Cafe Society

Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant dishes out compassion, uneven flavor

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.

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 never did warm up to that tofu shredded in the com tam bi cha gio (a broken-rice plate), though, and neither did my vegan friends. With many of the same ingredients as the vermicelli bowl, this plate resembled a salade composée, with tofu shredded, tomatoes, cucumbers, and waffle-cut pickled carrots and daikon dotted around a mound of broken rice (so named for the grains broken in harvesting that couldn't be sold). But with far less lettuce, no mint and that central heap of rice, the plate cried out for a drizzle of full-strength nuoc cham to combat the soy and starch.

It turned out that blandness was as pervasive at Lotus as the gurgling sounds from the fountain in the corner. Summer rolls tasted like just what they were: lettuce wrapped in rice paper, with not enough mint and "veggie shredded meat," whatever that was, to make them taste like anything more. Charbroiled meatballs called nem nuong might as well have been made from cornstarch, flour and water, given their mild taste and squeaky texture. Hu tieu ap chao, aka chow fun, tasted like oil. Bun cari, a saucy bowl of noodles and tofu billed as Thai curry noodles, boasted yellow curry's brilliant color, but none of its heat or depth.

And depending on when you stop in, even Pham's pho — there's only one on the menu, unlike at many Vietnamese restaurants, where versions of this soup fill an entire page — comes off bland. On the best of days, the broth spoke of long-simmered vegetables, cinnamon and ginger; on others, it tasted like the kind of highly salted, onion-heavy vegetable broth you find in a can. Toppings varied, too, with some bowls coming with plenty of broccoli, fried tofu, imitation ham and celery, and others with just a few mushrooms, carrots and florets. And the pho was always milder than what you find at the popular Pho 95 down the street, allowing you to customize it with as much or as little heat — not to mention lime, jalapeños, fresh basil, onions and hoisin — as you want. But no fish sauce.

Early on, Pham made her own imitation fish by wrapping seaweed around tofu. She also made her own meatballs. Now she sources them both because it took "a lot of time," she explains. Another change she's made as the restaurant has settled in is to reduce the number of sweets, which were slow sellers. But that's okay with me, because her lightened boba smoothies, with soy milk standing in for condensed milk and milk, work just fine for dessert — particularly if you go with the avocado smoothie, as it, unlike the soursop, has enough fat on its own to make it creamy.

In fact, if you order carefully at Lotus, you'll likely go home happy, a beneficiary of Pham's compassion. But I still missed that fish sauce.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz