Fast Food International: Loving Hut
Country of origin: Taiwan
Locations worldwide: Over 200 in 20 countries including Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mongolia, Norway, Paraguay and Turkey
NYC locations: One, in Chelsea
Perhaps you haven't given up on your New Year's resolution to eat healthier yet, and maybe you're in the mood for something vegan from an international chain restaurant that's affiliated with a nebulous peace-promoting organization that some might call a cult. If so, Loving Hut would be exactly what you're looking for.
The easy-to-miss restaurant near Penn Station is about as wide as a roomy hallway. Five small, white mod tables line one side and a tidy row of framed celebrity photos--Princess Diana, Leonardo DiCaprio and Dustin Hoffman, among others--dubbed "vegetarian and vegan elite" decorate the opposite wall. Minimalist, neutral-toned and youthful, the TV tuned to Supreme Master Television, a channel devoted to programming by Loving Hut's founder, Supreme Master Ching Hai, is the only obvious indication that this eatery with feel-good slogans painted on the wall is about more than just serving food.
And the meat-and-dairy-free fare, which is mostly American with a few Asian touches, is pretty good. Most of the dishes manage to avoid the blandness that can mar vegan cuisine. The crispy burger ($8) consists of a hefty patty formed from oats, carrots and beans that's creamy on the inside with a crunchy exterior as advertised. Served on a multigrain roll and garnished with lots of pickles, a little tomato and lettuce and a swipe of guacamole, this is a substantial sandwich.
The spinach quesadilla ($7.50) stuffs a huge tangle of sauteed greens and bell pepper into a sesame tortilla. Bound together with a modest amount of melted Daiya brand dairy-free cheese, the vegetables are well-seasoned and enriched by a thick, deep crimson pasilla chile sauce. You can also order quesadillas with soy beef or chicken or a combination of mushroom, corn and peas.
Happy dumplings ($5) are filled with a minced carrot, cabbage, mushroom and spinach mélange and accompanied by a light soy dipping sauce spiked with sliced green onions. The steamed potstickers are on the doughy side with the thick skins threatening to overwhelm the vegetables.
Pesto-coated cubes of tofu tossed with mixed greens, olives, walnuts, tomatoes, green peppers and the house ginger carrot dressing ($7.50) is very refreshing and exactly the kind of salad I often intend to cobble together at a pick-a-mix salad bar. (But somehow, I seem to end up with meat and cheese piled on my lettuce.)
Each Loving Hut location can tweak the menu as they like, so what you find in Chelsea will differ from a branch in Cincinnati (they have vegan bbq drumsticks) or the Czech Republic (with their puzzling "traditional Chinese risotto"). It's the "Be veg. Go green. Save the planet" mantra that's the unifying concept.
348 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001 (map)
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and librarian (who does not work with books). Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.