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Meatless marvels: An Hy Quan serves vegetarian, vegan versions of Vietnamese standards

Tofu, tofu skin and wheat gluten are used to create the meaty textures in An Hy Quan’s vegetarian dishes. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

At first glance, the dish identified as B3 on the menu at An Hy Quan looks like a plate of Chinese barbecued spare ribs, the kind of flaming-red slabs that are a fixture of pu pu platters everywhere. Their texture bears resembles that of slow-cooked pork.

But these morsels don’t come from a pig, or any other animal, for that matter. They’re made from tofu skin, a product of boiling soy milk and skimming off the film that floats to the surface of the water. The skins are layered and prepared through the Chinese barbecue method known as char siu, an approach that leaves them with a salty, sweet flavor and a vivid red color.

This inventive spin on soybeans is just one example of the creativity at An Hy Quan, a vegetarian – mostly vegan – restaurant on Juan Tabo that uses ingredients such as tofu, seaweed and seitan, or cooked wheat gluten, to mimic the flavors and textures of beef, pork, chicken and fish.

An Hy Quan owner Bill Liechty attributes the various sleights of hand on the menu to his mother, who created the recipes through years of trial and error. After explaining some of his mother’s cooking methods during a recent lunchtime visit, he finally shrugged and said, “She’s a wizard.”

Coconut milk cooked with tapioca starch makes up the heart of one of An Hy Quan’s rice noodle bowls. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

An Hy Quan, which means “place of peace and happiness” in Vietnamese, occupies a stucco building in front of a strip mall. Although the entrance under a red-tiled awning is a little more than a sidewalk’s width away from Juan Tabo, inside is quiet and serene. The menu has the typical Vietnamese standards, including pho, spring rolls and rice noodle bowls. But the fun here comes from sampling vegetarian versions of things such as pork meatballs and catfish.

Perhaps more than any other dish on the men, the aforementioned B3 – rice with shredded vegetables, tofu loaf and barbecue ($11) – showcases the possibilities of plant-based entrées. Along with the mock spare ribs, there are dense, chewy mock pork noodles. Pieces of black fungus mushroom bring meatiness to a beautifully prepared, eggy and light tofu loaf that has the flavors of a Thanksgiving stuffing.

Mock chicken, along with mushrooms and peas, fills an appetizer of two steamed buns ($6). The fillings add some heft to the fluffy, moist buns, and the accompanying sweet chile sauce brings a much-needed charge of flavor.

Vegetarian broths can taste like the runoff from a washing machine, but the version in An Hy Quan’s mock crab and asparagus soup ($6) is almost indistinguishable from a good chicken broth. Slices of white asparagus provide crunch, and the threads of mock crab meat, made from tofu, are remarkably similar in texture to the fish-based imitation crab that you get in a lot of Asian restaurants. I wasn’t able to pick up any seafood flavor, though.

An Hy Quan’s inventiveness shows even when it’s not trying to do mock-ups of meat, as in a rice noodle bowl with shredded vegetables and coconut milk ($11). Tapioca starch lends volume to the coconut milk, making an almost airy, cloudlike space between the bean sprouts below and the carpet of crushed peanuts on top.

At lunch there were four other people in the place: a couple of old-timers and two boys playing Nintendo. Service was prompt and attentive, and the food came out quickly. I had wanted to try an avocado shake ($4), but the restaurant was out of avocados. The tart, sweet lime soda ($3.50) was a good consolation prize.

An Hy Quan shows how, in the right hands, a plant-based menu can bring a multitude of textures and flavors and offer an enticing alternative to meat-based dishes.