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Au Lac

This Fountain Valley restaurant has developed raw and vegan cuisine with a “humanese” twist.

curried-living-rice
Curried living rice
Ed Olen

Join the Crowd
If, like us, eating at Au Lac inspires you to
incorporate more raw foods into your diet,
but you have no idea where to begin, start
here: Every Tuesday, Au Lac hosts a free
raw food lecture that discusses the
benefits of eating raw, as well as gives tips
on how to make it work with your lifestyle.
Visit Au Lac’s website for more info, or join
them on Facebook to get real-time updates.
714.418.0658 :: aulac.com

There are a number of reasons why, to the practiced foodie, Au Lac may not be on the priority list of top dining destinations. It’s located in a decidedly non-scenic strip mall in Fountain Valley; its specialty is raw and vegan foods; and the chef doesn’t talk, he gestures. The bar is devoid of alcohol and the cuisine is classified as “humanese,” which evokes thoughts of some strange New Age belief, or cannibalism. But we are here to tell you how, instead of causing us to flee to the nearest In-N-Out, Au Lac convinced us to join its flock of (very ardent) believers.

Our fascination with Au Lac began with a recommendation. Several of them, actually. People we never would have suspected to eat vegetables, let alone things like “living rice,” were declaring Au Lac their favorite restaurant in Southern California. Others were baffled that we weren’t already one of the converted. It seemed as though Au Lac was the best kept food secret in Orange County, and we were going to find out what all the excitement was about.

The first thing one notices is that eating at Au Lac isn’t like eating anywhere else. It’s an experience as much as it is a meal – and for those who don’t eat raw or vegan food on a regular basis, it can be a profoundly eye-opening one. Chef Ito, the mastermind behind the restaurant’s “humanese” cuisine, has concocted a wide assortment of both living foods and cooked vegan dishes that, despite their absence of things like meat and anything processed, taste remarkably delicious and fulfilling, like something your body has always wanted but just didn’t know it until now. So it’s no wonder that at Au Lac, one feels part of something larger than just the act of eating; humanese cuisine is based on Chef Ito’s philosophy that we are all more similar than we are different, and that food isn’t just a vehicle for staying alive, it’s a medium through which we express our compassion for the world around us.

At Au Lac, that compassion manifests itself in the attention to detail that goes into every dish – and it’s something you can taste. The spring rolls, made with rice paper, greens, vermicelli, soy shrimp, and soy ham, are delicate but not light on flavor, with a slight smokiness coming through at the end. Served with peanut sauce, they’re a great way to start a meal at Au Lac, encompassing all that matters most to Chef Ito and owner Mai Nguyen: the idea that freshness and authenticity are not only good for the body but good for the soul, too.

A former meat eater, Nguyen changed her diet completely after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After making a full recovery, she opened Au Lac in 1997 with the mission of promoting vegetarianism to the general public. It wasn’t easy at first, convincing people to ditch their fast food diet for plant-based foods, but time, knowledge and a strong conviction that a meat-free diet is best for the mind and body has sustained Nguyen’s restaurant. Living foods, she believes, helped save her life.

But it didn’t come without sacrifice – and many hours in the kitchen. In order to replicate the genuine taste and feel of meat – something Nguyen really loved – she experimented with various products, eventually arriving at recipes that are delicious and authentic, resembling those from her native Vietnam. Dishes like sautéed beef vermicelli come to life with ingredients such as lemongrass, garlic, onions, and minty greens, all pulled together with a remarkably meaty soy beef and a light sweet-tangy sauce; and the herb salad, a blend of romaine, mixed herbs, tomato, and onion, dressed lightly with umeboshi plum vinaigrette, is a study in perfectly balanced flavors. (An umeboshi is a Japanese pickled red plum prized for its high alkaline content, which aids in digestion and imparts balance and strength.) What we learn is this: Everything at Au Lac is thought out; nothing is arbitrary; every ingredient has a purpose – one that is, undeniably, good for you.

Then, of course, there is Chef Ito’s passion: the living foods menu, which consists of all raw foods. A dish he calls cream cheese is a ball of avocado placed atop a flax cracker, with basil, mushroom, onion, and red bell pepper. It seems as if there must be something more, given the intensity of the flavors – and truly, with Chef Ito, one never actually knows, though if there is, it’s a carefully orchestrated and researched ingredient that not only adds flavor but also benefits the body. Humanese soup is a creamy mixture of avocado, cilantro, coconut meat, onion, tamari, and flax and tastes like raw comfort food. Curried living rice, on the other hand, is vibrant and filling, made with a mixture of broccoli, avocado, cauliflower, corn peas, “fried” onion, olives, and mushrooms. The rice, instead of being cooked, is left to soak in water and sprout, resulting in a soft, chewy kernel.

But what of sweets? Au Lac has thought of that, too. Truffle-like chocolate candies are made with raw cacao and drizzled with raspberry purée, while durian lovers (and we know it’s a specific, not very large crowd) will find heaven in the durianaddict, a soup-like dessert made with the pungent southeast Asian fruit. It’s not exactly a brownie sundae, but as with the rest of the food at Au Lac, the desserts far exceed any preconceived notions we may have held regarding the ability of raw and vegan foods to totally capture our flavor imagination.

Maybe it was the environment, maybe it was the strange drink Chef Ito gave us to drink before we left (a Jim Jones cocktail of GH-3, Willard water and cantron), but we now, without hesitation, join the converted.



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