts, a period of relative gastronomic calm between the twin food storms of the holidays. For me, this is a good time to eat less and take a break from all that turkey, ham and roast beef. It’s a good time to go to Di Lac Cuisine in San Jose.
Di Lac is a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant with a few veggie Chinese dishes thrown in for good measure. It’s one of those places that serve tofu and textured vegetable protein recomposed to look like meat. I like Di Lac a lot, but I just don’t get the fake meat thing. If you’re going to eat vegetables, eat vegetables. Why dress them up to look like meat? I think vegetables can stand on their own without making them facsimiles of meat.
Di Lac is the Vietnamese name for the image of the “happy, chubby Buddha,” and the restaurant is adorned with all kinds of Buddhist imagery and statues. There’s even a bubbling fountain. I saw a Buddhist monk eating a plate of rice and vegetables on my first visit, and I thought the restaurant might be affiliated with a local Buddhist temple, but Di Lac is simply an expression of the owners’ beliefs.
I doubt that everyone who eats here is a Buddhist, but it is a popular place and was quite full on my visits. Di Lac is really two restaurants in one. There’s a takeout bar loaded with all sorts of things, as well as a separate menu for dining in. I went for the latter.
As far as fake meat goes, I would have loved to see if I could have fooled a dining companion with the “crispy golden chicken nuggets with spicy sauce” ($7.95). The sweetish sauce wasn’t particularly spicy, but the nuggets sure were chickeny. Lightly battered and fried, the faux meat had the texture and flavor of chicken breast and was compulsively edible.
Bun bo Hue is one of my favorite Vietnamese noodle soups, and the vegetarian version here (bun bo Hue chay, $5.95) did not have me missing the beef and pork. The noodles were a little soggy, but the spicy, tangy broth and various simulated meats made for a respectable, vegetarian version of the dish.
I’m also a big fan of com tam, or “broken rice,” dishes. Made from shattered or fractured grains of rice, com tam is traditionally the rice of the poor, but I find the flavor and texture more appealing than that of whole-grain rice. It’s more delicate and somehow creamier and richer. At Di Lac, com tam is served with three kinds of faux meat: grilled pork, shredded tofu and patty meat that looks something like a fried meatball. All are good, especially the fake pork. It’s served with a light, rice-vinegar-based sauce that you pour over the top.
My favorite dish of all was the “nirvana gourmet salad” ($7.95), a heaping mound of crunchy cabbage and greens, fresh herbs and lotus roots topped with amazingly shrimplike fake shrimp and shredded fake pork. The salad is served with a tangy, bright vinaigrette and is just great. The addition of real meat would not make it any better.
Not everything leads with the fake meat. The spicy lemon-grass tofu ($7.50) doesn’t hide its tofu identity, nor should it. Fat triangles of stir-fired tofu are tossed with vegetables in a delicious lemon-grass-spiked glaze. Eggplant with sweet basil ($7.50) is just what it says it is, plus carrots and bell peppers in a savory, garlic-inflected sauce.
It’s a good side dish for all the “meat”-heavy main courses.
For dessert, I tried the almond tofu jelly ($2.25). It’s better than it sounds but is really just a piece of green, almond-flavored jello, minus the gelatin (which comes from beef bones, don’t you know). Better are the array of fresh-fruit smoothies with marble-size black tapioca pearls ($3.50).
In spite of all I ate on my visits, I left with a lightness of belly that will serve me well as we hurtle toward the end-of-December craziness. Maybe I’ll take a cue from Di Lac and make a tofurkey this year.
Di Lac Cuisine
Address: 1644 E. Capitol Expwy., San Jose
Hours: Daily 9am–9pm.
Price Range: Most dishes $5.95–$8.50.
Cuisine: Vegetarian Vietnamese.
by Stett Holbrook on Dec 10, 2009
IS IT REAL OR IS IT TOFU? The roasted veggie chicken at Di Lac could fool a poultry lover.