Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >
Apr 9, 2011 05:55 PM

Vietnamese-style Vegetarian Food at East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church

This morning I had a chance to follow up on a Vietnamese friend’s tip that the East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church offers vegetarian food on the weekends. Located directly behind Mi Pueblo (and the other stores in the Ikea complex), the temple is set back from the street and I’d never noticed it before.

There were only a few cars in the parking lot this morning and I started to think that this might not be one of the food days. But I followed my nose and the aromas of cooking to a door on the left side of the church. Inside I found church volunteers busy preparing food. One table had a pair of people trimming and washing fresh banana leaves for wrapping. At the next station, a circle of ladies were filling the leaves with mochi dough filled with a stir-fried mix of seasoned veggies. These were headed for the steamer.

I was greeted in Vietnamese, and when I apologized that I did not speak the language, the helpful man then addressed me in fluent Mandarin. When that didn’t work, he pointed me to a couple of ladies who could assist me in English. I learned that the church has a lunch for the community nearly every Sunday. There’s no charge for the lunch but donations are encouraged. Additional food to take home is also available for sale. She also offered me the food that was already prepared, as they’d been busy cooking for special orders and customers that were picking up food on Saturday.

The lady was pulling the wrapping strings off steamed stuffed tofu skins. These are about the size of a chicken thigh, and I think meant to mimic that. A stick of lemongrass is the leg “bone”, and the tofu sheet encasing the mix of bean curd and savory bits approximates chicken skin.

This is also available deep-fried, the steamed packet dropped into the fryer until golden. This was so delicious when doused with a garlicky, chili-spiked soy sauce.

The contrast between the two was akin to the difference between boiled and fried chicken. These were $1 each.

I also bought deep-fried tofu topped with a very tasty lemongrass-chili-garlic paste, $2.

While my order was being fried, a communal bowl of fried rice was pushed toward me along with a paper bowl and spoon to help myself. Flecked with a preserved dried vegetable, carrots, and peas, I enjoyed this too.

They invited me to return tomorrow (Sunday) for a more elaborate spread. They said that they’ll have a tofu soup, various salads, noodles, and more. I am planning to go back tomorrow, so let me know if you’d like to join me around 11:30am. My email address is in my profile.

1700 East Bayshore Rd, Palo Alto, CA

Mi Pueblo
1731 E Bayshore Rd, East Palo Alto, CA 94303

Giac Minh Pagoda
763 Donohoe St, East Palo Alto, CA

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I was jazzed reading this post. Unfortunately the timing was in conflict; I was on my way south to a Malaysian cooking class at noon in Sunnyvale. Nevertheless, a detour for these tasty dishes at 11am was a siren's call; and with the kindness of the church ladies - I was back on Hwy 101 at 11:17 am; after a quick breakfast of rice and fried tofu with a spicy soy sauce. Thanks for the hot tip.
    Now that I'm home, it's time to taste.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cynsa

      Just missed you! I pulled into the parking lot at 11:20am. The temple has easy on/off freeway access for a quick visit. I got the prices wrong. The lemongrass tofu is $1 and the stuffed tofu skin that looks like a chicken thigh is $1.25.

      Here's the chowdown report.

    2. What a wonderful write-up, Melanie.

      "I was greeted in Vietnamese, and when I apologized that I did not speak the language, the helpful man then addressed me in fluent Mandarin. When that didn’t work, he pointed me to a couple of ladies who could assist me in English." - reminded me of an experience I had in Paris: the owner of this Vietnamese noodles shop spoke in Vietnamese to me, I shook my head; then he proceeded using French & I shook my head again. I pointed to myself & said, "From Singapore". He smiled and spoke Chiuchow to me. We ended up having a 20-minute conversation in Chiuchow :-D

      1. a find and a post like this requires a "CLASSIC" designation.

        1. A month ago I had the chance to return to Chua Giac Minh in East Palo Alto with some girlfriends for meditation/chanting and the communal lunch. The parking lot and side streets were full of cars and many folks were mingling outside the Buddhist temple when I arrived. Under the shade canopy, the outdoor tables were mostly marked as “reserved”. Concerned that we might be shut out, I asked the kitchen workers. They explained that the large party was a family group who had reserved for a memorial meal. They also assured me that the soup lunch would still be served once the Sunday service ended.

          The steamy bowl of vegetarian bun rieu was still as delicious as I remembered, sweet with ripe tomatoes and swimming with tofu over the rice noodles. We supplemented our soup lunch with the following purchases from the volunteers.

          The fried rice was particularly good, fragrant with the scent of a hot wok. The non-greasy separate grains of rice were flecked with cubes of kabocha squash, carrots, bamboo shoots, scallions, and dried seaweed.

          New to me this time was a shredded bamboo shoot salad coated with a powdery seasoning powder and blended with carrot and scallion julienne. Very chewy, and the texture/flavors did not strike a chord with me.

          Also new but much more delicious to my taste, a slab of smoky protein in an aspic-like jelly garnished with a pickled bird chile. I was told this was mock smoked tuna, and I have to say this managed to reproduce the briny and smoky elements of a smoked albacore steak right down to the black “skin”.

          We also revisited old favorites, and the deep-fried item covered with shredded lemongrass that looks like fried mackerel steaks is still wonderful. Likewise the sesame balls filled with bean paste and the agar-agar salad full of rau ram and other fresh herbs and raw veggies. This time I did not delay in buying the tofu roll embedded with dill weed that eluded me before. It was as good as the church ladies say, a vegan charcuterie if you will with a firmish texture, moderate salting and aromatic with dill. Also, wrapped tightly in the original wrapper, it kept well in the home fridge for five days before I ate it.

          We admired the lovely lunch laid out at the private party banquet tables, and learned that the cost is on the order of $15-20 per person. I did snag a sample of the fresh spring roll and recommend it.

          This swirly dessert on the banquet table had a hypnotic effect, but alas, none were offered to us. We’ll have to return to reserve our own.

          Later one of the kind volunteers offered us a plate of freshly fried vegetable fritters. Pakora-like and delicious with some smuggled sambal chile.

          On our way out we stopped to pay our respects to Buddha, light some incense, and leave a cash donation for the temple.

          Chowdown Report: Sunday Lunch at Chua Giac Minh Pagoda (East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church), April 2011

          2 Replies
          1. re: Melanie Wong

            I am burning with an intense fire of jealousy.

            I may just self-immolate.

            1. re: hill food

              Thar she blows!

              One thing about the food here is that the things I like best seem to be deep-fried. I rationalize eating them in quantity because this is a meatless meal, but something worth considering. Oh, I also got the yogurt this time and it is quite rich with a pronounced tanginess balanced with a dose of sugar.