Keep it faux
Au Lac Veggie3500 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95820
Say you’ve just taken a yoga class, and you want to go out to dinner. Where do you head? Not for cheeseburgers, that’s for sure; that would seem unhappily impure. Vegetarian seems to be the way to go, but Sacramento doesn’t have a huge number of all-vegetarian restaurants. Au Lac Veggie—a pan-Asian cafe with a Vietnamese bent to the menu—adds one more to the green landscape.
Au Lac is not, as the name might suggest, anywhere near a lake, but rather on a characterless stretch of Stockton Boulevard, south of Broadway but north of the area that’s heavily populated by Vietnamese restaurants. It’s an odd little corner space, with nooks and crannies rather than one large dining room, and it’s been colorfully painted in a serene lake blue, with orangey accents to pretty it up (as do potted plants and some decorative lights).
The menu is mostly “veggie” versions of meat dishes, though there are some tofu dishes as well. There’s a surprising dearth of actual vegetables, though of course they come in as accents in many dishes—but generally, imitation meat is the name of the game: sautéed veggie garlic beef, Kung Pao veggie chicken, vermicelli rice noodles with veggie egg rolls and veggie beef. There are a few soups as well, and a listing of bargain lunch specials (just $4.95 for a dish with soup and egg roll).
We started off with the appetizer of veggie egg rolls—three hot, freshly fried cylinders, cut in half on a sharp diagonal. They were really more like what I’d think of as spring rolls: slender, crisp and light in texture, with a filling that included thin noodles, shredded cabbage, carrot and some crumbly soy (I think) protein. It had a curious sour flavor, almost like it had undergone a little fermentation—not unpleasant, but certainly a little unusual. The salty-sweet dipping sauce mitigated the tang somewhat, though.
I enjoyed the bright-yellow curry fried rice, which tasted gently of coconut and was studded with peas, carrots and golden chunks of tofu, as well as chickpeas that added an extra bit of protein. The rice grains were light and separate, imbued with a mild but pleasing curry flavor. It was also a visually appealing dish, with the big, vibrant pile of rice on an oval platter.
Everything was served family-style, and we each got a plate with a round of fragrant white rice in addition to our other dishes. The rice went well with the imitation grilled chicken—thin brown slices with the texture like that of fried tofu skin, but also rather like that of well-pounded, tender meat. It had a slightly sweet sauce with a strong saltiness, which the “meat” also had, but pleasantly so, and it was complemented by a tangle of caramelized onions. A pile of shredded cabbage, lettuce and carrots also came alongside, adding some welcome freshness and crunch to the plate, though I was surprised that there were no fresh herbs; the dish would have benefited from their sparkling flavors. A few slices of tomato and a sprinkling of peanuts rounded out the dish.
Our least favorite dish of the night was clay-pot “fish” with “Au Lac sauce”—slightly spongy-textured (and indeed fishy-tasting) slices of vegetarian protein something-or-other in a murky gravy. I admired the artistry of it, insofar as the slices resembled fish (the dark “skin” around the fish-steak-shaped pieces was a nice touch), but the fishy flavor was not quite right—like imitation crab, my friend commented. The sauce was even more disappointing. I think the dish was going for a simulacrum of clay-pot catfish, the Vietnamese standby that includes a thick, rich and peppery salty-savory caramel sauce. Here, the brownish gravy was pallid and slightly mucilaginous, with little distinctive flavor except a salty canned-gravy umami note. I think the usual clay-pot dish would suffer in any case from the lack of fish sauce, but I was surprised not to find the bittersweet caramel undertones or, perhaps, a strong hit of soy sauce to inject a little life into the tired-tasting sauce.
There are few drinks to be had, with a suitably austere feel to the selections: soy milk, various teas and sodas. We stuck with water, which was refilled promptly; service throughout the meal was understated and a touch shy, but efficient. Dedicated carnivores may be left feeling a little unsettled by Au Lac’s faux-meat selections, but vegetarians and omnivores should welcome it to Sacramento: If you choose carefully, you’ll find satisfying, inexpensive and meatless meals on offer.