I was speaking to my sister about her visit to Minneapolis when she mentioned she’d eaten vegetarian pho. I instantly became jealous — how come she could find vegetarian pho in Minnesota, while I live in freakin’ New York City and had never seen such a thing? I googled vegetarian pho in NYC and up came Lan Cafe, a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant located a block away from where I used to live in the East Village (it turns out that Lan Cafe opened after I moved out of that apartment, so I didn’t miss it while I lived there). I made it my mission to visit Lan Cafe as soon as possible.
I was encouraged by the interior of the restaurant. It was the kind of no-frills place with ceiling fans that I’d seen while I was in Vietnam. There was also a little Buddhist shrine in the corner. I love Vietnamese spring rolls, so I had to order them along with the vegetarian pho. The food came out all at the same time, and pretty quickly (though there was only one other person in the restaurant, so that may be why).
The spring rolls were the first disappointment. Instead of the super-crisp, almost translucent wrappers, they were packaged in what seemed like the spring rolls you get at any greasy Chinese take-out place. The filling was fine, but it didn’t taste anything like the spring rolls I had in Vietnam. The vegetarian spring rolls at New Pasteur are much better and much more authentic tasting. I do have to give credit to Lan Cafe for serving the rolls with mint, lettuce, and a sweet vinegar dipping sauce which improved the flavor considerably.
And what of the pho, the reason I had visited Lan Cafe in the first place? I was not able to find vegetarian pho while in Vietnam, so I don’t know how authentic it was. The broth was overly sweet, though it benefitted greatly from a splash of chili sauce (served in a plastic bottle, of course), and the requisite sprouts, greens, herbs, and lime that came along with the pho. They include a couple of different proteins — one seemed like fried tofu, the other was a crunchy “meatball” that reminded me of mushroom balls I’ve had from Chinatown. There were also delectable little fresh straw mushrooms and baby bok choi. The noodles were a little less substantial than I would have thought, but there were plenty of them and I slurped them up with abandon. In fact, I ate all of the solids in the bowl, leaving behind a fair amount of sickly sweet broth.
I don’t think I’ll be going out of my way to go back to Lan Cafe. I can get cheaper, better, more authentic vegetarian Vietnamese food in a handful of restaurants around Chinatown. I appreciate the effort they have made to provide an all vegetarian menu, but for now Lan Cafe exists as nothing more than an interesting side note to me — I’m glad to know it’s out there, I just don’t feel like visiting again.