The small but passionate community of non-meat eaters in Wichita has good reason to be excited about Zen Vegetarian Cuisine, the Asian restaurant that opened at 3101 N. Rock Road in February.
The restaurant offers a large menu of meat-free and vegan dishes, and the owners have worked hard to invent meat-free recipes that will satisfy meat eaters as well.
It's run by the same team responsible for Chinatown, the buffet restaurant that formerly occupied the space.
ON THE MENU: The restaurant offers a variety of appetizers, soups, sandwiches, salads and lots of interpretations of traditionally meat-filled Asian favorites ranging from pad Thai to kung pao.
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One of the restaurant's most used ingredients is soy protein, a meat substitute that the restaurant molds into many different forms (with varying degrees of success).
DON'T-MISS DISHES: The best dishes at Zen are those that celebrate the vegetable-ness of a dish rather than trying to replace the missing meat with soy protein.
The product, which the Zen cooks use as a substitute for everything from chicken to beef to fish, has a hard-to-miss, slightly off flavor that is occasionally masked by sauces — but more often not.
Its most successful employment is in dishes where it replaces fried chicken, such as the Over the Mountain — a kung pao dish that features fried nuggets of soy protein coated in the tasty sauce.
In a few other dishes, the soy protein is distracting and seems unnecessary — such as in the Bimbibon, a Korean rice bowl that included some unappetizing soy protein strips imitating beef.
A better choice was the pad Thai, which didn't taste much like traditional pad Thai but included layers of interesting vegetables including snow peas and broccoli. (It did also include soy protein, but it was much less noticeable.)
Several of the appetizers were delicious, including a plate of sliced salt-and-pepper potatoes cooked with jalapeno slices, and delicious crab Rangoon, minus the crab.
We also enjoyed a serving of pineapple curry fried rice, stir-fried with eggs, pineapples, bean sprouts and curry powder, and the Passage to India, a curry dish exploding with veggies ranging from long beans to cabbage to mushrooms and swimming in a sweet coconut milk-based broth.
A Zen must: A selection from the long list of nonalcoholic drinks. A cucumber lemonade was addictive and refreshing, and several customers were enjoying boba teas as well.
AMBIENCE: The remodel of the old Chinatown was a total success, and the dining room is now tastefully appointed with a wood floor, simple tables and booths and subtle Asian-themed paintings and decorative pieces.
PRICE RANGE: Quite affordable. Zen offers a separate price for lunch and dinner servings of the same dish, and most are $6 and $8, $7 and $9 or $8 and $10. A recent dinner that included four entrees, two appetizers and a watermelon lemonade cost about $50.