South Pas vegan restaurant teaches delicious lessons in healthy eating
By Erica Wayne 01/08/2014
I’m writing this review during the first week of 2014 after polishing off the remnants of fruitcake, eggnog, cookies, fudge, puddings (with hard sauce) and all the other holiday goodies we bought, made or were given during December. Tip-toeing past the scale the past few days hasn’t helped; I can see the belly bulge in the mirror and feel my jeans becoming ever tighter. Frankly, I could probably benefit from a cleanse, if not a complete purge.
In lieu of such drastic measures, however, I made our first restaurant meal of the New Year a healthy one and took two friends to lunch at Charm Vegan, a tiny storefront just over the South Pasadena border at 711 (a lucky number) Fair Oaks. Once there, tucked into a prefabricated all-in-one forest green and white plastic booth, we ordered a variety of healthful, organic food to start following the vows we make every January to maintain a good diet and exercise daily.
Surprisingly enough, for us three confirmed non-vegans, Charm’s food was pretty damned good. Although almost every one of their (mostly Asian, primarily Thai) dishes is loaded with tofu, they’re also packed with colorful vegetables (both raw and cooked) and lots of spice, including plenty of chili in dishes marked with a bright red pepper on their menu. Although our lunch didn’t convince us to swear off butter, cheese and tuna, it went a long way toward convincing us that vegan cuisine isn’t nearly as off-putting as some of its more orthodox devotees.
Aside from two or three of the prefabs (not all that comfortable), seating at Charm is at mahogany tables and chairs, surrounded by white walls decorated with pictures of plants and flowers. Behind the room-wide spring-green counter is a wall hanging of an enormous sculpted knife and fork. On the counter itself are some potted plants and five “maneki-neko” kitties, one large and four small, all with their left paws raised up in greeting.
Our tabletop was soon overflowing with food. Aside from three lunchtime specials — pad Thai, sautéed eggplant and kung pao, each only $7.95, including pleasant miso soup with soft tofu, wakame seaweed and green onion, mixed salad with sweet sesame dressing, a crunchy piping hot spring roll and brown rice — we couldn’t resist trying Charm’s silver noodle salad and an order of pumpkin fried rice. These, too, were $7.95, as are many choices on the huge menu.
Most of Charm’s curried, noodle, fried rice and entrée items, it is noted, are served with tofu. Indeed, we found innocuous thinly-cut squares in the pad Thai, eggplant, fried rice and noodle salad. Our kung pao, on the other hand, contained small chewy chunks which I presume are meant to simulate the traditional non-vegan chicken prep. They were perfectly acceptable, although we would have liked the dish equally well (perhaps better) without them. The other ingredients: roasted peanuts, dried whole chilies, onion, carrot, bell pepper and water chestnuts were completely satisfying.
Our eggplant, sautéed with green curry sauce, red and green peppers, onion and basil leaves, was wonderful. Drenched in a dark, intricate gravy, the eggplant itself was relatively greaseless but still tender. Like the kung pao, it was marked spicy and didn’t disappoint. We were glad to have generous portions of chewy, nutty, heavy-textured short-grain brown rice to absorb the liquid.
Charm’s pad Thai was so similar to the same dish in our favorite non-vegan Thai restaurants that I hardly noticed the absence of any animal protein. The rice noodles, pan-fried, were pleasantly sticky, topped with bean sprouts, green onions and crushed peanuts, with a garnish of spinach leaves, baby lettuces, shredded carrots and purple cabbage making of it, like all of the food we were served, an appealing rainbow of color.
I liked the silver (glass) noodles better than my companions. The pasta was steamed, with the almost requisite tofu slices, lots of fresh chopped ginger, roasted peanuts, tomato, onions and carrots all tossed in a quite tart (hence the less-than-stellar ratings from my friends) lemon dressing and served with lettuce. No matter; more for me and hubby, who got the leftovers that evening.
The table favorite turned out to be the pumpkin fried rice. A huge mound of Charm’s delectable brown rice had been pan-fried in what was obviously very hot oil, imparting a wonderful smoky flavor to the entire dish. Sweet, soft, bright orange pumpkin chunks were embedded in the pilaf, along with emerald green peapods, bits of onion and yellow tomato. Even though we’d ordered way too much, we somehow managed to finish off the entire platter.
Charm has a relatively large variety of dessert items. As a non-vegan but natural food lover, I was a bit put off by the “soy whip creamer” listed as an ingredient in their carrot, coconut and chocolate chip cheese cakes ($4.95 apiece). But banana spring rolls ($3.95) sounded luscious and mango sticky rice ($6.95) even better. However, there was no way after consuming most of the overwhelmingly generous servings of food we’d already ordered that we were going to be able to consume anything further.
So, having packed the remains of the feast in the surprisingly non-“green” Styrofoam and thin plastic containers our server provided and paid our bill, we squeezed out of our seats and left Charm with a huge bag and a happy sense of having eaten well if not exactly lightly, to the farewell waves of the maneki-neko kitties. Supposedly, their left-handed gesture brings in customers; and having eaten at Charm once, we guarantee we’ll be back again no matter what becomes of those New Year’s resolutions.
711 Fair Oaks Ave. #K,
No alcohol/Major cards