Name: Au Lac Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant
Address: Shop 4, 39 Woolley Street, Dickson ACT 2602
Phone: 02 6262 8922
Hours: Daily 11:30am-10pm
I have never really understood fake meat. As a concept, it always just baffled me. Surely, if you make a decision not to eat something, than you just, you know, don’t eat it. This does not seem like a difficult concept.
And yet, when I asked for recommendations on where to eat for Meatless March, many people mentioned the Dickson home of imitation meat, Au Lac Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant.
In many ways indistinguishable from the countless Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants in Dickson, except for the fact that it is completely meat and egg free. Basic décor and simply set tables with chopsticks in paper sleeves could belong anywhere, and at first look, so could most of the food. The service was very prompt, almost to an alarming level with the entrees, raising doubts as to how freshly cooked they were.
I had to try some of the “meat” dishes, but felt I should balance them with some more traditional vegetarian fare. Unfortunately, the steamed vegetable dumplings were incredibly bland, and didn’t feel as fresh as I would have expected.
My first taste of imitation was the strangely undefined BBQ soy-meat. It was two skewers of lumps of fried soy, quite dense and tasting vaguely of, appropriately, undefined meat. It was probably closest to fairly standard quality, low-priced chicken thigh.
Braised vegetables and tofu with cashew nuts was very conventional, with various greens and both firm and fried, silken tofu. It wasn’t the most exciting of dishes, with the sauce not adding much flavour. The deep fried corners of silken tofu, however, were excellent, and are still my favourite style of bean curd.
Next to this, a big pot of assorted vegetables and different soy meats, including duck, pork, beef, squid, and some other less identifiable morsels, served in a rich and very tasty sauce. This was Au Lac’s Eight Treasures, and it was a fascinating dish. The duck tasted suitably like duck, the pork roughly like pork. The calamari was tough and truly awful, but it was in the minority in this dish.
But the true treasures, for me, were the nutty cauliflower, and the wonderful strips of ginger. Which brings me to my main issue with all this fake meat.
Why bother faking low quality meat when you have amazing vegetables you can eat?
In truth, I didn’t mind the food at Au Lac. It was perfectly serviceable cheap and cheerful Asian food, and I wouldn’t want to eat most of the meat from cheap and cheerful Asian places. If you’re worried about animal ethics, it is probably a better choice than most similar places in town.
But none of the fake meat options are a patch on great vegetarian dishes. There are few things more exciting than a hotpot of rich braised eggplant. Cauliflower, capsicum, chili, ginger, tomato, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and basically every vegetable can make an amazing eating experience. They can all be more interesting than this reasonable imitation of bad meat.
I understand the idea that people who have given up meat might crave for what they’re missing out on, but the meat that this is approximating is not what vegetarians are missing out on. In fact, it is faking the meat that I would be more than happy to get rid of.
If I were vegetarian, I would not miss cheap meat. I would not miss the cut-price chicken, the cuts of bland, unexciting feedlot beef.
But I would miss the great meat. Dry aged, grass-fed beef; organic Berkshire pork belly; free-range heritage breeds of ducks and chicken. The meat that costs more, that tastes better, and that sends you home with a memory of what food should taste like. I can’t imagine that these meats will ever be reproduced with soy.
Au Lac is good for what it is, and I would have no issue with going back anytime. But imitation meat still doesn’t make too much sense for me.
When someone learns how to imitate the flavour of Spanish, chestnut-reared black pig jamon in a soy product, maybe call me back. Until then, I’ll stick to the originals, meat and vegetable.