When I saw the sign outside of the Vegan House Thai restaurant announcing Vegan Shabu-Shabu I simultaneously thought to myself, “you’ve got to be kidding me” and “what will they think of next!?”.
Shabu-shabu is a Japanese dish often simply referred to as “hot pot“. Generally it involves a hot boiling broth into which are dipped slices of raw meat, fish, vegetables and noodles, which then get swished around in the hot soup until cooked. Traditionalist would (will) most likely mock even the mere suggestion of a vegan version of shabu-shabu, in which after all, the whole point is to serve raw meat and cook it at the table. Some people also scoff at the idea of Vegan Pho (Vietnamese soup), but it appears that us satisfied vegans are getting the last (death free) laugh.
I say to hell with tradition! Who needs tradition when it involves stinky, salmonella flavored raw beef? I’m all about everything on earth being made vegan and tasty, traditions be damned. Needless to say, I was super excited to take this ride for a spin. I’d never eaten at Vegan House before, neither at this location off Hollywood on Wilcox, nor at their Silver Lake location. This spot on Wilcox used to be home to the most amazing Sri Lankin restaurant where I was first introduced to the glories of cashew curry many years ago. Sadly that restaurant has been gone for a over a decade, but I’m happy to see that a vegan establishment has taken it’s place. The menu at Vegan House is exactly what you’ve come to expect from the plethora of vegan Thai joints we’ve got all over town… your usual pad thai, cowboy burgers and freshy wraps, etc… You may have noticed that even though all these Thai places have very similar menus, they’ve all also usually got a few specialty items of their own that the others don’t have… in this case, it’s Thai’s serving Japanese shabu-shabu.
But I’m gonna get to that in a minute. First I want to tell you about another one of those specialties I just mentioned. This is something that I haven’t noticed at any of the other Thai places, at least not yet.
These are Soy Crab Cheese Wontons, vegan of course, with soy crab and soy cream cheese stuffed into a wonton skin and fried. If someone could tell me how to say “addicting perfection” in either Japanese, Chinese or Thai I would be grateful, because that’s what these little beauties were. I’m not going to tell you that it tasted like real crab, because I’ve never put a dead crab in my mouth so I wouldn’t know, but what I can tell you was that these were absolutely delectable. There is no fishy taste whatsoever, just melty cheesy goodness mixed with whatever that pseudo-crab stuff is which gives it a nice texture, firmness and flavor which I just couldn’t get enough of, especially once dipped in the sweet sauce that was served alongside. This was the tastiest bad-for-me appetizer I’ve had in quite sometime, and even if I hated this restaurant (which I don’t), I would still go back just to get my hands on some more of these wontons.
On to the main meal, my shabu-shabu order came with a nice side salad. Fresh lettuce, carrots and sesame which get elevated way up from being boring by the wonderful dressing that you can’t see in the photo because it’s buried at the bottom of the bowl. Slightly salty and obviously involving soy sauce, I thought it was mighty tasty. Even though I’d just eaten a ton of wontons and knew there was still a full meal yet to come, I couldn’t resist eating the whole salad, the dressing was that good. I wish they’d sell me a bottle of the stuff.
First my waiter brought out the heating contraption which I’ve got pictured up at the beginning of this post. Next comes the bowl of broth shown here, with a large piece of kombu seaweed in it which gets set on the hot device (hence, “hot pot”) and heated to a rolling boil, then the ingredients are brought in for you to assemble as desired.
The soy chicken is your standard fake meat fare, nothing marvelous to write home about, but certainly more presentable and palatable than real chicken any day.
They also brought out a nice assortment of vegetables, including carrots, Chinese cabbage, celery and celery leaves and shitake mushrooms, along with tofu and both glass and udon noodles. You also get two different kinds of dipping sauces, a traditional Ponzu (a tart citrus sauce) for the vegetables, and Gomadare (sesame sauce) for the soy meats. There’s also a large serving of brown rice.
So the way this works is you pick and choose your combo of ingredients and place them into the hot broth. Using your chop sticks you swish the stuff around (Wikidpedia tells us that shabu-shabu translates to “swish-swish” in Japanese) until it reaches your preferred level of doneness. From this point on I was a bit confused as to what I was supposed to do with it. The menu says to dip the stuff into the sauce… so does that mean I take it out of the broth, dip it, then put it in my mouth? Kind of hard to do when your dealing with boiling hot dripping noodles. I felt a bit silly not knowing how to eat shabu-shabu like a pro, but without a guide to show me the way, I made up my own method that seemed to work. First I put a layer of rice down on my plate, then I just piled the stuff out of the broth onto the rice (it’s not so easy fishing noodles out of hot liquid with a spoon and strainer, tongs would have come in handy), then poured on some of each sauce (after tasting both first to make sure I liked them). I’m kind of doubting this is the proper way to eat shabu-shabu, but what do I know? It’s not like anyone came up to me and told me I was doing it wrong.
Pictured above is the first plate I put together. Awkwardness aside, this was a great meal. The flavors of the veggies and soy meat cooked in kombu broth were very simple, almost plain, but once you get everything going together with the delicious sauces, all the flavors wake up and come together into a delicious medley that both tastes good and is fun to eat. Cooking my food there at the table and figuring out how to eat it was half the fun, the other half came from it all being delicious. And it’s a lot of food too… what you see here was all an order for one person, by the end of it I’d managed to cook out three full plates from what they served me, and I still had leftover chicken, vegetables and noodles by the time I was well past full.
The restaurant itself is cute and very tiny. I’ve seen others online describe at as a hole-in-the-wall and that’s somewhat fitting. It’s not a fancy place at all, in fact some other reviews described it as looking old and grimey, however I didn’t notice any grime while I was there. The place looked clean and well kept to me, and there was a big grinning “A” seal of approval from the health department smiling at me from the window, but I guess I’m just not as uptight about set and setting as some of the more dainty reviewers out there seem to be. As I’ve said before in previous reviews, don’t go wandering into dark little places off Wilcox behind a parking lot if you are expecting the ambiance of Beverly Hills. Do however wander into dark little places off Wilcox if you are able to appreciate unpretentious, down-home, mostly Thai cooking, served quickly and without attitude. This is a place for a fast yet leisurely and satisfying lunch when you find yourself nearby hanging out in Hollywood, it’s not the place to take some snooty bitch who you’re trying to impress on a first date. And why are you dating snooty bitches anyway?
I haven’t tried anything else at Vegan House yet so I can’t speak for the actual Thai food, though after this first pleasant experience I do plan on going back. There’s no way I’m not having those crab wontons again & again so they better keep making them for as long as I live. The people next to me were eating a deliciously fragrant yellow curry and equally tasty looking noodles… they left happy too.
- Garden Wok Vegetarian Chinese Food in Reseda
- What the Pho?
- Another raw food adventure at Leaf Cuisine