Address: 16563 Brookhurst St Fountain Valley, 92708
Cuisine: Raw Food/Vegan
Price: $18 a person with tax
Hours: Tue-Sun 11:30 am – 3:30 pm, 5:30-9:30pm
Au Lac is a place of inconsistencies.
The exterior, which appears traditionally Asian, contrasts the interior, as the main room is tinged with Western influence. Yet in a connected room, orchids line tables and an Asian painting of horses hangs on the wall. Everywhere you look, you might see a slur of different influences, elements not quite blended enough to be considered fused.
Nowhere are the inconsistencies more present than in the food. The menu features different categories of dishes –– though all of the food at Au Lac is vegan, the menu is also partially raw vegan as well. So while Au Lac is a Vietnamese restaurant, it is also a vegan Vietnamese restaurant and a raw vegan restaurant. The catch? The inconsistency. Basically none of the raw vegan food has any Vietnamese or Asian influence to it.
Under one heading, the menu offers spring rolls and chicken sate, pineapple fried rice entrées next to vermicelli sautés. These Vietnamese dishes are all vegan, and though not raw, they offer a more Asian side of the proverbial Au Lac plate. The BBQ (soy) pork spring rolls were fresh, cleanly plated and paired with a standard peanut sauce. Paired with the chili sauce (Pro tip: if the waiter or waitress ever offers you chili sauce, take it. Don’t be that guy), the blending flavors of traditional Vietnamese ingredients and preparation with soy meats is a refreshing break from the monotony of veggie burgers and kale salads of other restaurants with vegan options.
What stuns me about the Vietnamese side of Au Lac is how delicately they incorporate the vegan ingredients into the cooking. The BBQ “pork” was great, although to err on the side of tradition would necessitate a thinner matchstick cut of the BBQ pork and the inclusion of some vermicelli. Vegan cuisine always comes down to a compromise: What is going to be taken out of a dish to make it vegan? And what is going back in? This trade-off is the key to vegan cuisine, and it can make or break a dish. It’s pleasing to note that Au Lac handles this trade-off well with their vegan Vietnamese.
Their raw vegan dishes, on the other hand, present a different story. Categorically un-Vietnamese in style, the dishes labeled with the “(R)” for raw are a completely different game from the strictly vegan side of the menu. Lined with choices like BBQ “chicken” pizza, soft tacos and angel hair marinara, the raw vegan dishes are so unlike the Vietnamese ones that it almost seems like they’re prepared in a different kitchen.
That’s because they are. The words “separate kitchen” mean a lot in vegan circles, so it’s no surprise that a place as highly venerated in the vegan community as Au Lac would chance any sort of cross-contamination.
And though honorable in their scattershot approach to satisfying the cravings of raw vegans, this other side of the kitchen falls apart. The paella presents the challenge of not only forgoing seafood and meat of tradition, but also of not being able to cook the rice either. (Hint: soaked organic cultured wild rice.) The resulting dish, a haphazard lump of rice, soy meat, tomato and avocado, forgets what paella is even supposed to resemble.
The taste presents itself in the well-spiced dish, but texturally and temperature-wise, the dish fails to live up to the Au Lac hype. Though the waitress did forewarn that all of the raw vegan food comes out lukewarm or cold because (duh) it can’t be cooked past 118 degrees, the rice was still so undercooked that the Asian in me –– satisfied thoroughly by the BBQ pork rolls –– was appalled and practically taken aback by the presentation of the entree.
It wasn’t even that food’s temperature bothered me, but that the dish was inconsistently warmed. While the rice was pleasantly warm, the soy meat in the paella was cold, creating a dish that unfortunately did its best impression of day-old refrigerated leftovers.
Presenting rice as a raw vegan food is a challenge to the average pallet, sure, and I’m certainly open to being proved wrong by their zucchini noodles featured on other raw dishes. But the challenge of rice fails here.
Thus is the tragic fate of Au Lac: overburdened by the massive task of wanting to make both vegan Vietnamese and raw vegan food, the restaurant bogs itself down conceptually and ends up coming out just shy of true success.
Sadly, their efforts to combine Vietnamese fusion and raw vegan foods only make it seem like the restaurant tries to do too much, occupying two unfortunately incompatible, unmeshed ideas of vegan cuisine.