Most restaurants push an agenda, whether overt or not — a commitment to local, organic ingredients, say, or to the authenticity of a specific cuisine. But restaurants don't often have a declared religious agenda and wear their philosophy on their walls. There are a handful of vegetarian restaurants throughout the Bay Area that adhere to the strictures of religious sects, and I, a godless omnivore, visited a few to see what kind of spiritual and culinary enlightenment they could offer.
You wouldn't know Golden Era was part of the empire of Supreme Master Ching Hai unless you knew what you were looking for. Its shabby Tenderloin storefront belies an opulent subterranean room, replete with columns and shiny gold fixtures. It's part of a network of vegan restaurants run by the Supreme Master's followers across the world: The most popular is the vegan chain Loving Hut, with more than 200 locations, but there are many one-offs like this one, Golden Lotus in Oakland, and Vegetarian House in San Jose. And at least at Golden Era, the hints of the Supreme Master are surprisingly few: an enlarged photo of Hai above the cash register, and a television in the corner that plays Hai's television network, Supreme Master TV, on a loop.
The TV mostly shows propaganda videos espousing Hai's dedication to meditation and veganism. The vegan philosophy seems to have three major threads: kindness to all living things (Hai, a prolific author, recently published books called The Dogs in My Life and The Birds in My Life), health benefits (an article on SupremeMasterTV.com links meat-eating to cancer), and environmental benefits (one video pushes the claim that global warming would all but disappear if the planet stopped eating meat). There's no proselytizing from the staff or on the menu, but the vegan-only menu pushes the vision for itself.
I went with Laura Beck, co-founder of the site Vegansaurus, who steered me towards the best things on the elaborate menu. Without her influence I never would have ordered the egg foo young appetizer ($6), which turned out to be hardly distinguishable from the non-vegan version of the dish — crispy, deep-fried protein underneath a syrupy, salty gravy. It was entirely delicious, as were the restaurant's vegan spring rolls ($5.25). The rice claypots ($8.50) were also a pleasure: The house rice claypot came with moist rice scented with coconut and ginger and had a few strings of tofu for added protein.
Fake meat dishes weren't as successful. Soy Protein Perfection ($9.95) had chunks of deep-fried soy protein coated in a fiery, deep-red rub. It tasted like fried spice and little else, and I missed the dimension that meat would have given the dish's flavor. In Truly Sea ($11), the seaweed-steamed tofu's texture mimicked an oily fish like cod, but it tasted like white fish steamed in a microwave. The presentation (a hunk of protein wrapped in black seaweed) wasn't the most visually appealing; but then, to a hearty meat-eater, faux-meat dishes meant to approximate the real thing are hardly ever as satisfying. I was glad I had Laura on hand to steer me toward vegan dishes that were enjoyable on their own terms.
Ananda Fuara, a few blocks away at Market and Larkin, is a San Francisco institution and "divine enterprise" of guru/super-athlete/humanitarian Sri Chinmoy. The spiritual leader died in 2007, but lives on at restaurants like this, which still bears the name he bestowed on it (translation: "the fountain of delight") as well as poster-sized photographs of his beatific visage on the walls. There's a lending library in the back stocked with Chinmoy titles like Beyond Within and Eastern Light for the Western Mind that you can peruse as you eat, but Chinmoy and his philosophies are never mentioned by the sari-clad staff (who do close the restaurant for yearly retreats, though, including one April 11-15). If anything, the room is peaceful, with robin-egg blue walls, tinkling meditative music, fresh flowers, and a fountain trickling water down one wall. The crowd's a mix of business-lunchers and yoga-pant-wearing enthusiasts.
Chinmoy's dedication to vegetarianism lay in his teachings to find your best self through meditation. He's best known for antics like bench-pressing political dignitaries, but his followers also claim that he produced 1,500 books, 100,000 poems, 18,000 spiritual songs, and 200,000 paintings in his lifetime, many of which are on the walls. His high achievement is attributed, at least in part, to his avoidance of animal flesh. On his website, he wrote that when we eat meat, "the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us," whereas milder vegetables give us "the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity, and purity." As such, the menu is less fake meat and more textbook hippie by way of the Moosewood Cookbook.
The restaurant is known for its Neatloaf, a take on meatloaf made with ricotta, tofu, grains, eggs, and spices ($11.75, a vegan option is also available). It's admirably moist and texturally very similar to the version your mother might have made for Sunday dinner, but the tangy tomato-based sauce on the top was overly sweet and cloying. Still, it was a satisfying lunch, and came with a sizable fresh salad with a zippy lemon-tahini dressing. On a sandwich, the bottom slice of bread tended to get soggy; a better sandwich to try is the veggie burger ($7.95), of the soft and squishy variety and no more exciting than it needs to be.
The menu also has a large number of Indian dishes. Dal ($5.95) had the requisite complex layers of spice and heat that makes the simple chickpea stew so appealing. Samosas ($6.25) were stuffed with pea-and-potato curry, though the wrapping was a tad too thick and gluey. Ananda Fuara also has a daily curry served over rice ($11.50), which one day featured a mild, creamy version with mushrooms — nothing that blew the palate away with spice, but warming on a rainy afternoon.
Was forgoing meat for a few meals my path to spiritual enlightenment? Of course not. But dining under the gaze of the Supreme Master and Sri Chinmoy did make me more conscious of the meat I eat every day without thinking about it — turkey sandwiches, sausage on pizza, chicken in pad Thai, and so on. Given all the uncertainty these days around what's in the meat we eat, a little mindfulness isn't a bad thing. Even when it comes with a side of scripture.