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Given the demands of life in a professional kitchen, I'm always curious as to why people choose this career. I've asked this question of hundreds of cooks, and more often than not, they trace their love of food to a grandmother or mother who gave them their first whisk to hold, their first job stirring what was bubbling in the pot. But Thuy Pham, who opened Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant with her husband last fall in the former home of the award-winning Vietnam Grill, has a story all her own.
See also: A Closer Look at Lotus Vegetarian
Pham does remember cooking at her mother's side in Vietnam, but it wasn't until she moved to California fifteen years ago and began spending time at a Buddhist temple that she developed a passion for food. "I had a monk, the master, and he was a very good cook," she recalls. "He was very experienced in picking out healthy food, and he taught me." After years of preparing vegetarian food for the monks and nuns there — many Buddhists are vegetarian, given the vow to do no harm — Pham and her husband decided to move to Denver, where they had friends, and open a vegetarian restaurant. "We want to bring compassion to the community," she explains.
1015 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
The result is Lotus, with electric green and blue walls, posters of Buddha's life story, and a perpetual cluster of Vietnamese- and English-speaking customers waiting for takeout, snuggled in coats and hats to ward off the chill. Even when it wasn't five below outside, we kept our coats on, too, at least until the hot soups and noodles began to trickle in. The kitchen, where Pham often works solo, isn't fast.
Unlike City, O' City and Native Foods Cafe, which serve a smattering of meat-free dishes with a global slant, Lotus Vegetarian focuses on Vietnamese cuisine. And if you know much about this country, you'll appreciate the enormity of the undertaking. Vietnamese food can be summed up in two words — and, no, pho is not one of them. As popular as the noodle soup is, this cuisine really boils down to nuoc mam, the salty, fermented fish sauce that adds a dose of funkiness to everything it touches, most notably the dipping sauce called nuoc cham. Taking nuoc mam out of a Vietnamese cook's arsenal isn't the equivalent of tinkering with Heinz's recipe for ketchup; it's like making ketchup without tomatoes.
But anchovies are living beings, and fermenting them in barrels for extended periods of time is certainly causing them harm, so Pham makes a gentler version of nuoc cham with vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and a dash of sriracha. The result is as different from the traditional sauce as Welch's is from wine, far less pungent and with less umami. This might come as a relief to some; fish sauce does take a little getting used to. (I've heard it compared to fermented skunk.) But it also makes for a sauce with far less gusto.
That worked fine in dishes with plenty of their own interest, such as the veggie fish in a clay pot, Pham's take on a homey Vietnamese classic, with a thick brown mushroom sauce and slices of imitation fish that could almost have passed for the real thing in taste, if not texture. Banh xeo, a cross between an omelet and an Indian dosa, also more than held its own: You don't need nuoc mam when you can rip off a piece of crepe stuffed with a sizzling mix of bean sprouts, carrots and tofu, and wrap it in a cooling blanket of lettuce and the whole-leaf herbs so prevalent in Vietnamese cooking. Particularly when the crepe is made not from white flour and eggs (the kitchen aspires to be vegan), but a tasty blend of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric.
I didn't miss the fish sauce in the bun bi cha gio, a vermicelli bowl, either. This dish arrived like an '80s-style dinner salad, heaped in a deep white bowl with chopped peanuts and slices of deep-fried summer rolls adding the crunch of croutons. Here the dipping sauce functioned like a refreshing vinaigrette, bringing a welcome splash of acid and sugar to the otherwise undressed vegetables and rice noodles. It also livened up what the menu calls "tofu shredded" — a better term might be "starchy fried stuff" — that was spooned over the bowl. This meat substitute is a menu staple, but it's hardly the healthy, protein-packed alternative I'd expected. (Health is stressed at Lotus: an entire page is devoted to a treatise that begins "Dear Friends" and ends with exhortations to "feel good about yourself" and "eat vegetarian food [so] we don't worry about what kind of disease the food died of.") The dry, crackly mixture was light on tofu, consisting mostly of inch-long bits of glass noodles tossed with shredded taro, jicama and potatoes. I liked the "tofu shredded" best in this dish, where its strong soy aftertaste was diluted with lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled carrots, daikon, mint and rice noodles, but I liked the mixture almost as much as a filling for the banh mi bi, where it played the role of shredded pork skin in the French-influenced sandwich. Then again, you could layer just about anything with jalapeños, fresh cilantro and pickled carrots on crusty bread and end up with a winner.
I ate at the Lotus last night with the Denver Vegans and plan to bring friends on Monday. I agree on the scarcity of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Denver compared to Seattle or Portland. After travelling in Vietnam last year, I found many similar dishes esp. in the south where Thuy is from. There is Sriracha, brown sauce and chili paste if you find your dish is too bland which the monks prefer. Ask James or Thuy about their Buddhist faith when things slow down. Enjoy eventually trying everything on the menu.
I just read your print version of this "review" of a vegetarian restaurant. The misleading headline is "Fishing for Flavor" and the last two words are "fish sauce". Strange. Do your reviews of steak houses begin and end solely focusing on vegetables?
Lotus is purely a VEGETARIAN/VEGAN restaurant, something that Denver is strangely lacking. Most who go there are NOT looking for imitation flesh, we are looking for great non-animal dishes. Since they do offer some imitation dead animals, it is fine to comment on that in a real review; however, to make it the focus totally misses the point and is unfair. As a vegetarian and based on the fishy headline, had I not known of Lotus already, I would just skipped the review.
From the perspective of someone who has eaten at Lotus over a half dozen times, I would agree with a few of the points of the reviewer. However, what the reviewer might label as bland I would label as natural flavor - letting the food speak for itself without hiding the subtle inherent flavors. I usually love far stronger seasonings than most people, but I also love to let the plant flavors alone. Thuy, the chef at Lotus does a great job of subtle flavors and where I have wished for a more bite, just adding some hot sauce and soy sauce made the flavors wonderful.
Once you get used to the more natural food at Lotus, it is hard to eat at the other Asian restaurants. One night we went to a nearby place that we used to like. The goopy and salty or sugary sauces are now repulsive. The thinner curry and kung pao sauces at Lotus may be a bit thin, but are now far preferable to what I used to eat just a few months ago.
I've have introduced Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant to over a dozen people. All have loved it and all have gone back or plan to do so. This is a great vegetarian restaurant that many of us have been wishing for. It is fantastic to have one more restaurant where the ENTIRE menu is vegetarian friendly and most of it vegan friendly.
Recommendations: Banh xeo (I10 on the menu) - the "omlette" mentioned in the article and I8 (forget the named) - a stuffed tofu dish.
@Jeff That's funny. Most "vegetarians" I meet conveniently eat fish. Maybe us carnivores are being misled about vegetarians and this supposed abhorrence of fish.