Saturday, November 03, 2007

Wheel of Life - Irvine


"Vegan power!" he shouted, his fist pumping the air. "Vegan power!" he heard in return. Were we at a PETA rally? Some kind of protest march? No, it was a run-of-the-mill Saturday night in Irvine and we were having dinner.

And the enthusiastic activist was not a tie-dyed, dreadlocked rebel rouser. He's a conservatively-dressed, middle-aged Asian man -- the owner of the restaurant called Wheel of Life.

His battle cry wasn't so much a call to arms as it was a greeting -- a greeting he bestowed with a genuine smile and a slap on the back to the guests in his establishment. His customers came from all walks of life; young and old, hippie and straight-laced. And if you counted me and my friends (one of whom was wearing an In-N-Out T-shirt), not everyone in there that night was a vegetarian.

Other than a few stray bumper stickers which said "Love Animals, Don't Eat Them" and that proud proprietor, you wouldn't be able to tell Wheel of Life apart from any other Asian food mom-and-pop. Wide mirrors gave the illusion the room was bigger than it was. Green Christmas lights twinkled festively. The sounds heard are of noodles being slurped and rust-colored Thai iced tea being sucked from a straw.

The menu ran the usual gamut of pad thai and tom kha kai, and tasted just like any other pad thai or tom kha kai. The former had a dark, tamarind earthiness that gave each rice noodle strand a tangy depth of flavor and a dirty red tinge.

The latter sipped like a creamy coconut soup, but also refreshingly light and tart. It was enlivened by lime and made slightly hazardous by roaming pods of dried Thai chili. And there was cabbage in the brew, julienned so that it ate like noodles. The only difference between these dishes and those served elsewhere is that instead of chicken and tofu, it's fake-chicken (which I will abbreviate as ficken) and tofu.

The ficken didn't taste much like chicken (ironically, it may be the only thing in the world that doesn't), but regardless, it was yummy. The texture was somewhere between a mushroom and tofu skin, spongy with a distinctly firm chew designed to fool your palate into thinking, "Hey! I'm eating meat!"

The charade went the same way with the nam sod, utilizing itty-bitty granules of mock-pork (which I will abbreviate as mork). But that wasn't my problem with it. There wasn't enough of the puckering power of lime to perk up the dish.

Appetizers we tried didn't pretend to be made of meat. The egg rolls were deep fried and filled with cabbage. Even after good dunk in its sweet and sour sauce, the raucous crunch of the crispy skin relented and reverbed in our skulls.

The tofu, though, was slightly disappointing, and left us puzzled. Of all things that should impress in a vegan restaurant, it ought to be tofu. Instead, these were limp beings in need of character. It made me miss the tofu other restaurants served -- the kind with a papery-crisp crust and an interior of custardy curd.

Redemption came in the form of more egg rolls. This time, it was dessert, stuffed with pieces of banana that oozed out of the shattering shell like scalding pudding. Contrasting the temperature and texture was a scoop of coconut ice cream, an icy and rich treat that chilled our tongues just as the egg rolls burned it.

We left full, satisfied, without consuming even a molecule of meat. Therein lies the true "vegan power" of mork and ficken*!

* NOT ACTUAL TERMS. Use them at the risk of your own embarrassment.

Wheel of Life
(949) 551-8222
14370 Culver Dr # 2
Irvine, CA 92604

19 Comments:

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Patricia said...

Hi Elmomonster! Thanks for reviewing Wheel of Life. I was there three weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised! I'm an Omnivore ;), but have many friends who are Vegetarian. We've been hitting up many Thai Veggie joints so it's always great to read reviews of such joints from bona fide Foodies such as yourself!

Next time you're at Wheel of Life, try the "Micken" Satay ... it's very good, compared to the satay at other Thai Veggie joints.

And if you happen to be seeking Thai Veggie joints in the West Hollywood area, be sure to check out Vegan Glory (off Beverly and La Cienega) or Bulan Thai (off Melrose and La Brea).

Vegan Glory
Bulan Thai

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger Deb said...

I was a vegetarian for 11 years...my kids can tell the horror stories of their near meatless childhoods prior to the return of my ordering 'medium rare'. I've been to Wheel of Life several times, and although tasty and 'destinctive' vegetarian food can be hard to come by, I just LOVE the owner here. He greets everyone like you're a long lost friend...I love that, because aren't we?!

 
At 11:09 AM, Blogger Kevin said...

This sounds so delicious, I've always wanted to try vegetarian Thai food. Thanks elmo. I'd also like to recommend this Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant (they also serve vegan and raw food but those are more expensive) they have delicious "chicken", "duck", and "beef" pho that is amazing. Also, their salad song is really good.

Au Lac
16563 Brookhurst St
Fountain Valley, Ca
(714) 418-0658

 
At 10:16 PM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

Why does this make me think of The Lion King?

 
At 10:28 PM, Blogger googiemel said...

I second Kevin's comment-- Au Lac is amazing. For the veggiesaur that still craves cold weather dishes like pho, they have great egetarian/vegan alternatives to the meat-filled versions.

And I've wanted to try Wheel of Life for a while, except for one thing-- they've been closed several times in the past couple years for cockroach infestations. Ewww.

