Television comedy writer Julius Sharpe (Family Guy, etc.) once noted, "No one has ever left a steak house not feeling like shit." By contrast, it's likely that no one has ever exited a vegan restaurant not feeling replenished and vital (and perhaps smug, thought the omnivore reader).
For Americans who eschew meat and dairy, vegan restaurants are oases of stress-free food provision in a country overrun with establishments that—if they deign to cater at all to vegans—devote a token 5 to 10 percent of their menus to this demographic. It's a weird feeling for a vegan to enter an eatery and be able to consider eating almost the entire menu.
One such restaurant is ChuMinh Tofu & Veggie Deli, a tiny, unassuming spot in the International District that instantly makes new customers feel like long-lost buddies. "Feel free to try anything," owner Thanh-Nga Nguyen (aka Tanya) urges as you eye the array of ChuMinh's titular items and various rices and desserts. With a ready smile, she will spear anything in the buffet trays for you. If good karma could be converted into gold, ChuMinh's employees would be millionaires.
Billing itself as "Asian fusion, Vietnamese, vegan, and vegetarian," ChuMinh, which opened in October 2011, combines generous servings with absurdly low prices. A rectangular plate bigger than your face (unless you're Jay Leno) containing heaping mounds of rice (get the fluffy and robust brown) and two menu items costs $6. A plump, tofu-stuffed banh mi sandwich costs $2.75, while veggie spring rolls go for $2. A cup of very fresh soy milk comes free with every order. On some days, vegetable tempura sits atop the counter just waiting for your greedy mitts to grab it. Go ahead; vegetable tempura is the new tortilla chip.
Nguyen and her younger sister Thanh-Van T. Nguyen (aka Vivian), who also works at ChuMinh, moved to the United States in 1994. Their father was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. When she left her homeland, Thanh-Nga Nguyen was in her fourth year of medical school in Saigon. She continued her education at University of Washington, getting a biochemistry degree in 2002, and worked for the school's zoology department for four years. In 2006, she quit that job and started running the ChuMinh tofu company, which her parents started in 1998. It services more than 30 groceries and supermarkets in the region. There's enough tofu on the premises to build a fleet of king-sized beds.
"I adore tofu and admire how amazing it is," Nguyen says. "Tofu is elegant but simple, mild and filling and a wonderful universal absorbent. You can put tofu in all different dishes. It will go with anything with your creative imaginations."
ChuMinh makes its own tofu from scratch, and bean curd clearly is the star at the deli. It appears in various rectangular shapes and sizes and in strips, sometimes infused with lemongrass, sometimes slathered with red-pepper sauce, sometimes speckled with chili flakes, sometimes contoured and finessed into imitating a lobster or other sea life. The very mild "fish" patty probably wouldn't please pescatarians, but I'm one of those vegans who can happily live without ingesting faux meat, fowl, and seafood, so your mileage may vary. The banh mi is a seven-inch toasted baguette crammed with two rows of golden-brown tofu, shredded carrot, cilantro, onions, and little crackly chunks of "pork"; it leaves you full, but not disgustingly so. The jackfruit-and-tofu salad is tangy and briny. A large cube of tofu—coated in red-pepper sauce, housing carrots, eggplant strips, and more tofu—conflates juiciness with a vaguely fowl-like flavor. Chewy little curls of lemongrass tofu taste like mildly spicy candy that's good for you; the aforementioned chili-flaked tofu is spongy bliss, almost dessertlike in its subtle sweetness.
On the other hand, the vegetables in the various dishes and salads are good, but sometimes lack vivid flavor or just crispness. The bitter melon was mealy and bland, and the eggplant could've used more seasoning and heat.
Tofu is the Zelig of foodstuff, the versatile comfort food that won't clog your arteries. ChuMinh's industrious employees are wizards with the stuff—and generous, and even altruistic, to boot. Discussing her mission, Nguyen says: "I can help people to explore a nourishing world of the wonderful taste, texture, and beautiful color that they did not even know existed. I can help people who want to be vegetarian but they don't have time to cook. I can help people to reduce their meat in their diet and live a healthier and longer life. This is the reason that inspired me to open ChuMinh Tofu and Veggie Deli."
ChuMinh is the antithesis of swank vegan eateries like Plum Bistro. There is literally nothing on the walls, and no music plays; if you choose to dine in, you'll do so in an atmosphere- free zone, with plastic utensils. The place is still a work in progress, with plans to make the dining area cozier, install a bar, and get a liquor license. But you don't go to ChuMinh to luxuriate in fancy surroundings; you go there to fill up on some of the healthiest and most texturally satisfying food in the city, at ridiculously low prices.