When people ask me where to find vegetarian dim sum, I tell them it’d be easier to locate an Indian steakhouse or a healthy KFC. Dim sum, by its nature, is not vegetarian. Even if you avoid all the usual dumplings that have pork and shrimp as main ingredients, you’d still encounter pork fat or traces of shrimp in the ones labeled vegetable or leek. And on other dishes you’d assume are animal-free, you’d be wrong. There’s chicken broth in the congee and oyster sauce all over the gai lan.
But now comes Ooak Kitchen, a dim sum restaurant that takes the “is it or isn’t it?” uncertainty off the table. Its dim sum is completely and proudly vegetarian. Pronounced “oh-ak,” the name actually stands for “One of a Kind,” and right now, this restaurant is exactly that. (There was a previous location in Culver City, but it lasted only four months.)
Standing at the very top floor of the Source in Buena Park, Ooak’s ornate, moon-shaped entryway is guarded by two lion statues. The dining room is spare, with walls decorated in auspicious motifs of fish and gold and tables covered with paper. The blond-wood chairs look as if they came from Sears’ garden department.
Make no mistake, however: Ooak’s food is not cheap. Reportedly part of a Guangdong-based Cantonese vegetarian-restaurant chain, its price points follow other upscale Chinese brands such as Meizhou Dongpo, catering to a new market of nouveau riche immigrants with money to blow. The standard char siu bao here costs $6 for a serving of three. The har gao ticks at $8 for four pieces. But you can tell a lot of research and development went into reverse-engineering these vegetarian dim sum to taste like, well, dim sum.
The har gao is uncanny. If it were served from Capital Seafood’s roll-up carts, I would still conclude it’s a very good dumpling. Pleated into the classic bonnet shape, the skin is as thin and delicate as they come. But it was the filling that had me so convinced it was shrimp that I ate the second piece with gobs of house-made chile oil to complete the experience.
Ooak’s chiu chow dumplings—translucent half-moons traditionally containing dried shrimp, ground pork and mushrooms—hit all the same notes with nothing but vegetables, albeit in a higher octave. I should mention at this point that the restaurant does not employ MSG or artificial meat, which makes its achievement all the more impressive. I liken it to a YouTube cover artist who’s somehow captured the original spirit of a rock song with only an acoustic guitar.
There are, however, some tells. The xiu mai doesn’t have the dense texture of ones made with pork; it actually falls apart the moment you pick it up. The least convincing dim sum is the char siu bao, especially if you tear it open to locate the char sui but find instead the pink, barely flavored filling of indeterminate origin. But the bread itself is fluffy and sweet.
Strictly vegetable-based dishes such as the string beans stir-fried with an excess of dried chile peppers and the tofu triangles of the “Crispy Bells” are served in artsy bowls and sprinkled with a crunchy flurry of toasted oats—an addition that ups their impact.
The most expensive thing to order, at $32, is the Steak Mushroom on Fire, which is not a dim sum dish, but ironically the only thing that comes out on a cart. The theatrics begin as soon as your server flicks on the camp stove that heats a clay pot. In it, she fries a rosemary sprig and two giant pieces of rehydrated shiitake in vegan butter. She proceeds to douse it with black pepper sauce and, finally, an entire glass of flammable rice wine. She closes the lid, advises you to step back, then ignites the fumes with a chimney lighter. When the flames subside, she takes out the mushrooms, slices the “steak,” and lays the pieces atop mashed sweet potatoes, spooning over it all the pan sauce. It’s chewy and doesn’t taste at all like a steak, but you don’t for a second regret spending the money.
You may feel the same way about the $18 coconut koi dessert, for which coconut milk jelly is formed into the shape of koi fish swimming in a small pond of jellied coconut water. Light, refreshing and artistic, it symbolizes Ooak to a tee.
And with Ooak, I now have the answer as to where to get vegetarian dim sum. It’s also the only restaurant I know of where dim sum can be had for dinner, which is rarer still.
Ooak Kitchen, 6980 Beach Blvd., Ste. H303, Buena Park, (714) 522-6625; www.ooakkitchen.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., noon-3 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.; Fri., noon-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat., noon-10 p.m.; Sun., noon-9 p.m. Dim sum, $4-$8; main dishes, $12-$32. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.