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
14370 Culver Dr # 2
Irvine, CA 92604