Tag Archives: vegan asian food

We Want Wagamama!

I’ve been obsessed with Wagamama for well over a decade, when a friend said, “You’re going to London? You have to go to Wagamama.” If you’re from the U.S. you’re probably saying “Wagawhat?” But hopefully that will change someday soon!

Wagamama

Which do you think I went to?

Anyone who has traveled with me to the U.K. knows that as soon as I can, I make a beeline to the nearest Wagamama. It’s a chain restaurant, and they’ve multiplied like bunnies since first opening in 1992, with locations in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Lucky for me, on my last trip to glorious Britain I stayed in a hotel with a Wagamama in the basement (I didn’t plan it that way, I swear).

So far, Wagamama has only slightly penetrated The States, with three locations in the Boston area (we’re tied with New Zealand – yeay!). I think Wagamama must mean “good luck” because one of them is very near my company’s headquarters, which means I can usually get at least one visit in every year.

What’s so great about Wagamama, you ask? My answer: pretty much everything. It’s a “rice and noodle” casual dining Asian restaurant, with a blend of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese items. And if you’re thinking that this is another Pei Wei, think again. Wagamama offers a wider variety of flavorful dishes, and has more to offer for vegans and vegetarians. It’s the kind of place where everyone can find something on the menu to like, and they make it very easy for vegans to get a great meal by providing a vegan menu online. It’s also a great choice for gluten-free diners.

I have a bad habit of getting the same one or two things every time I go because I usually only get one meal in during a trip. I at least try to vary the starters if I’m dining with a companion. On my last visit, I tried the Summer Rolls.

Wagamama vegan summer rolls

They were light and fresh, and were served with a sweet chili, garlic and cilantro dipping sauce. I’ve tried the edamame with chili and garlic salt before – which is just fine. The Yasai Gyoza (veggie pot stickers) are also great, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t vegan – just vegetarian. If your meal doesn’t come with Miso Soup, you should definitely order a bowl as well!

My default entrée of choice for years was the Yasai Chili Men.

Wagamama Yasi Chili Men

It’s a huge bright red bowl of veggies, tofu and noodles that provides plenty of heat in the mouth and belly. Since I’m usually traveling for work when I go to Wagamama now and not wanting my dinner to keep me up late at night, I’ve switched allegiances to some other favorites with less after bite.

As boring as it may sound, my latest favorite is the Yasai Cha Han (order it with no egg to make it vegan).

Wagamama vegan yasai cha han

It’s basically fried rice, but it’s not greasy and nasty like some fried rice can be. Instead it’s light, hearty and full of subtle flavor. It also comes with Wagamama’s wonderful vegan miso soup, which is a life saver on a cold night in Boston. It’s usually what I get if I’ve arrived in town late and want to go to bed without a gut full of spice.

But the entrée that keeps me going back for more is the Yasai Itame.

Wagamama yasai itame

This delicious noodle soup is made with coconut milk, rice noodles, a light hint of chili and ginger spice, and tons of tofu and vegetables. It’s always way more than I can eat, but I try to at least finish the tofu off. If you order it, make sure you squeeze lime into it to bring out the flavor even more.

If you have room left after all of that, Wagamama usually has a vegan sorbet that makes a nice palette cleanser. However, on my last visit in the U.K. they offered a vegan “ice lolly” that I thought would be something unique and fun. Instead it was a pre-packaged fruit juice popsicle shipped from somewhere in the U.S. Oh well!

There are other vegan entrees on the Wagamama menu that I haven’t tried yet. Maybe if they ever make good on their promise to open hundreds of locations in the U.S., I’ll feel less pressure to always order my favorites and will experiment more with the menu.

Beyond the food, the ambiance of Wagamamas always makes me happy. The restaurants tend to be in basements, so you feel like you’re descending into someone’s hidden, private space (except the Tower Bridge location in London — that one is down right scenic). The servers are always friendly, but not chatty, and very good at their jobs.

In the U.K., they sit you directly with other people at long rows of tables, so you usually get to meet fun people from a wide variety of countries.

Wagamama Windsor, U.K.

In the U.S., while the tables are still long, they put small gaps in the rows so the visual of open dining is still there, while giving territorial Americans some sense of privacy. Maybe when they move west that will change.

The ordering process is unique as well. Wagamama is the first place I had been to where the servers used hand-held wireless devices for orders and credit card processing – and that was more than 10 years ago! It was cutting edge high-tech to me at the time! Every menu item has a number, and the servers don’t just enter it into their devices, they also write the numbers on your place mats so the right food goes to the right person. You have what I’d call a “main” server, but everyone manages your order in a communal fashion. All of this makes for an efficient experience.

Over the years, I’ve made Wagamama addicts out of several friends and co-workers. If you’re ever in Boston or in one of their many overseas locations, give it a try and let me know what you think! Maybe we can get a petition going to bring Wagamama west!

