Taiwanese cuisine has gained recognition for its street food, night-market eats and even beef noodle soup, but what might be overlooked is the accessibility of vegetarian fare throughout the island. A Jan. 13, 2011, article published in CommonWealth Magazine reported that flexible vegetarianism becoming a greater part of the average Taiwanese diet has led to a greater variety of options. As a result, options can range from upscale restaurants to convenience stores with "a wide array of meat-free selections."
Li Hua Chen opened Bean Sprouts Restaurant in 2004 on a relatively quiet commercial strip of Arcadia, away from Santa Anita racetrack and a few blocks from the row of midscale chain restaurants past the 210 underpass. It's also noticeably away from the crop of restaurants -- SinBala and Din Tai Fung, to name two -- near the intersection of Baldwin and Duarte. As is the case with restaurants in Los Angeles, a rather remote location does not preclude a loyal following.
"We don't advertise as much these days. The business comes mostly from word-of-mouth," Su Chen, the restaurant's manager, says in Mandarin.
Many of the regulars are Taiwanese and, as one recent visit proved, more than a few know each other. It's not uncommon to witness one group running into another, exchanging updates at the family-owned restaurant. The menu is reflective of contemporary Taiwanese cuisine, each dish highlighting a particular sociopolitical influence -- from offerings of miso soup to stir-fried rice noodles.
Unlike Chinese vegetarian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, there are no stir-fried dishes paired with rice, or green bean porridge and matched with a silk thread roll steamed or fried. The dishes are in the frame of Taiwanese home-style favorites and a smattering of xiaochi, or small bites. (The literal translation can belie the meaning: Xiaochi indicates a casual, often quick bite, as opposed to a formal meal.) On the corner of the bar, a small row of Buddhist texts in Chinese are available to look at; otherwise, there are few Buddhist decorative touches.
"We cook Taiwanese cuisine and present it in a Western style," Chen says. "For generations, the family has eaten vegetarian. The restaurant was opened in hopes to encourage others to eat more vegetarian meals for environmental and public-health reasons."
The presiding preference in taste can veer toward a milder profile familiar to a Taiwanese palate. The red chili oil wonton is subdued in spiciness but no less delicious with a filling made of shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and tofu. The dan dan noodles are modeled after the Sichuan classic but prepared with a similar light touch on spice.
"We avoid using preservatives in our food. We'll use mushroom essence in lieu of MSG. For the soup base in our noodle soup, we'll use fruits and vegetables," Chen explains. "It's not completely preservative-free because we use soy sauce -- which is a key component of Taiwanese cuisine."
Their attention to detail is evident when you order. With the pineapple fried rice, for instance, you'll be asked if you want egg in the dish, and brown or white rice. They place a sheet of foil in Styrofoam boxes for to-go orders -- the lining is meant to prevent potential leaching of chemicals due to the heat of the food.
"With the exception of certain dishes, we can accommodate customers with preservative allergies, as all of our food is made to order," Chen says.
There are seasonal specials listed right above the bar, made in limited quantity daily. Aside from weekends, the kitchen is on break every day from 3 to 5 p.m. Bean Sprouts Restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.
Bean Sprouts Restaurant: 103 Huntington Dr Arcadia; (626) 254-8708.
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