Strangely, Green Earth owner/chef Loan Banh’s eco commitment doesn’t extend to the packaging for her vegan fare.
GREEN EARTH (385 Broadview, at Gerrard, 416-778-9199) Complete dinners for $16 per person, including all taxes, tip and an iced tea. Average main $8. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 9 pm, Sunday and holidays 2 to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, short ramp at door. Rating: NNN
Vegans have many reasons for not eating meat or dairy.
Some give up noshing on other living creatures and their by-products on ethical grounds: killing is bad for the karma. Others think the amount of feed required to produce a triple-A sirloin steak is bad for the planet's ecology.
Some boomers go macrobiotic to fuel their waning bodies. Then there are the cheapskates who balk at paying $30 for a porterhouse.
And there's always first-year university, of course.
Transplanted Los Angelinos Loan Banh and husband Le Van Le are of the first group. The couple, followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, quietly opened their herbivorous hacienda Green Earth last July. They've painted the guru's credo on the resto's front door: "Go veg, be green, save the planet."
For those unfamiliar with Hai, that's her broadcasting 24 hours a day on the plasma TV with the sound turned off over the cash register.
Because Green Earth's located directly across from the Don Jail, you wouldn't expect it to get a lot of walk-by traffic except for the occasional escaped convict. But this early weekday lunch, the veggie joint is surprisingly packed with curious locals and health workers from the nearby hospital.
Banh is a self-taught chef, and her recipes are mostly variations on traditional Buddhist vegan dishes, with a few Italian-, Japanese- and Mexican-derived inventions thrown in for good measure. In other words, it's gluten and soy ahoy!
You'll find the latter disguised as ham in a six-pack of loosely seaweed-wrapped maki (Paradise Sushi, $4.25), alongside lightly vinegar'd rice, crunchy carrot stick, English cuke and smooth avocado. That same pseudo-pork pops up in Summer Rolls ($3.50), bolstered with tofu and jicama in raw rice paper for dipping in Thai-style peanut sauce.
Salads (all $6.25) are big enough to share, the Temple Green Garden with crisp raw broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and zucchini being especially tasty when doused in creamy dill dressing and garnished with translucent rings of Spanish onion. In contrast, diced avocado mixed with tomato and more fake ham in an Italian-ish vinaigrette wouldn't be out of place on an Olive Garden salad bar.
Soups are huge as well. Royal Noodle Soup ($6.50 regular/$7.95 large) turns out to be terrific Hue-style pho in pungent lemongrass-scented tomato broth thick with convincing veggie beef, shiitake mushroom and sprouts, though I'm sure Earth Warming Soup ($5.95/$6.95) - a creamy dairy-free potato potage swimming with so-called ham and garden peas - is meant to promote world peace and not global warming.
The entrees also have unusual handles. Harmonic Veggie Delight ($7.95, and, like most mains sided with brown rice) finds stir-fried nuggets of deep-fried "chicken" alongside pineapple, mushrooms and red bell peppers in a sweet peanut-strewn sauce. Big chunks of purple Japanese eggplant and cubed tofu in tangy hoisin have us singing the praises of Green Earth's Eggplant Medley ($7.50).
We agree that Star Delight ($8.95) is delightful, a massive slab of glutinous chicken breast stuffed with spinach and sauced with a faux alfredo. A broiled trio of farm-fresh tomatoes comes stuffed with whipped tofu a quiche-like filling, while wok-fried and appropriately charred Cantonese green beans (both $7.50) are great the next day as leftovers served cold alongside a nice juicy steak. And we'd love Green Earth's truly transcendent spaghetti ($8.75) and marvellously nutty meatballs ($1.50) in chunky marinara sauce even better if they were served over whole wheat noodles instead of cheap supermarket pasta.
Like most of us, Green Earth's five-page menu could use a little editing. Veggie burgers ($6.25 with side salad) come in six variations, including the garden burger, a house-made soybean-protein 'n' chickpea patty, and the Buddha burger, a grilled soy steak. Sandwiched à la Big Mac in regulation sesame seed buns spread with vegan mayo and dressed with lettuce, tomato and pickles, they're all undermined by compulsory ketchup and mustard.
Consulting my notes for the Supreme Burrito, a white refined-flour tortilla wrapped around mild tomato salsa, avocado, vegan sour cream and rice in what tastes like El Paso taco seasoning ($5.95), I find the words "pretty good considering it's not loaded with fat." But unless you're mad for licorice, there's nothing particularly virtuous about Good Wife Tofu ($7.95), an unfortunate collision of soft bean curd, sickly sweet tomato sauce and overwhelmingly pungent purple perilla.
Barring Thai banana rolls - deep-fried banana in rice paper, big whoop - and an incongruous banana split (both $3.50) with non-vegan ice cream (75 cents), Banh's in-house desserts aren't bad either. Dense squares of carrot cake come correctly iced, retro slices of chocolate cake arrive layered with vegan frosting, and a credible tofu cheesecake shows up topped with a maraschino cherry that's probably full of all sorts of dreadful preservatives and food colouring (all $3.95). Life's short.
Green Earth also gets points for using eco-conscious packaging, although we could live without the mountain of disposable chopsticks and cutlery included with every takeout order. Go veg, be green, save the planet, no plastic forks!