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Apr 10, 2011 10:40 PM

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

Yesterday I checked out the Chua Giac Minh Pagoda’s kitchen, “Vietnamese-style Vegetarian Food at East Palo Alto Vietnamese Buddhist Church”
and enjoyed it so much I invited others to join me for a return today. Peter joined me on this scouting trip. We also had a friendly informant, Y, to show us the ropes.

Arriving at 11:30am, the service was still in progress with mesmerizing tonal chanting and drumbeats reverberating from the sanctuary. We headed upstairs, removed our shoes, and took our place on the temple floor with the devout. Some time after noon hour the pace of the chanting seemed to speed up, and one almost wonders if the worshippers were getting hungry and racing to finish.

The outdoor patio was set up with ample tables and chairs for lunch after the service.

Three shrines shared the patio and images of Buddha gazed down upon us. This shows one of the shrines and the collection box for donations.

Y said that the soup changes every week. This Sunday we had tofu bun rieu. Bowls, chopsticks, and spoons were set out. Here’s the pile of rice noodles on the buffet table for assemble-yourself bun rieu.

First we layered some noodles in our individual bowls. Then over to the covered soup cooking station where a Buddhist nun ladled out the scalding hot mix of unpressed bean curd, tomatoes, and dried mushrooms in a delicate broth.

Then back to the buffet table to pile on some shredded veggies: red and green cabbage, and various mints.

Here’s my bowl of bun rieu. I loved the tender texture of the almost fluffy bean curd.

Y also offered us a taste of another soup rife with mushrooms, pressed tofu, mock ham, and bamboo pith.

After this first course, we dropped off our bowls at the dish-washing station and then headed inside to see what other items might be available for purchase.

The most limited item, according to Y, would be the sesame balls, so we snapped those up first. Filled with sweetened mung bean paste, 2/$1, these had a nice crunch even if the shell was a bit thick.

We also shared a very crisp eggroll, handed to us as a sample by the lovely church lady. Liked the thin, crackly wrapper and flavorful filling of mushroom, bean threads, and carrots.

Then, a couple of the small sticky rice flour (mochi) dumplings I’d observed being prepped on Saturday. Wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf, these were 50¢ each.

Peter shows the savory sauteed veggie filling inside the mochi dumpling.

We also had two of the same kind of fried items I tried yesterday. The lemongrass tofu, $1, served warm and freshly fried, was still singularly impressive for the depth of flavor achieved in the meatless topping. Y thought I might be picking up the elusive flavor of the leeks. While this Buddhist sect eschews garlic and onions, apparently leeks are allowed. The fried version of the “chicken thigh”, $1.25, dabbed with some smuggled-in sambal (chili sauce with garlic) hit the spot again.

One of my favorites was a marinated salad of colorful shredded vegetables, prepped a day ahead and cured overnight. Rau ram, carrots, sweet red peppers, bell pepper, jalapeño, green beans, agar-agar threads, mint, celery, bamboo, crushed peanuts in a sweet-sour lemon dressing, $5/pint. Y said that this makes a very good banh mi filling. A bamboo shoot salad was also available.

We passed on the mock fried shrimp. Our favorite church lady said they were too hard. We missed out on the yogurt that Y said was very good.

Here’s the mock meat roll made with tofu and dill. Didn't taste one, it’s also available without dill.
Behind it, soft tofu containers sold with honey syrup for $1. I took one with me and can report that the tofu was silky smooth but more firm than typical. The ginger-honey sauce was very concentrated with strong ginger flavor from thick shreds of ginger root infused in the syrup.

For me, the most remarkable bite of the day was the mock fried fish. Doesn't this look like a fish cutlet with dark skin?

And the cross section shape mimics real fish even more so. Brown and crispy outside, the ivory-colored interior had the bite and slightly fibrous texture of fish, not tofu. Amazing.

We spent $13 each for lunch including extra items to take home. Y said that we could call the temple to place advance orders if we wanted larger quantities of any of these items. It’s also possible to reserve banquet tables for a special memorial meal with more variety priced at about $100 for ten people.

More photos: click on “slideshow”

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

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  1. great slideshow, Melanie - I appreciate the item descriptions and pix of today's tastes - the freshness and the seasonings delighted.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cynsa

      Again, sorry that you missed eating with us, but I'm more than impressed that you found a way to stop by early and check it out for yourself. Not a huge variety but certainly more than enough to offer diversity of taste and texture, and i didn't have a chance to try everything. I'd like to go back on one of the special holidays.

      The freshness in the taste is quite notable. Our items were fried to order. The prep is done the day before or same day and no preservatives are used.

    2. Great post and pics, Melanie!

      I was there with her, and the recall and aptness of her writing amazes me! It was also my first time chowing with her, hopefully the first of many.

      What can I add?

      At 11:30 am, we arrived in the middle of the service (upstairs). If you want to come just for noodles (ground floor), it would be better to arrive after 12:15 pm or so. It is apparently fine to just come to eat, but good to give a donation. Surprisingly, not all of the people there for service seemed to stay for noodles. The service consists entirely of communal chanting led by Buddhist nuns, punctuated by small gongs. Entrancing, but would be difficult for novices to last through its entirety.

      Eating the noodles, my strongest feeling was the sincerity and simplicity of the offering. In the back, the volunteer ladled soup onto our noodles from a giant vat, with big irregular chunks of tofu floating in a red tomato-based broth.

      The food items they had for sale were the most revelatory for me. Melanie has already described all of these, but here's my two cents.
      -- The fried tofu topped with deep-fried bits of lemongrass and chili was amazingly deep in flavor. It reminded me of cha-ca fish, a Hanoi dish with turmeric and dill, so I wonder if there was some of those seasonings as well. In addition to the portion ate there, I took some home and had it again later, with rice. Yum!
      -- The mock fried fish was really a masterpiece. Seaweed is used for part of the exterior skin. The texture was indeed reminiscent of fish, there were even little "bones" (probably vermicelli noodles). The taste was not highly fishy, but interesting in its own right. And of course, they can't use that Vietnamese staple, fish sauce (nam pla) since it wouldn't be vegetarian!
      -- I also have a couple of the faux chicken thighs at home, looking forward frying them up tonight. I wonder at how they achieve different textures, this was quite distinct from the faux fish.
      -- The mochi dumplings, like miniature Chinese joong but with mochi in place of glutinous rice, were nice and light. A good contrast to some of the stronger, fried foods.
      -- The shredded vegetable salad was also refreshing, the agar threads were a novel ingredient for me. The dressing was done with a deft touch, not overpoweringly sour.

      I look forward to going again!

      3 Replies
      1. re: PeterWang

        Thank you for joining us! Isn't it nice to come out of the shadows of lurkdom? Wonderful posting, you've added a lot. It does sound like nearly everything was fried . . . not really, just our favorites. :) Maybe knowing that we were feasting on meatless food, I wasn't as cautious about selecting fried items. In any case, cooked to order made them that much better.

        The generous spirit of the volunteers efforts the sense of shared community in giving/receiving food should be highlighted as the most lasting impression. Thank you for conveying that feeling.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          I also felt the grace of kindness; I left the church with a gentle lightness of spirit. It lingers yet.

          1. re: Cynsa

            I arrived at about 11:30 and also found the service in progress. I was told to return for lunch at about 12:30, which I did. The woman serving the food was very sweet, but not seeing any Chowhound people around, I ordered food to go. As I cannot eat tofu or soybeans for medical reasons, there was not much to eat - other than the tasty sesame balls and the lively salad. But it is an interesting experience with nice people, and if one has a taste for tofu, it is recommended.