For weeks, my newly born-again vegan friend had been badgering me to try a new restaurant called D'Vegan. Catering to the Vietnamese Buddhist vegetarian community, the restaurant is only six weeks old. The self-proclaimed "green" eatery sits in the food court space between Hong Kong Supermarket and Bistro B. D'Vegan is owned and run by Don Duong and his family, a devoutly Buddhist clan who long ago made the choice to be vegans. As Don explains it, to be a Buddhist doesn't strictly relegate one to being a vegetarian or vegan. Rather, it's a choice.
Coincidentally, religion and choice was what finally brought me to trying out D'Vegan. Every spring, something called Lent brings out my latent Catholicism and the guilt-ridden religious obligations that come along with it. Since Fridays during Lent are meatless, I finally saw the chance to try out the restaurant.
I arrived an hour too late for the daily lunch buffet, but I was more than happy to explore the intriguing menu. I warily had expected a selection of tofu and veggie stir-fries, but was instead given options like pho and banh mi. (My hesitancy in no way reflects my feelings on Vietnamese vegetarian fare. Vietnam is going through a vegetarian restaurant movement, and it's a very delicious trend, indeed.)
In honesty, I had underestimated the intentions of the restaurants' owners. It would be easy for an Asian vegetarian restaurant to make a quick buck off of simple, run-of-the-mill excuses for vegetarian fare. I soon learned that at D'Vegan, however, there are no shortcuts taken.
Each dish I sampled was infused with deep flavors, which was something I seriously had not expected. It's difficult to get rich and developed flavor out of a vegetarian dish, let alone a vegan one. Everything was surprisingly...savory.
The "beef" pho tasted better than many a bowls of pho I've had in Dallas. The seasoning and the consistency were right on, down to the perfectly cooked and chewy pho noodles. The bite of black and white peppers was a spot on touch. Smartly added enoki mushrooms provided a needed umami component. If there is a negative to the pho, it would be the sweetness of the broth. Seeing as how southern Vietnamese pho is typically sweet, it's not too egregious of an offense.
A "bun thit nuong" made with vegan egg rolls and fried tofu atop a generous heaping of vermicelli and greens also was satisfyingly satiating. What I assumed would be a dish of empty "filler" kept me fulfilled for many hours. D'Vegan's mouth-watering egg rolls pack a pleasing crunch and are filled with taro root and diced pieces of tofu. The filling doesn't exactly yield a pork-flavored result, but the egg rolls taste like the real thing (if not, better) nonetheless.
That is the great thing about D'Vegan's menu. For full-on carnivores, one wouldn't necessarily miss the meat. As it is with vegan cuisine and the "replication" of animal protein, texture can be an issue. The flavors at D'Vegan, however, are so robust that such silly little nuisances almost go unnoticed. Almost.
The stringiness of the seitan "beef" (a wheat gluten product) is more noticeable when soaked in pho broth. When stir-fried with other ingredients, however, the consistency is much more tolerable. A combination "beef" flat noodle, with its confetti of colorful vegetables and heaping layers of rice noodles, was an excellent example of how well seitan absorbs flavors. Although the dish's main flavoring agent is hoisin sauce, the seitan had a smoky quality to it that tasted unmistakably of a seasoned wok.
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What's most impressive about D'Vegan is that there is no gimmick involved with the restaurant. Sure, the restaurant is based on interpretations that are vegan substitutes for more traditional Vietnamese dishes, but several items at D'Vegan could stand on their own as an exceptional dish, whether they are based on something else or not. The food reflects years of honing techniques and skills and a lifetime of research via trial and error. How else could one explain the perfection that is the restaurant's "fish sauce?"
Skeptical as to whether or not the amber hued liquid was truly animal-free, Don assured me that it was. When I asked him what was in it, he replied, "It's a family secret." I didn't feel the need to push any further for the recipe. The Duong family can keep their formula classified, as long as the restaurant itself doesn't remain too well kept a secret. I'd like to see this place stick around and succeed, because Don is right. We do have a choice to eat this way, and whether he was alluding to it or not, I interpret it as meaning to eat well.
Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesdays
D'Vegan 9780 Walnut St., No. 360E