Loving Hut is, first and foremost, nothing like a hut. After locating its semihidden side entrance off Jackson near 12th, you are presented with a long, narrow, stylish room, in which everything—from the simple tables and chairs to the high walls—is bright white. Bursts of color come from the menu: It's a photo essay of Loving Hut's all-vegan offerings, with each dish's name as the only text. The photographs are remarkably attractive, and the dish names reach out and hug you: Save the World Soup, I Will Forever Love You Cake. The Asian waitress's barely-there English cuts the cutesy factor, and Loving Hut hums with an entrancing light installation-art vibe.
The vibe is not unique, as Loving Hut is not unique. It is "currently the fastest growing international vegan fast food chain in the world," according to the website, which lists branches in over a dozen countries, from Austria to Indonesia. Lording over it all: the Supreme Master Ching Hai, the Vietnamese-born humanitarian, artist, and spiritual teacher who conceived the Loving Hut chain as "a beacon of light for an alternative way of living." The key tenet of this alternative way of living: renewed compassion toward animals, maintained through strict veganism, with Loving Hut "offering an accessible starting point for those who want to make the noble transition to a plant-based diet."
Enabling noble transitions is fine, but when it comes to food, vegan or otherwise, all I care about is taste. In this regard, my first visit to Loving Hut was a near-total success. Stopping by for lunch on a rainy day, my dining mate and I had the place to ourselves. To start, we shared the appetizer known as Golden Stick ($5), featuring a dozen or so chunks of soy protein spiced and breaded and served with a side of plain old ketchup. This condiment turned out to be perfect, as the Golden Stick's taste was a stupid-delicious approximation of a corn dog, executed with high-quality vegan ingredients.
Our entrées reached slightly higher and were equally good. The Mushu Delight ($9) was crispy fried soy-protein nuggets in a tangy sauce, served with fresh steamed broccoli and a scoop of white rice. The rice was dotted with black sesame seeds, and everything was tasty. Loving Hut Rolls ($10) were a more complicated affair, involving lightly fried slices of a bouncy soy-based loaf-thing served over greens. The rolls lacked much taste of their own, but benefited greatly from their crisp-fried outer layer and additional chili sauce.
For dessert, we shared the I Will Forever Love You Cake ($6). Ordered strictly for its name, it totally delivered. The "cake" was a perfect Ho Ho sized disk of minty vegan ice cream mounted on a quarter-inch layer of vegan graham cracker crust, all covered in dark vegan chocolate, served with a small scoop of vanilla vegan ice cream on the side. In the wrong hands, vegan ice cream tastes like army- ration ice milk. In the right hands, it tastes like a lightly creamy sorbet. Loving Hut has the right hands, and the whole thing was executed with a dazzling flourish. "I WILL FOREVER LOVE YOU!" hollered our waitress as she placed the cake plate on the table. I had to restrain myself from bursting into applause.
High off this first visit, I soon returned, this time dragging along a carnivore to see if Loving Hut's vegan charms would work on a nonbeliever. Unfortunately, this second visit was undeniably off, right from the start. The Golden Nuggets appetizer ($5) aimed to replicate chicken nuggets, with extremely unexciting results, while the egg roll–approximating Golden Rolls ($3) offered little beyond a mealy, hash-browny mush.
The entrées were slightly better. Seitan Stir Fry ($9) featured pad thai–sized noodles laced with thin strips of carrot and cabbage and jerkylike strips of seitan; it was barely satisfactory, crying out for something as decisive as the Mushu Delight's tangy sauce. The Guru Curry ($9) featured nutty chunks of soy meat tossed with cabbage, broccoli, and carrot in a would-be curry that was also hobbled by blandness. Not using MSG is admirable; not using appropriate spice is foolish.
In terms of atmosphere, things swerved into the surreal mid-meal, when I saw a look of horror seize my dining mate's face. The cause: Loving Hut's large-screen TV, which was broadcasting Supreme Master TV, the internet channel of the Supreme Master Ching Hai, promising "Positive, Inspirational & Entertaining Programs 24 Hours a day, 7 Days a week." Supreme Master TV typically features informative programs on earth-friendly issues. On this night, SMTV was broadcasting an astoundingly graphic exposé on factory farming, complete with extensive slow-motion slaughterhouse footage.
The preaching-to-the-choir aspect of showing such footage in a vegan restaurant aside, no one—NO ONE—wants to see graphic depictions of animal cruelty while they're eating, even if what they're eating involves no animal cruelty. After I noticed other diners wincing and averting their eyes, I asked the waitress to ax it. "It's grossing everyone out," I explained. She happily complied, but any restaurant that doesn't know enough to avoid slaughterhouse footage might need more help than helpful customers can give.