Thursday, November 10, 2011
I don’t know exactly why it is, but there is something about Buddhist monks preparing my meal that makes me happy – and hungry.
Maybe it’s the fact that my food will be consciously selected, cooked with careful attention and clean ingredients. So when I noticed the women with the shaved bald heads in the back of the Mon Chay kitchen – three Buddhist nuns, no fewer – I knew I was in for a nourishing vegetarian meal.
Miki and Ty Nguyen opened Mon Chay three months ago where the Golden Buddha once was, in the rotund building on the north side of The Barnyard in Carmel. Upon entering, our party was given a warm welcome by both the wait staff and the giant gold Buddha who still oversees the restaurant. Below sits a large picture of a rope ladder in the middle of the rain forest, as if it were leading to the statue. As we were led to our seats, the owner explained the bridge represents being in the hands of the Buddha. That and simple wood chairs and earth tones on the walls added to the ambiance.
I took a few friends out and we ordered enough items for a monastery. The first was the fresh spring rolls ($5), three rice paper wraps stuffed with shredded tofu, bean sprouts, lettuce, mint and cilantro and served with a peanut sauce. These were hearty, fresh and pleasing and the sauce was just right.
We had a hard time deciding what salads to order since we wanted them all. Our options included “nirvana gourmet” salad ($8.95), spicy cucumber ($8.95), pickled lotus root salad ($8.25), “tango green mango” ($10.95), jackfruit ($8.25), crispy white seaweed ($8.95) and “majestic green papaya” ($8.95).
We decided to share the papaya and white seaweed plates. The name on the former says it all: majestic. We all agreed Mon Chay receives the award for assembling the best papaya salad we’ve tasted (not that there are that many around here). It was a different animal.
I mean fruit: Firm green papaya in thin strips that resemble noodles, mingled with soy protein, mint, and crushed peanuts dressed in a house chili and garlic sauce. Although it wasn’t mentioned on the menu, I also tasted something that resembled salted plums, which was a special addition to the salad and in keeping with the sweet-and-sour element.
The crispy white seaweed salad ($8.95) includes Japanese white seaweed, shredded tofu, cucumbers and sesame seeds in a delightful house vinaigrette. The translucent white seaweed deploys a delicious chewy texture and fresh flavor. Little sliced “shrimps” also appear in the salad. Since I knew this was a vegetarian restaurant I wasn’t fooled – and kind of liked the effort it took to make a fake shrimp slice out of tofu, complete with pink stripes. For others it might be weird. But it was trying a new type of seaweed that we liked even more.
My meat-eating man chose wonton soup ($8.50), and mentioned that it was just as satisfying as the carnivore version thanks to the stuffed wontons and seasonal vegetables in a broth topped with cilantro. I ordered the “flying Buddha” curry ($9.95) which contained taro root, potatoes, carrots, vegetable protein, tofu and coconut milk in a rich yellow curry. Delicious. I especially enjoyed the addition of the blue-hued taro, a hard-to-find root vegetable native to Southeast Asia. The vegetable protein, meanwhile, comes in strips that resemble chicken in appearance and texture. The fat-grain brown rice was a nice accompaniment I used to soak up every last drop of the soup.
We all shared the crispy orange eggplant ($10.95), breaded and fried Japanese eggplant with a not-too-sweet, natural-tasting essence of orange sauce and lemon zest garnished with steamed broccoli. Our table devoured the hot-and-crisp dish in a matter of minutes. With the fresh, sweet sauce it was by far our favorite part of the meal and the very best fried eggplant dish I can remember.
Another surprising dish we shared was the lemongrass chicken ($7.50) made from soy chicken and stir-fried with onions, and bell peppers – surprising in its chickenishness.
Once again I did not miss the meat, probably due to the spicy lemongrass coating, and found myself growing increasingly amazed at what Mon Chay can do with tofu and textured soy protein. There are restaurants in Santa Cruz that have tried to do the vegetarian thing with variations of soy and failed miserably. Vegetarians want food that tastes good too, so if there is soy involved it better be good – or best to leave it out and concentrate on vegetables. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I love when vegetables are prepared so well that you don’t miss the meat. There are so many items on the menu – including noodle – and rice-based dishes, hot pots of soups and curries, “seafood” dishes, sizzling plates of grilled vegetables and, of course, tofu – there are a number of alternative options for those who don’t eat soy.
Mon Chay also has interesting drinks on their menu. Smoothies ($4.25) include avocado and papaya; young coconut juice ($3.95); and boba and milk teas with tapioca balls ($3.95). For dessert there is fried banana ($4.95) and tropical ice cream ($2.50) – taro, coconut, mango and green tea.
It all means Mon Chay brings fresh life to the Barnyard in a reasonably priced and healthy way. It also means one no longer needs to head deep into Carmel Valley for some good, clean food served by Tassajara monks. Mon Chay has the monk charm and the vegetarian fare covered. Look for me on your visit – I’ll be Zenned out in the hands of the Buddha enjoying a majestic papaya salad.
MON CHAY VIETNAMESE VEGETARIAN CUISINE The Barnyard, Rio Road and Highway 1, Carmel. • 11am-2:30pm, 4:30-9pm Mon-Fri, 11am-9pm Sat, closed Sundays. • 622-7777.