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Tien Wong Hot Pot: Cook Up Your Own Vegan Fun in Chandler

I’ve always been a fan of restaurants where you can be a part of the cooking process – from fondue to hot rock to Mongolian grills. However, “hot pot” cooking – an Asian tradition that goes back thousands of years, has never been on my radar. We had been curious about Johnny Chu’s (of Sochu House, Sens and Fate) Tien Wong Hot Pot in Chandler (on N. Alma School Road between W. Elliot and W. Warner roads), but rarely visit that part of sprawling metro Phoenix. An event in Mesa got us close enough to give it a try, and now that we’ve tried it, we can say it’s worth the trip!

Tien Wong Hot Pot

The restaurant is in an unassuming strip mall, and while tastefully decorated, it lacked the “urban hipness” I’m used to at Chu’s other locations. However, the service was very good, especially since we needed some coaching with ordering and cooking the food.

The menu is a check list of broths and ingredients.

Tien Wong Hot Pot menu

It can be a bit overwhelming to decide just how much to order. We probably could have made better choices, but it was a fun experiment. Since the prices are very reasonable (i.e. $2 for tofu), over-ordering isn’t really a problem.

First, all of the broths on the menu can be made vegetarian (vegan). Just ask! We couldn’t decide on a single broth (I like spicy, my husband does not) so we went with the Ying Yang (half house original herbal broth, half house ma la spicy broth). I’ll admit I was a bit terrified when I saw how many hot peppers were floating in the hot side.

Tien Wong Hot Pot vegan broth

I could feel my guts tremble in fear. Turns out that although it was incredibly spicy, I didn’t suffer the painful effects I expected (i.e. I wasn’t doubled over in pain at 3:00 a.m.). My guess is it’s because of the fresh, healthy and clearly vegan ingredients cooked in it, plus it didn’t contain the mystery oils and sugars normally found in spicy Asian food. I think next time we’ll try a compromise with the Spicy Lemongrass broth – more flavor that the original broth and less heat than the spicy broth.

Then came the selection of items too cook. The basic vegan options are mushrooms & vegetables, and tofu & noodles. We ordered brown mushrooms (for my husband’s side only!), corn (which was on the cob – odd), baby bok choy, watercress and spinach. Turns out we ordered far too many greens. I think they should offer a few more standard vegetable options such as carrots, green peppers, onions, broccoli, etc. but I guess that wouldn’t be very authentic!

Tien Wong Greens

They had a huge variety of different types of tofu. We opted for the bean curd skins and homemade iced tofu, both of which were fairly non-traditional.

Tien Wong Tofu

We probably should have ordered a firm or 5-spiced tofu just to have something with more bite. We also ordered udon noodles and rice (but the rice wasn’t needed). Also of note, the meal came with dipping sauces – one was a soy-based sauce, the other a spicy peanut sauce. Both were great – especially for items that didn’t gain much flavor from the broth such as the corn on the cob.

Once we got through the ordering process, the magic happened. The broth was set to boil and we slowly added ingredients based on the directions given – longer for the corn, less time for the noodles and tofu. Soon the hot pot became a bubbling cauldron of flavor.

Tien Wong Hot Pot During Cooking

Being able to cook the food ourselves was a fun, shared experience — great for a “date night.” The challenge was to not lose the tofu skins into the broth, or to burn the noodles that had sunk to the bottom of the pot. And of course it was important to not burn my mouth by eating the results straight from the pot (let it cool first!). At the end, the broth was transformed into a delicious veggie soup.

Tien Wong Hot Pot end results

While it might be a bit of a journey to get to Tien Wong from central Phoenix, anyone looking for an adventurous, healthy and totally vegan meal should make the trip. We’ll be going back soon!

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Sensational SoChu House: a vegan-friendly hot spot near downtown Phoenix

We’ve been fans of chef Johnny Chu since the first time we ate at Fate years ago. We loved the Asian tapas at Sens too, but missed the variety of vegan entrées available on the Fate menu. With the opening of SoChu House, we get the best of both worlds – and then some.

For starters, the parking is the best of all three locations. That may sound trivial but I just don’t travel with $3 worth of quarters on me usually. Also, the restaurant is in a larger space that still has a hip look and feel, but is much less cramped.

Chu’s flair for creating intensely flavorful sauces is still in full force on the SoChu menu. Previous favorites such as the red curry with tofu remain, but he’s added some new items and made slight changes to some dishes.

We always enjoyed the wide variety of fried tofu tapas on the Sens menu, but had a hard time picking one dipping sauce over another. The new SoChu Tofu tapas dish comes with two spicy sauces — pineapple ginger and sesame — so we no longer have to choose.

SoChu Tofu

Both dipping sauces are “I will save it to put on my rice later ” good. The pineapple ginger sauce is available on other items, but the sesame sauce is unique to this dish and not to be missed.

Our waitress told us all of the entrées can be made vegan with tofu, and Johnny stopped by to point out other vegetarian options on the menu as well. For the entrees, we tried a previous favorite plus an item that was new to us.

House Dynamite with tofu has been one of our default choices since the days of Fate.

SoChu House Dynamite with tofu

The flavor of the sauce continues to be terrific. It’s spicy with a hint of sweet. However, the kitchen may not be quite dialed-in yet at SoChu House. It was not as delicate as it used to be in terms of the subtlety of the flavor, variety of the vegetable mix and quality of tofu preparation (the breading was a touch soggy).

