I don't eat meat, yet every time a server emerges from the kitchen at Moonlight Cafe, walking underneath long strips of yellow and pink neon lights that look like they're straight from the 1990s, I hope that the bowl of meaty pho on their tray is mine.
The pho's rice noodles are covered in chunks of meat shaped into little balls, triangles, and half-moons that look like sliced chicken thighs. A crispy hunk of something that looks like a pork crackling sits on top.
What makes a vegetarian like me order this pile of flesh? All of the meat in this soup is fake. And seriously, their approximation of beef pho is better than the real thing. (I used to eat beef, okay?)
Moonlight Cafe is a perpetually busy Vietnamese spot on the corner of South Jackson Street and 20th Avenue in the Central District, with a vegetarian menu that's six pages deep.
In the pho, the balls of ga chay (vegetarian chicken nugget) have the texture of a dense meatball with a delicious nutty flavor. Pieces of savory bo chay (vegetarian beef) look like someone sliced a slab of flank steak, and they have a bit of a musty flavor. Cha lua day (steamed vegetarian pork roll) looks like pale meat that was sliced into half-moon shapes, with a slightly green skin. Granted, the airy cha lua day tastes a bit fermented and weird by itself, but with a healthy dollop of hoisin sauce and sriracha, it becomes sweet, spicy, and... meaty.
Then there's the dau hu chien (fried tofu skin) triumphantly splayed out three inches above the bowl of pho in all its deep-fried glory. It's as crunchy as a chicharrón.
A word of advice: Don't bring up Moonlight's shameless celebration of fake meat in the wrong company. American fake-meat skeptics shoot darting glances at vegetarians eating fake meat, as if to say vegetarians who eat something other than rabbit food are morally duplicitous.
Anh Quan, the owner and chef at Moonlight, told me fake meat is commonplace in Vietnam, even for people who eat real meat, like she does. "In Vietnam, all the people eat vegetarian sometimes, especially on full moon days," she said. "I mostly eat vegetarian, but I eat the real meat sometimes, too."
Vietnam is a Buddhist country, so eating vegetarian is often part of national holidays. The Vietnamese don't see any problem with mixing fake meat into otherwise meat-filled diets.
The variety of Moonlight's fake meat replicates the beef pho experience of choosing between options like tai nam (rare eye round and well-done flank), tai chin (eye round and brisket), or tai chin nam gau gan sach (eye-round steak, flank steak, marbled brisket, soft tendon, and tripe). The heaped mound of each different cut turns this traditional soup into a meaty choose-your-own-adventure.
Moonlight's vegetarian pho does the same. The pho broth is richer than anywhere else in the city, and the meat adventure here doesn't include eating any animals.