CAFÉ 668 (668 Dundas West, at Dennison, 416-703-0668) Buddhist vegetarian food can be hard going for those not into faux meat. But this tiny Vietnamese spot rocks the mock with kick-ass spicing that includes unorthodox garlic and onion if requested. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and tea. Open Sunday to Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 10 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
who lives next door to beelze-bub? Why, 668, the neighbour of the beast. And that's where you'll find Café 668, the Vietnamese all-veggie eatery that's just opened right next to Buddha's Vegetarian, the restaurant with the satanic address of 666 Dundas West.Only confirmed carnivores will find anything hellish about this tiny, friendly 20-seater. Unlike Buddha's, whose authentic take on zen cuisine tends toward the ascetic, Café 668's super-healthy lineup gets added clout from strong, fragrant Southeast Asian spicing: lemon grass, chilies, basil.
First-time owners Hon Quach and Ngoc Lam are devotees, and don't eat garlic, ginger or onion, but they have no problem adding these on request to dishes ordered by the spiritually challenged.
The menu's still evolving, and some of the best things on it are recent additions. One of these is King Mushroom with Veggie-Beef ($10) -- slippery Portobello-like 'shrooms mixed with greens and fake steak strips in a tangy satay sauce nipped with Thai bird chilies.
Spicy Vermicelli Soup ($5.50) twists the definition of Vietnamese pho to include this tart tamarind broth laced with seaweed and a mess o' veg -- green and red peppers, carrot, deep-fried tofu, cloud ear mushroom and shredded raw celery over skinny rice vermicelli, all tossed with minty Thai basil sprigs and a few roasted peanuts.
Spicy Fried Tofu ($6.50) finds smooth-centred deep-fried tofu cubes in a spice-kicked gravy joined by multicoloured bell peppers, snow peas and carrot julienne. Dense with napa cabbage, cauliflower, tofu and surprisingly lifelike red-edged barbecued "pork," powerful Vegetarian Curry ($7) shifts the focus to the Subcontinent. Think of Sweet and Sour Veggie-Fish ($7.99) as Polynesian fish sticks. (Can't win 'em all.)
Spring rolls come in trios and three ways (all $2.99). Wrapped in rice paper, House Special Summer Rolls get stuffed with raw veggies -- carrot, sprouts, rubbery black cloud ear ribbons, cellophane noodles, licorice Thai basil -- and plunged into homemade sweet 'n' sour dip.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls are the deep-fried translation, while Fried Curry Spring Rolls add peas and white navy beans to the formula. Throw in some minced preserved vegetable pickle and get Pan-Fried Dumplings, 10 delicious pot-stickers.
Another great starter, Tempura Veggie Platter ($5.99) turns Japanese with rice-flour-battered broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, mushroom caps and sweet-potato sticks to dunk into slightly sour soy punched with ginger threads.
Back to the mains. Its name gives it away; in Chinese Mushroom, Veggie-BBQ Pork and Bean Sprout on Fried Noodle ($5.99), squiggly chow-mein noodles join an occasional carrot, bits of deep-fried tofu and barbecued "pork," contrasting the raw and the cooked. Another kitchen sink, House Special Lor-Hon Style ($7) turns out to be a tangle of incredibly fresh-tasting ingredients: canned baby corn, deep-fried tofu, halved baby bok choy, both button and Chinese mushroom caps, peeled tomato pulp. Wash everything down with cups of black Vietnamese coffee ($2.50) sweetened with condensed milk, or classically simple green tea ($1.25).
To stoke the fires further, bottles of sambal olek, Sriracha and hoisin sit on each table next to shakers of finely ground white pepper. All that's missing are wedges of lime to accentuate the freshness.
And the only mood-dampener is the bombastic Euro-disco cheese on the boom box.