The Spicy Basil entrée with tofu may look similar to House Dynamite, but the flavor was distinctly different.

SoChu Spicy Basil Tofu

I thought it was spicier, and had a more robust, less sweet, sauce. The basil was strong but not overwhelming. Spicy Basil Tofu is also available in the tapas area of the menu, but might be a dipping sauce rather than with vegetables.

For those of you who have loved dining at Fate and Sens over the years – don’t worry, you’re still in safe hands! You can continue to enjoy most of the old favorites, but also try something new. I have my eye on the new Pepper Mint and Chili Citrus entrées, so we will have to head back soon. Or maybe instead we’ll try to get out to Chandler to try Chu’s Tien Wong Hot Pot or to The Mint in Scottsdale, but the Mint doesn’t look quite as vegan-friendly based on the online menu.

Oh and I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the adorable key chains they gave us with the check.

SoChu House key chain frontSoChu House Key chain back

Too cute! I’m guessing they were left over from the grand opening?

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Sens: Sensational Spice in Downtown Phoenix

Update: Unfortunately Sens is now closed, but you can get many of the same menu items just a few miles away at SoChu House!

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Sens Asian Tapas and Sake Bar is one of our favorite vegan-friendly restaurants in downtown Phoenix. It’s also one of the hardest to describe. When I say “Asian tapas,” most people think “dim sum” – which it definitely isn’t.

Sens is the culinary masterpiece of Chef Johnny Chu, and is essentially the 2.0 version of one of our other past favorites, Fate. Chu is a master at spicy Asian sauces. At Sens, the small portion sizes allow you to try a wider variety of flavors and sauces in one meal than you could at Fate. My husband and I usually get three or four items for the two of us, which leaves us so full we can barely roll out the door. They bring the dishes out essentially one at a time, so it’s a slow-moving meal where you get to savor each item and share with your table-mates.

The menu at Sens offers a good variety of vegetarian entrees, which are also vegan, but we’ve heard they may fry the tofu in the same oil as meats. However, the fried tofu items with dipping sauces really can’t be skipped. Two of our favorites are the Wasabi Tofu and the Sesame Tofu.

Sens Wasabi Tofu and Sesame Tofu

The Wasabi Tofu sauce is exactly what you’d expect – if you put too much of it on your tofu it’s a direct and painful hit to the nose. But it’s the kind of pleasure and pain combo that makes you keep going back for more. The Sesame Tofu is a little less intense, with more of a soy and chili flavor to it.

Sens often offers a vegetarian special – usually some kind of spring roll or sometimes an entrée. On our last trip we had a spring roll special that was better than their usual spring rolls.

Sens spring rolls special

I think the wraps were wheat instead of rice, and crisped up better. They were also served with an outstanding soy and peanut dipping sauce and a small papaya mango salad, which was excellent.

One of the newer items on the Sens menu, but a throw-back to the days of Fate, is the Spicy Saigon.

Sens Spicy Saigon

Spicy Saigon was one of my favorites at Fate so I was thrilled to see it come back in a slightly different version at Sens (but hope they someday bring back the Spicy Sesame too). Spicy Saigon is a stir-fry of veggies and fried tofu in a sweet yet flavorful basil sauce.

The other item that’s a must-have for me is the Red Curry Tofu, which is served simmering in a clay pot.

Sens Red Curry Tofu

It’s extremely rich and can sometimes be very spicy, but I end up licking the bowl every time. It’s served with the same fried tofu as the other dishes, plus veggies like okra, baby corn, carrots and snow peas. The best part is the hunks of pineapple. I usually leave them til the end when they’ve absorbed tons of the curry.

We usually get two bowls of rice and a plate of udon noodles to use as the base for the curry and Spicy Saigon, plus it comes in handy if you have any extra dipping sauces to sop up at the end. Woe to the waiter that tries to take the sauces away before we’re done!

Over the past two years since Sens has been open, we’ve tried pretty much every vegetarian item on the menu. Other highlights include the Papaya Mango Salad with Tofu, which is quite good and very spicy, and the Pineapple Ginger Tofu, which is tasty, but just not as great as the other two tofu dipping sauce items. We weren’t overwhelmed with the Hong Kong Flat Rice – the noodles were just too thick and flavorless, and the standard Papaya Mango Spring Rolls don’t do too much for me.

One warning: as much as we love Sens, 8 out of 10 times that we eat dinner there one or both of us ends up in fairly extreme digestive pain throughout the night. It’s just that spicy. I’ve tried to determine if it’s one particular dish, but I think it’s just spice overload in general. If you’re sensitive to spicy food, I’d recommend taking an antacid before eating there!

Sens is located south of Roosevelt in downtown Phoenix at 705 N. 1st Street #120. It’s open for lunch Monday – Friday, and dinner 7 days a week. It’s also open late (til 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday) and I think it turns into a hip bar based on the DJ that usually shows up around 6 p.m., but I don’t think I’d want to eat their spicy food at midnight!

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