Vegan Vietnamese

Meatless in Steer City

Release Date: 2009-10-14

Any restaurant that dares call itself Pho Sure risks offending potential diners. The name is, for sure, an egregious pun. And since pho, the emblematic dish of Vietnam, is usually a beef-based noodle soup, it might well ward off vegetarians. That would be a shame, since San Antonio offers few vegetarian-friendly menus, and Pho Sure’s, which includes faux-chicken, is one of them. The restaurant is also just plain friendly. During my incognito visit, three gregarious servers attended to our needs, and, after stuffing our bellies almost enough to resemble the effigy of the Buddha squatting above the portal to his open kitchen, Thinh Mai, the proprietor, filled our ears with his dream of creating a space for holistic living, in which artists, musicians, and herbalists mingle with hungry bodies, minds, and souls. He envisions book swaps and workshops in yoga, gardening, and alternative therapies.

Pho Sure only recently began inhabiting the site of Big Kahuna, a defunct Vietnamese establishment on West Ashby near San Pedro Park. It is close enough to the San Pedro Playhouse that package deals of dinner and a theater ticket are available — they might be particularly attractive to the adventurous audiences who frequent the San Pedro’s Cellar Theater.

When I stopped in for dinner, the sign outside had not been changed, and the menu was still Big Kahuna’s. However, it was opening night for the restaurant’s Saatea Lounge, a tea bar that adjoins the dining room and which was celebrating the occasion with live music and complimentary kambucha tea and organic smoothies. The walls of both the restaurant and the tea room were adorned with Cindy Palmer paintings, and paper lanterns helped shed light on culinary choices. I was informed that during its “soft opening” Pho Sure would be rolling out extensions to the modest Big Kahuna menu over the coming weeks. So this must be an interim report on a gastronomic work in progress.

To be sure, one can slurp pho — pork-based — in Pho Sure, and its offerings include lemongrass chicken, beef, and pork. Salmon will be available in the near future. My companion, who does not share my scruples about eating animals, was delighted with the grilled shrimp that she ordered. However, there are also several choices available to a patron who, for nutritional, ecological, or ethical reasons, refuses to feed off meat or fish. I have always been wary of Vietnamese cuisine, which, more than Indian or Chinese but less than Korean or Japanese, tends to incorporate flesh into feasts. But, like the estimable but much less funky Viet Nam Restaurant on Broadway near Brackenridge Park, Pho Sure does not oblige diners to be carnivores. And since dairy is alien and eggs uncommon to Asian cuisine, vegetarian dishes usually also mean vegan.

After sampling some savory Nori wraps stuffed with tofu, crispy veggie pot stickers, and spongy spring rolls packed with rice, sprouts, avocado, cucumber, and tofu, I ordered the vegetarian combination plate, which incorporates ingredients from two other entrées — a mock-fish dish and stir-fried vegetables with tofu. The combo turned out to be a generous bowl of rice noodles, squash, carrots, green pepper, and two kinds of bean curd with seasoning that vaguely mimicked fish and ham. Fortified by dips of peanut and soy sauce, the meal was salubrious and satisfying, if unspectacular by the standards of haute cuisine. However, high finance is not a requirement for dining at Pho Sure; entrées are well below $10 each, appetizers less than $5. The dining room holds about 30, the Saatea Lounge about 15, and vacant seats were rare. In Buddhism, sati is the practice of enlightened attentiveness. Attention must be paid to the evolving identity and expanding repertoire of Pho Sure, the neat new eatery adjacent to Saatea. •


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