In a neighborhood where bright lights and bare linoleum can be all the décor you get, the International District's new Vegetarian Bistro is downright cute. It's freshly painted and full of plants—ginger, bonsai, bamboo, many still with celebratory red ribbons tied to them. The tableware is sweet too—pink and green earthenware teacups, Granny Smith–green chopsticks, and a clear teapot that gives us a good view of our chrysanthemum tea.

We're not the only ones drawn to all the greenery—as we get settled, several sleepy hippie-hipsters trickle in to join us for a rarity in Seattle: vegetarian dim sum.

I kind of missed the rolling carts of a bigger dim sum operation, but our first selection—a radish cake ($3, like all the dim sum listed here)—got us off to a promising start. It had a good crunchy sear on the exterior giving way to soft-sweet-pungent innards flecked with carrots and a pink meat-like substance. Surely these were accidental bits of pork belly; perhaps the kitchen was operating under a bacon-friendly definition of vegetarian. Still it was yummy—even the baby, who eats very few things right now, took a break from bathing his plastic cow in a teacup and ate some.

When our hostess came over to check on us, we asked her about the meaty bits. "Everything here really is vegetarian," she said. "A lot of the 'meat' is made with [soy-based] gelatin." Did they make all the pseudoscallops and the fake pork in the kitchens here? No, much of it comes from Taiwan, she said, where there is a large vegetarian population. Do they make a whole fake chicken and then butcher it down to drumsticks and breasts, or is it manufactured in parts? What about coloring specialists who airbrush pinkness onto the fake shrimp?

Despite my fascination, I'm a little ambivalent on fake meat—you've got to admire the craftsmanship that goes into simulating a prawn, but so much hocus-pocus (and who knows what alien flavoring agents) seems to affirm the theory that meat, or at least meat-like substances, are necessary. It's a theory I don't subscribe to, even though I'm a carnivore.

Still, for vegetarians seeking a little variety in their mastication, I imagine it's nice to eat some little springy fake shrimp (in the steamed shrimp ball) or some rather tasty barbecue fake pork buried in a spongy steamed hum bao. As we keep eating, though, things begin to get a little redundant; the cabbage-wrapped sui mai and the crisp-skinned pot stickers were pleasant enough, but they shared the sweet-pungent turnip-y taste of that initial radish cake. My guess is that simulated meat just doesn't bring much flavor to the table—hopefully the menu can soon expand to include proud veggie dumplings that don't try so hard to replicate meaty classics.

Fortunately there were plenty of nonfake meat dishes on the menu to liven up the existing dim sum selection. Bamboo pith dumplings were stuffed with celery and a couple of varieties of soy stuff, then bathed in soft tofu ($12). It was the kind of delicate, almost floral-tasting Chinese dish that I haven't quite gotten my head around, but I like the fragrant, web-like pith. Less olfactory and just plain yummy was a big plate of chow fun ($6.75) with bok choy, carrots, and black tree ear mushrooms—a whole mess of textures in a savory sauce.

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On another night, we ran a takeout trial, and it went well. Ma po tofu (hold the pork) ($7.95) was as delicate in texture as it was big and bold in taste; slithery eggplant was spicy-good ($8.50); and sautéed enoki mushrooms served as a funky vegetal spaghetti ($12). The Bistro doesn't serve the most complex food, but everything—with the exception of our middling pineapple fried rice with bean curd balls ($10)—has a fresh, clean taste about it.

Beyond the food, the service at the Bistro was exceptionally cheery. As we left that dim sum morning, I stopped to chat with our charming hostess, who sent a waiter back to the kitchen as she pulled together our tab. He returned with a terra cotta teapot in a plastic bag. "Because you ordered the chrysanthemum tea," she says as she hands me the teapot. I may feel uneasy about fake meat, but I adore an unsolicited freebie.