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Marvin said...

Wheel of Life sounds great Elmo. But what are ficken and mork made of, if not tofu?

I've always been leery of fake meat, but your descriptions make them sound delicious.

 
At 5:06 PM, Blogger Vegasbuff said...

I doubt that the words "Vegas Power!" will ever pass through my lips.

Glad you enjoyed your fill of Mork (Where's Mindy?) and Ficken though

 
At 8:32 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Patricia,

I will try the "micken" satay. I should've tried it when I was there. It would be interesting to see how they do the peanut sauce. Because it's all vegetarian anyway.

Thanks for the other recs. I'll keep them in mind the next time I'm in L.A.

Deb,

He does doesn't he? He's so nice and so energetic. I can tell everyone was loving how welcome he made them feel. Myself included.

Kevin,

Yep. Au Lac. Gotta try it. Been wanting to. I even know the menu pretty well (from their website). One of these days for sure!

ChristianZ,

No wise babboons or wisecracking meerkats...but plenty of hakuna matata...(I don't even know what the heck I'm writing anymore)... ;-)

Googiemel,

Cockroaches are definitely not vegetarian! So when are you gonna write up Au Lac for your blog?! *WINK*

Marvin,

Yup, soy protein makes up the bulk of the ficken and the mork...except, there must be something else too. Gluten maybe?!

Vegasbuff,

Nanu nanu! (I wonder if the young kids reading this got that reference)...

 
At 11:37 PM, Blogger Scotty Tran said...

Hey Elmo.
Wheel of Life sounds pretty nice with the exception of the owner trying to convert his customers to full vegan, heh. Anyway, I think I should try this place. I've been planning on going vegetarian for a while because I've been having to much meat the past week, and the Dim Sum on Sunday didn't help. I'm not even sure I ate my veggies on Sunday...

Anyways, props on the review!

 
At 2:33 PM, Blogger Chubbypanda said...

I love Wheel of Life. The food is only so-so, but the owner is so friendly and enthusiastic. It's one of my favorite places for a quick bite after work.

 
At 8:09 PM, Blogger Christine D. said...

My last visit was 5 years ago and I never came back. I didn't like the texture and taste of the mock meat. It was probably the type of dishes that we ordered because it was just pieces of mock meat shaped into whatever the real meat pieces looked like (even the little shrimps, lol) and some kind of sauce. No personality on their own, just imitation.

However, the food you ate there looked A LOT better than the dishes I had...so there's hope for a retry!

 
At 9:03 PM, Blogger nhbilly said...

I've been meaning to swing by this place for lunch but keep getting caught up my work :-(. If you like this place I'm sure you would enjoy this place too - http://www.aulac.com/map.html
I like there bbq pork spring roll appetizer and there bake fish which requires a little bit of work to assemble.

 
At 7:12 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Scotty,

We omnivores would be in trouble if he put as much enthusiasm in convincing us to be vegans as he does in his greeting. He's such a warm guy, I'd probably agree to become his dishwasher for a day if he asked for help.

Chubbypanda,

Yeah, by no means is it Thai Nakorn. But then what is? It's also nice to know I can get a fried banana so close to home.

Christine,

We didn't intentionally avoid the all mock meat dishes. But from the sounds of it, it was better to taste the mock meat as minor players.

You know, what you said reminds me of another mock meat product. Chicken nuggets! Sure it's got chicken meat, but I find it funny how every other one has a different shape, but there are only about three shapes the factory makes (to fool the consumer into thinking they are naturally occurring). Personally I love Wendy's nuggets in all their pre-processed meat-glued glory.

nhbilly,

Absolutely. Au Lac. I really have to get off my ass and try it.

 
At 2:36 PM, Blogger Christine D. said...

Spongy, preformed chicken nuggets are so tasty!

I usually go for the McNuggets that are shaped like a boot. Bite the little crispy nubbin first and consume the rest.

 
At 8:01 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christine,

I wish McD's never got rid of the dark meat chicken nuggets. They were sooo much better than the all-white-meat ones they exclusively sell now.

 
At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey elmo - if you do not want to have some weirded out germans on the site... Stop calling fake chicken what you did. Micken is more like it :)
It is a really bad word describing the "horizontal activities"...
Best Sonja

 
At 8:51 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Sonja,

HAHA! Actually, I knew before hand about ficken as a German word...but I decided it too delicious to resist attracting some German readers! And will they ever be disappointed at what they find here! ;-)

 
At 12:07 AM, Anonymous van said...

I tried this restaurant earlier this year - it's okay for vegan food, there "chicken" is not very close to the real thing and for some reason all the food got cold pretty quickly. the best thing was definitely the fried banana and coconut ice cream.

for better tasting vegan / vegetarian food, try Native Foods or 118 Degrees (both at The Camp in Costa Mesa)

 
At 9:29 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I haven't had the pleasure of eating at Wheel of Life, yet, though I've been meaning to for years now. I'm a recovering vegetarian, so I'm more likely at the Counter than vegan restaurants. That being said, Native Foods, the Veggie Grill, and, to second or third the other writers, Au Lac are all delish! Especially Au Lac.

 

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