Vietnamese is a winner with vegans pho sure

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By: Rama Ganesan

Rama Ganesan/Flavor 574

Bowl of Pho on Grape Road in Mishawaka (southeast corner of Wilshire Plaza) has developed an enthusiastic vegan and vegetarian following since it opened three years ago.

Indeed, it was the venue for my first meeting with the Veg Michiana Meetup group last fall. Since that time I have become somewhat of a regular, experienced enough to instruct folks that “pho” is actually pronounced “fuh.”

One of its attractions is that it has a whole menu page of vegetarian selections, including appetizers and entrees. All the items on the vegetarian page can be made vegan – the only difference being that some items might come with fish sauce if we do not specify vegan.

But the items do not contain any eggs or dairy; in any case Vietnamese cuisine does not use much dairy. Certainly the servers at the restaurant are prepared for the “vegan” question, and appear to be relentlessly patient: “Yes, it is vegan!”

When I was there last Thursday, we spoke with the owner of the restaurant, Remy. Remy told me that the menu originally did not have a page dedicated for vegetarian food, but that evolved over time. Now, the restaurant has many groups that come in specifically for those options, some from Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College.

I decided on vegetarian curry, as the server described that it was an Indian-influenced curry made with coconut milk, and I chose to have it served with vermicelli noodles.

My husband, Shankar, chose the spicy basil tofu (tofu sautéed with lemongrass, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, white onion, basil and house special spicy sauce on steamed rice), and we requested “medium spice” for both dishes.

These dishes are a certainly a treat to look at! The curry bowl was quite large and I asked for another bowl to share a good amount of it. The coconut milk made the dish slightly sweet and the red pepper made it slightly spicy. There were no sour notes in this particular coconut curry.

The basil tofu dish was spicier, with substantial pieces of vegetable, and the lemongrass was a very distinctive flavor.

Many people think eating vegan means eating a lot of tofu. For most vegans, this is not an accurate description. However, we do get to be connoisseurs of tofu and the multitude of ways in which it can be prepared.

The curry contained larger pieces of tender tofu, whereas the basil dish had smaller, chewier tofu. There was no hint of oiliness to the tofu in the curry.

Even though the texture seemed different to me, Remy told us that the tofu in both dishes was deep fried. The tofu in most of the other dishes on menu is also deep fried, with one exception being the pan-fried tofu with lemongrass, where it is shallow fried.

Shallow frying gives the tofu a chewier outer layer and a softer inner core, explained Remy. One patron prefers his or her tofu not fried, and the restaurant is happy to oblige. I also asked Remy if he uses baked tofu, but that does not seem to be part of the repertoire in this type of cuisine.

Two of three desserts that the restaurant offers is vegan. (The jelly in the che bau ma is made with agar, not gelatin). But the coconut curry was so warm and so satisfying, I really couldn’t find room for dessert this time around.   

So with lots of options to explore at Bowl of Pho, it has become a favorite for me. It offers comfort foods in warm atmosphere.

Still, I think it loses out in ambiance as the setting is extremely practical without any efforts to elegance. A few small adjustments, perhaps even just the quality of the lighting, would give the setting a more stylish character. This would make the restaurant a more immediate choice when I am looking for a relaxing experience as well as delicious vegan food.

For more tales of eating vegan in Michiana from Rama Ganesan and her fellow meatless maven Crystal Hallwood, subscribe to the Vegan at the Bend email newsletter.
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