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Thursday, April 18

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The unlit neon sign hanging in the storefront window on Broadway read "Mark's Chop Suey." However, the brand-spanking new sign hanging above the same restaurant announced "Szechuan Garden: Healthy Vegetarian Food." And the menu had the name "Mark's Chop Suey With a Healthy Vegetarian Garden" printed across the top.

I was confused as to where I was actually eating.

But owner Mona Shiu assured me that I was eating in Vegetarian Garden, a newcomer to the Lakeview neighborhood (taking over the old Mark's Chop Suey space). For years, Shiu owned Vegetarian Garden in Chinatown and her meatless Chinese cuisine attracted a huge following. Shiu closed her successful restaurant three years ago and recently moved to the new location near Broadway and Oakdale because most of her regulars live on the north side of the city.

For the non-regulars, however, this change of venue seems more than a little confusing, as evidenced by the throngs of pedestrians who pause to peer quizzically inside. Their faces register surprise at first (and sometimes dismay) when they realize that Mark's Chop Suey has a new owner and a new menu.

Their surprise only increases when they see the bowls of yellowing dried flowers and brown leaves in the storefront window. While some may think that this unappetizing display is a poorly chosen decoration, it is actually a menu item -- tea. Shiu wanted to display the dried herbs used to make tea in their raw form. Those whose interest is piqued by the unusual exhibit stop inside to glance over the menu or sit down at a table, but others find the tea unpleasant enough to make them continue on their way. Little do they know, tea is central to the Vegetarian Garden experience.

It is understandable why Shiu puts such a strong emphasis on tea. A core belief in Chinese medicine is that the middle jiao (stomach) should be warmed before eating in order to obtain the most nutrients from the food and facilitate digestion. This is why hot tea is often served first in Asian cuisine.

Most of the teas offered at Vegetarian Garden are made from herbs called Qi Tonics. According to Chinese medicinal beliefs, without good Qi (pronounced "chee"), your body lacks the energy to digest and withdraw nutrients from food. When you don't have enough Qi, you are fatigued, lack appetite, and have low energy, which often can lead to illness. So it makes perfect sense that now, at the beginning of winter, most of the teas in the window at Vegetarian Garden are used to prevent or treat colds and flu.

The restaurant has a rotating tea list, which Shiu presented at the beginning of the meal; I had a choice of a variety of herbs including Sheng Jiang (fresh ginger root), which prevents and alleviates nausea, and Gan Cao (licorice root), which increases nutritional intake. Feeling ambitious, I selected the chrysanthemum tea bag, which, I found out later, is used to treat fevers, flu, headaches, and dizziness. The tea tasted like a cup of bitter flowers infused with an astounding amount of Equal sugar packets. I'm not sure if I would order the tea again, but I became used to the pungent flavor by the end of the meal, and emptied my pot. My friend chose the ginseng astragalus, a milder, earthy white tea that is used to build up the immune system and prevent colds.

Although Vegetarian Garden offers a variety of standard Chinese dishes with meat, Shiu insists the most guests come for the vegetarian fare. And after trying the food, I believe her.

The flavorful Melody on River was our favorite dish. Taro root, bamboo shoots and mushrooms were blended into a yummy concoction that resembled -- in both appearance and taste -- mashed potatoes. This mixture was rolled in warm, flaky soy bean crepes and seaweed then smothered in an exceptional spicy black bean chili sauce. The Emerald Curl was slightly less impressive. Sheets of seaweed and full leaves of iceberg lettuce were provided to scoop up a hearty filling consisting of soy protein, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn, and lima beans. Although this dish gets props for its creativity, I found it somewhat lacking. Perhaps a mild sauce would have given it cohesion and flavor.

While there are a few misses on the menu, Vegetarian Garden is worth a visit to sample the rare veggie combinations and vegetarian inventions that I have yet to find at other similar establishments around Chicago. And those vegetarians who miss meat will be glad to see that many of the items of the menu are offered with meat substitutes -- seitan and soybeans -- so you can dine guilt-free on a vegetarian hamburger, General Tao's with soy protein, or Sweet and Sour Gluten.

The muddled signage of Vegetarian Garden confuses many a passerby. But those who visit recognize that Mona Shiu knows exactly what she's doing. Her obsession with healthy eating is contagious and if you are lucky, you'll catch her enthusiasm.

Vegetarian Garden is located at 2901 N. Broadway. Prices range from $8.95 to $11.95.

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Comments

Naz / November 30, 2003 11:12 PM

It's all about the General Tao's Longevity, the Golden Niggets and Sesame Nuggets. I found most of the people I went weren't so hot about the Taro root, soy crepe Bodhi Roll and Meolody on a River though it has a strange addictiveness (I liked them though).

Oh, don't forget the photo of Mona and Mel Gibson together when you walk in, classic.

Andrew / December 1, 2003 4:57 PM

I went to Shiu's old place in Chinatown back in Dec. 1999, and the place had no heat -- we ended up eating with our coats and gloves on. The food was excellent, however, and I'm glad to hear she's opened up in a better location...or at least a warmer one.

 

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