When 60 members of the Boston Vegetarian Society gathered at a new East Arlington restaurant on opening night, the eatery's proprietor, Lucy Zhu, was delighted to host the boisterous bunch. What surprises her, weeks after, is that the crowds just keep coming.
"We wanted to do a soft opening," says Zhu of her two-month-old kosher-certified venture, Zhu Pan-Asian Vegan Cuisine. The intent was to ramp up slowly in the space that formerly housed Nepalese restaurant Kathmandu Spice. But diners flocking to the spot changed her plans for a relaxed start-up. "We're really busy," she says, sounding a bit stunned.
Perhaps Zhu — a native of Southern China who grew up in New York — is being modest. She and her brother, Bowei, are no strangers to the popular Asian-vegan-kosher formula. The Arlington spot is modeled after Veggie Fun, the siblings' restaurant in Providence.
At both locations, vegan means no animal products (no dairy, eggs, or even honey). Wines are from producers who eschew ingredients like egg whites to fine their pours. Both are overseen by the same rabbi who ensures that products and kitchen practices meet kosher guidelines. Ricky Wu, Veggie Fun's former chef and Lucy Zhu's husband, is in the kitchen, cooking up an ambitious array of dishes drawing from East and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Faux meats are prominent here. Soy protein, layered on greens in a salad ($6 small, $9 large), is reminiscent of a cold cut (like pressed turkey, with more graininess). The peanut dressing and pine nuts sprinkled on top are pleasant, but the dish could use something vivid and crunchy like carrots or beets.
A platter of "spare ribs" ($14) features seitan, a glutinous wheat protein, sliced into thick strips, nestled on snappy fried green beans. Like most entrees, it comes with a side of steamed brown rice and a whisper-light miso soup. The springy texture of the seitan passes muster with the non-vegetarian at the table, even though he would never confuse it for pork or beef. The sauce is very sweet. Dialing back the sugar and upping the savory elements would elevate the ribs.
Tofu stars in an appetizer of "age-tofu" ($6), battered-and-fried fritters served with a soy dipping sauce. Slivers of the pressed soybean curd are also in a silky lemongrass hot-and-sour soup ($4). Flavor from the citrusy aromatic stalk is nowhere to be found in this oddly sweet bowl, but the gentle buzz of chile is quite appealing.
King oyster mushrooms ($8) are sliced and battered rounds of the fungi, dunked in a golden fat bath until crisp. Minced red and green bell pepper, stir-fried with scallions, top the dish, along with a generous grind of black pepper. Also excellent is a platter of Singapore rice noodles ($10) made with rice sticks, sauced with zippy yellow curry, plus crunchy celery and firm tofu.
While fans of Korean cuisine would never confuse the Zhu version of bibimbap ($13) for the traditional favorite with fried egg and chile paste, the platter here is very good. Think of it as a lovely composed salad with avocado, steamed spinach, chickpeas, seaweed salad, julienned seitan, and kimchi, all arrayed on brown rice.
On a Monday evening, the place is full of families with rambunctious toddlers, couples cozy in booths, and gal pals on a birthday outing bearing a giant bouquet of sunflowers for the guest of honor.
Brown rice pudding ($5), creamy with coconut milk and studded with ripe mango, is just right. Sweetness is where it belongs — in the dessert and in conversations around the tables.
ZHU PAN-ASIAN VEGAN CUISINE
166 Massachusetts Ave., East Arlington, 781-646-7600, www.zhuvegan.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers, soup, salad
$5-$11. Noodles and rice $7-$13. Entrees $12-$14. Drinks and desserts $2-$11.
Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat noon-
11 p.m.; Sun noon-10 p.m.
Liquor Wine and beer
What to order Seitan spare ribs, king oyster mushrooms, Singapore rice noodles, bibimbap, brown rice pudding.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.