Bo De Tinh Tam Chay is so serene it can transport you to a meditative state. The sound of trickling water flows through the dining room, a peaceful backing-track that blocks out the occasional clangs and whirs that erupt from the kitchen. A forest of fake bamboo surrounds the dining area, and Buddhist statues are placed throughout the room
The Westminster restaurant is not reserved about its Buddhism (the restaurant's name derived from the sacred Bodhi tree, and Buddhist brochures and texts are strategically stationed near the doors), and with that comes a boundless menu of vegetarian Vietnamese cooking.
Although Bo De's Beach Boulevard branch is a mere 3 months old, the restaurant's roots are far deeper, having outgrown a long-standing location near the Asian Garden mall on Bolsa Avenue. There, the restaurant operates in a comparatively cramped space that, by virtue of both size and reputation, is constantly crowded.
That original location remains, but the second Bo De is even better -- the expansive Beach Boulevard restaurant brings all of Bo De's 100-plus meatless meals into a significantly more upscale and impressive setting.
The all-vegetarian menu starts strong with banh xeo. The dosa-sized rice flour crepe is typically stuffed with fatty flecks of pork or shrimp in addition to a heaping helping of bean sprouts. Here, however, tofu and vegetarian ham are used.
But unless you're analyzing each bite with scientific precision, that substitution will likely go unnoticed. Plus, unlike other iterations, Bo De's banh xeo doesn't succumb to sogginess -- the greaseless exterior is nearly as crisp as a tortilla chip. A bountiful basket of mustard greens, lettuce, mint and both lemon and purple basil accompanies the dish, leafy greens used to wrap and transport each bite of banh xeo for a dip in the fish-less nuoc cham sauce.
Bo De's spring rolls surpass most of their meat-filled competition, but there's also the banh mi cari, a hearty vegetable curry with fried tofu and taro root that you sop up with fresh French bread. It's a thick, sweet curry balanced by an accompanying wedge of lime and a spoonful of chile powder. But even with a squeeze of acidity and a sprinkling of heat, it remains a rich dish -- the curry could easily be a cold-weather classic.
Bun nem nuong is one of Bo De's best vegetarian reinterpretations. The non-nem nuong is particularly good, a veggie version of the ubiquitous and versatile pork patty that Bo De's crafty chefs are able to grill to a gratifying char. The restaurant serves its bun nem nuong as deconstructed components, separating the nem nuong from the vermicelli, the bouquet of herbs and the nuoc cham, which can be superheated by an additional serving of chile paste.
There are other variations, too, including bun bi cha gio, which trades the nem nuong for strips of meaty tofu and crunchy imperial rolls.
Noodle soups like bun rieu are common orders, but perhaps more interesting is the bun hue. The restaurant removes not just the beef (or bo) from the Central Vietnamese noodle soup, but also the usual duo of pork feet and congealed blood. Although the bun hue admittedly can't match its meat-based forbear, it's still a surprisingly well-rounded rendition nonetheless.
Canh kho qua, a soup of bitter melon packed with fake pork as if it were some kind of Southeast Asian stuffed cabbage, is complex, though perhaps best suited to those who have already acquired the taste. Goi ngo sen, a lotus root salad studded with tofu in place of shrimp, is a more accessible exotic.
Mi can xa ot, meanwhile, might be Bo De's most universally appealing dish. The tart vegetarian citrus-lemon grass spareribs are wholly satisfying -- the wheat meat may not be bone-in, but it's a fine alternative. Similarly, thanh tam xot gung succeeds with sautéed veggie chicken lit up by shreds of ginger.
Among the scores of vegetarian options at Bo De Tinh Tam Chay (there are also more than 30 beverages, including soursop shakes and salted lemon sodas), there's plenty of reinvention. In doing so, the restaurant avoids the amateur meat mockery found elsewhere -- these aren't gimmicky dishes; they're full-flavored plates devoid only of meat.