Lotus, Orange County's largest Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, isn't run by a famous restaurateur or chef. Instead, you'll find a group of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns in the kitchen. The restaurant, located in the Mall of Fortune shopping center in Garden Grove's Little Saigon, opened Jan. 28. It occupies the former space of Brodard Restaurant, famous for serving 10,000 grilled pork spring rolls daily to packed crowds. And Lotus was created by Brodard's owner, Diane Dang, 72, who donated the restaurant and its fixtures to the Vietnamese United Buddhist Foundation when Brodard moved to a larger location last December.
"This is an extraordinary project because we have never worked in a restaurant before," said Thich Dieu Tanh, a practicing nun for more than 40 years, who manages the restaurant.
Sitting in the in the 7,500-square-foot restaurant, outfitted with high ceilings and soft gray walls, Tanh describes meeting Dang 10 years ago, when she stopped by Brodard to ask for a donation for the Buddhist Foundation. Dang is the matriarch of the Brodard restaurant group, which includes Brodard Restaurant in Fountain Valley, Brodard Chateau in Garden Grove and Bamboo Bistro in Corona Del Mar. Dang believes in giving back and views the culinary collaboration as a way of helping the Buddhist Foundation raise funds for its charitable works.
"After I leave the earth, my legacy is to pass on a meaningful way to help the Buddhist community continue their charitable activities," said Dang. Her goal is to teach the Buddhist Foundation how to run a successful restaurant in a highly competitive industry.
Dang's family donated the fully equipped restaurant, funds operations — and absorbs losses. Profits earned from Lotus go to the Buddhist Foundation.
In a show of gratitude, the foundation has been sending disciples from local monasteries to staff the restaurant, so it's not surprising to see Buddhist monks and nuns in traditional brown robes dining at Lotus. They also help in the kitchen. On a recent afternoon, the monks and nuns rolled hundreds of vegetable egg rolls. They spoke in Vietnamese and traded playful banter as they worked.
"Our philosophy for Lotus is to serve quality, flavorful vegetarian dishes that are healthy and affordable," said Dang, whose own story of perseverance and success is well-known in Orange County's Little Saigon.
Dang's family owned Hoa Binh Boulangerie in the coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam. Dang and her husband immigrated to the U.S. with their three children in 1989. They worked hard and saved money to open a 600-square foot restaurant. A few days before they planned to open a new, larger restaurant, Dang's husband suffered a heart attack and was paralyzed. Faced with soaring debts, medical bills, three children to care for and looming bankruptcy, Dang used her family's recipes and dishes from her childhood to create a successful restaurant group in Orange County. She credits her Buddhist beliefs with guiding her through the rough period.
Dang's daughter, Chau Haller, owner of the Bamboo Bistro restaurant in Corona Del Mar, works with Buddhist monk chef Thich Thien Niem to create the Lotus restaurant menu. The offerings are not Buddhist temple food but rather vegetarian versions of top-selling Brodard restaurant dishes.
"I take our traditional dishes, use fresh vegetables and plant-based substitutes to achieve the same tasty, vibrant flavor," said Haller, who is a licensed dietitian. Half of the menu features vegan dishes, more than a dozen are gluten-free, and MSG is banned. For the popular Shaken Beef dish, Haller uses cubes of portobello mushrooms sautéed with onions, leeks and bell peppers. The sauce is a vegetarian-based oyster sauce blend with black bean, soy and garlic.
Lotus offers more than 50 entrees, starting with an assortment of spring rolls and salads, pho soups, curry, wok entrees, hot pots and flavorful rice dishes — among them, a vegan quinoa clay pot, Thai basil rice and pineapple rice served in a pineapple shell. Haller also borrows from Bamboo Bistro's favorite salads such as kale with pine nuts and ones made with jackfruit salad, papaya and mango.
Lotus' rolls are filled with tofu, asparagus, cucumber, avocado and fresh basil and topped with a soy vinaigrette. A popular signature dish from Dang's own recipe is the caramelized sole (ca kho to) made with a seaweed soy protein instead of fish, simmered in a vegetarian oyster sauce with shallots, garnished with shredded scallions and served in a clay pot.
"You don't have to be vegetarian to enjoy vegetarian food; it's for everyone who wants to eat healthy and live healthy," said Dang. "It creates inner peace."
9892 Westminster Avenue # R, Garden Grove, (714) 643-9271, www.lotusvegetarian.net.