Dining at Buddhist temples in China can be a disappointing experience. Too often, these halls of worship have been turned into tourist traps that solicit enough donations to keep the monks in expensive trainers, meat-based meals and high-end smart phones. Independent Buddhist restaurants, like Wu Guan Tang (五观堂), are a breath of fresh air, maintaining the tenets of the religion while offering quality vegetarian food in a peaceful environment.
Founded by Yi’an, a devout Buddhist, Wu Guan Tang is more than just another vegetarian restaurant. The name means a monastic cafeteria where monks should reflect on the Five Observations (五观, wǔ guān) while they dine, from considering the effort taken to create the dishes to understanding that a meal should be conscientiously consumed without succumbing to overeating or desiring unhealthy food.
Since 2004, Yi’An and her staff have been applying their faith to the table, from the sustainable bamboo chopsticks at the table to the abundant rooftop garden that grows more than 1,000 plants, many of which become part of the meal. The restaurant follows the rules of the Four Withouts: no MSG, no products designed to look or taste like meat, no fried food and no carbonated beverages. Crayon drawings of happy rainbows and cheerful vegetables decorate the pages of the handwritten menu, which is drawn on recycled paper with calligraphy pens, since dipping these writing utensils in inkwells creates much less waste compared to using disposable ballpoint pens. The menu changes every few months to reflect the season’s harvest.
The philosophy behind the food is simple: “showcase the original flavor of the vegetables” (本味素食, běn wèi sùshí). The dishes at first seem underdressed compared to the saucy stir-fries that make up most Chinese menus. One of the most popular dishes is a simple roasted potato (烤土豆, kǎo tǔdòu). Waxier and sweeter than the tubers found in the U.S., the potato is peeled, drizzled with safflower oil from the western province of Xinjiang, sprinkled with salt and cut into chopstick-friendly slices before being roasted in a pan until the exposed flesh turns golden brown.
Another simple dish we cannot resist is the cold appetizer of bamboo tofu and button mushrooms (腐竹炝蘑菇, fǔzhú qiàng mógu). Boiled together, then dressed in light soy sauce and delicately spiced up with a sprinkling of crushed dried red chili, the delicate flavors of this dish set the tone for more subtle flavors to come.
All of Wu Guan Tang’s breads and noodles are made in-house, including their staple dishes, like the pita pockets (龙豆口袋饼, lóngdòu kǒudài bǐng). These vegetarian sandwiches come with long beans stir-fried with salty, funky preserved olive leaves, perfect for stuffing into the airy bread and devouring in two big bites. The congee and rice selections change daily. We love Thursdays for the healthy brown rice steamed in lotus leaves and studded with crunchy chunks of bamboo shoots and stir-fried mushrooms (荷香竹笋饭, héxiāng zhúsǔn fàn).
When we can’t decide what to get, we order the hand-selected nine-dish cold appetizer sampler (精选九珍盒, jīngxuǎn jiǔ zhēnhé). On our most recent visit, the interlocking ceramic dishes included Wu Guan Tang’s specialty radish dish stewed in soy sauce (特色酱萝卜, tèsè jiàng luóbo) and smoky dates sprinkled with al dente lotus seeds (枣莲子zǎo liánzǐ).
And just because the restaurant doesn’t sell alcohol or carbonated beverages doesn’t mean the drink list suffers. Tea selections are updated regularly, with an apothecary table stocked full of dried leaves that allow the staff to make their own blends depending on seasonal Traditional Chinese Medicine requirements. There are also fresh-squeezed juices and soy milks flavored with black sesame, peanuts and corn that change with each day of the week. Wu Guan Tang may abide by the strict tenets of Buddhism, but there’s no privation here.