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Meatless marvels: Thai Vegan serves plant-based versions of flavorful favorites

The number of vegan diners in the United States has accelerated in recent years, driven primarily by the desire for a healthier diet and a growing awareness of the toll that factory farming takes on our environment. Sales of plant-based foods are growing twice as fast as overall food sales at grocery retailers. Sales of plant-based dairy and egg substitutes reached $4 billion in the U.S. in 2020.

Pat Phomnoi, chef/owner of Thai Vegan, could be forgiven for looking out at all the newly minted vegans and asking, what took you so long?

Phomnoi opened his restaurant in 2010 in a strip mall on Osuna just east of San Mateo when the city’s vegan dining movement was in its infancy.

Since then, Thai Vegan has acquired a devoted fan base for its vegan versions of Thai favorites. That’s vegan, as in no chicken in the green curry, no pork in the larb and no eggs in the spring roll wrappers.

Thai Vegan closed its dining room during the pandemic and shifted to a takeout-only model. The dining room was still closed when a friend and I visited for lunch recently, despite the news that Bernalillo County restaurants could expand indoor dining to 50% capacity. A hand-painted booth projected out from the front door, allowing customers to pick up their orders without having to go inside.

The server indicated that the dining room would be opening soon. In the meantime, there’s a covered patio on the west side of the restaurant with a few four-seat and two-seat tables under canvas sunshades.

Thai Vegan’s menu is built around lunch and dinner combinations that offer a choice of protein with steamed rice, spring rolls and a salad. The lunch combinations ($9.95) are served 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., while the dinner options ($11.95) run from 2:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Protein choices include soy chicken, tofu, vegan pepper steak and soy fish. You can have them in curries, noodle dishes and stir-frys. Soy chicken nuggets or soy shrimp are $2 extra.

The server worked briskly and efficiently, seating us, taking our orders and delivering the food. She brought the check to the table just moments after we had ordered, underscoring that the place is still in takeout mode.

Further underscoring the point: The food came out quickly in cardboard takeout boxes stacked in a bag. About half of each box was given over to a salad made up of iceberg lettuce with a few spinach leaves thrown in under a slice of tomato and some carrot strips. All the ingredients were fresh, and the small cup of housemade Italian dressing was vibrant.

In Thai Vegan’s sweet and sour shrimp stir-fry, the shrimp are formed out of soy protein. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Two cigar-sized spring rolls were served in a small bag with a cup of soy sauce. The vegan wrappers, fried to a medium brown, were crisp and free of oil, but the components of the veggie filling had been rendered a bit mushy and indistinct.

My friend ordered the sweet-and-sour entree with shrimp – more precisely, soy protein formed into shrimp shapes. Less stout in texture than the real thing but tasty in their own right, the mock shrimp soaked up a sauce that was more sweet than sour. Just as in the salad, all the ingredients in the stir-fry – pineapple, tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion – were impeccable. The block of rice, described as brown rice on the menu, is actually white, black and brown rice that combine for a light purple hue. It was perfectly cooked, moist but still with some body to it.

Thai Vegans Pad Thai with soy chicken and a side salad. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The vegan Pad Thai with soy chicken was exceptional, the rice noodles appropriately chewy, the sauce tangy. If you squint hard, the thick strips of soy protein sort of resemble pieces of dark chicken meat. Like the soy shrimp, they are more yielding to the bite and have the same wonderful ability to concentrate the sauce.

The brightly colored P.E.T. entrée ($9.95), named for the pumpkin, eggplant and tofu that make up the bulk of the dish, showed off the remarkable range of vegetables. The crunchy, caramelized red and green peppers provided some textural backbone to the soft, meaty eggplant, and the blocks of tofu, under a delicately crisp shell, sponged up the very spicy chile-based sauce.

P.E.T., Thai Vegan’s stir-fry dish of pumpkin, eggplant and tofu in a spicy chili sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The back side of the menu carries a decent selection of Thai desserts and drinks. Banana spring rolls ($6.95) are served as four small cylinders of crisp wonton shells cut diagonally. Starchy and slightly sweet, they made for a nice finish to the meal. The more assertively sweet tropical fruit rambutan ($6.95) turns up in a plastic tub full of light syrup and ice cubes. The pale, golf ball-size fruit has the texture of a stewed apple and a flavor that falls somewhere between those of a grape and a pear.

Rambutan, a tropical fruit served in syrup and ice, at Thai Vegan. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Drinks include a few Thai specialties. As much as my friend raved about the hot ginger drink, I felt no regrets over my choice of a Thai iced tea. Even without the condensed milk, it had more than enough creaminess to balance the strong black tea flavor.

That’s how it is at Thai Vegan. The quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation show that eating vegan doesn’t mean sacrificing taste and texture.