Valley Delights: Vinh Loi Tofu
May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
A trip to the Valley usually finds you driving past an endless landscape of depressingly anonymous 1970s-era apartment buildings, low-slung insurance offices, dingy check-cashing stores, and ambiguously titled medical stores that seemingly could cater to medical marijuana club members, actors in the porn industry, or Armenian gangsters.
That’s why the scene at Vinh Loi, a Vietnamese vegan café and tofu factory in Reseda, is so surprising to a first-time visitor. Sequestered in a corner of a gray strip mall on Sherman Avenue, Vinh Loi constitutes a community of sorts for its customers and owners, all of whom share a passion for the benefits of healthy eating. Owner Kevin Tran, a seven-time marathoner, had just completed the Los Angeles Marathon, but the day after, his zeal for his dishes was unbowed. (Even after running more than 26 miles in the rain, he was back to whipping up fresh batches of tofu the next morning.) He and his wife preside over a multicultural crowd that comes distances far and near to savor healthy renditions of Vietnamese dishes. Tran welcomes new customers into the small restaurant, and as they wait, he excitedly describes a new item on the menu, 2013 Soup. Most diners in the restaurant today are eating the new dish, Tran says, one of many that he originates throughout the year to keep his loyal customer base happy. All the dishes on the menu are vegan, and most feature the tofu that Tran and his wife produce on the premises, making the restaurant the only small-scale tofu producer in the area, surprising given the many East Asian communities in town. The restaurant hews closely to traditional-leaning vegan versions of Vietnamese favorites, including soups such as bun bo hue and curry duck soup, fresh salads, dry noodles like bun bi thit nuong and seafood with vermicelli noodles, a respectable array of rice dishes, and of course popular favorites like banh mi and spring rolls. In addition to three types of tofu (plain, lemongrass and chili, and mushroom and noodle), which are made from non-GMO soybeans, Vinh Loi also offers freshly made soy milk, tofu custard, kombucha, and a couple other health-food products associated with your usual “natural foods” store.
Newcomers may find Tran’s gregariousness and offers to select their dishes a little off-putting. But after a few minutes of conversation, his passion for his healthy recipes shines through, and you find yourself consenting to his choices. The first dish, the 2013 Soup, is a brisk, coconut and lemongrass-laced broth featuring copious quantities of enoki mushrooms, replica beef balls, greens, and chewy potato noodles. Later, the Vinh Loi salad comes out: shredded salad leaves generously swathed in minced peanuts with bits of cucumber, fried tofu, pickles, carrots, limes, and a vaguely coconut sauce keeping the crispy, crunchy flavors rooted in the Southeast Asia medium. Tran’s touch with noodles is also encouraging. Thinner rice vermicelli noodles are the more popular type of noodle on the menu, but Tran has been using thicker udon in his stir-fry dishes lately. That day, a glistening platter of udon noodles was a comforting pleasure. Slivers of gluten, a vegan alternative to perhaps barbecued pork or duck, added a slightly smoky, crispy edge to the chewy noodles and vegetables, and the dish was balanced with the right amount of tang. Before walking out the door, the last item to savor is a block of fresh tofu, a rich and pillowy delight for later cooking adventures at home. If only Vinh Loi were located closer to me, I might make the rich and satisfying tofu a part of regular of my cooking rotation.
Vietnamese food, with its insistence on fresh ingredients, helps the cooking at Vinh Loi avoid the musty stereotypes of many vegan restaurants . When the ingredients are fresh, these quick Vietnamese recipes, carefully prepared, can be savored by folks with any type of diet. Add a passionate owner bent on creating new dishes to keep his customers excited, and you have a winning combination, especially in vegan-friendly Southern California.
Vinh Loi Tofu
18625 Sherman Way #101
Reseda, CA 91335
Daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.