That’s Not Meat! Vegetarians Get Theirs While Meat-lovers Can Live with the Life-like Imitations
‘“What’s a boba?’” I asked when my editor suggested I try out the Boba House at 332 Tate St.
It turns out that ‘boba’ also means ‘bubble.’ Wikipedia online encyclopedia says boba is Cantonese slang for ‘“dominatrix of breasts’” (en.wikipedia.org). Bobaloca, a chain of boba tea shops in California, says that in Mandarin boba is children’s slang for ‘nipple’ (boba-loca.com).
Boba are large balls of tapioca that are put into flavored hot or cold teas. They’ve been popular among the Asian community for quite a few years now and are all the rage out west.
At Boba House I had the Mango Bango flavored boba tea, or bubble tea. The frozen pink treat came in a large wine glass with a huge straw, big enough to suck the bobas through.
Boba House co-owner Kiet A. Nguyen says the concept behind boba tea is to drink and chew at the same time. The tea was fruity and not as thick as a typical smoothie. The boba were oddly fascinating; the large black ball bounced around the bottom of the glass whenever I picked it up. They were very chewy, with hardly any flavor. I imagined I was chewing eyeballs served to me in an exotic potion of some sort, something like Indiana Jones or the Medicine Man might be offered. Wow, kids would love that concept. Now if they could only use some kind of edible paint to draw pupils on the bobas they would have an absolute hit.
After about three or four bobas I was kind of weirded out a bit. But later on in the day I had this recurring desire to chew those things again; I could feel them squishing in between my teeth although they weren’t really there.
The Boba House is also a full-service vegetarian restaurant. Being a die-hard meat eater (especially a good steak), I was very curious about the meat dishes offered on the menu. For the true test, I brought my wife along with me. She wouldn’t eat a vegetable if it were the only medicine that could save her life, so I thought ‘If she likes the imitation meat, maybe I can bring her here to round out her diet.’
Not knowing where to begin, we both ordered the basil chicken. After all, everything tastes like chicken, right?
We were first served a simple house salad, but the choice of dressings weren’t the normal ranch and Thousand Island found everywhere else. Our choices were sesame seed, ginger, peanut and vinaigrette. I chose the sesame seed dressing. Wow, it was great. I would describe it, but I’ve never tasted anything like it. I ate every bite. As for my wife, she won’t eat seeds. It’s a weird texture thing with her ‘— doesn’t like peanuts and never orders vinaigrette. That left the ginger. She wasn’t too fond of that, but then again she will only eat ranch. It was good though; kind of like the ginger dressing you get at a Japanese steakhouse.
Soon came our basil chicken. It was served with a spicy homemade sauce on top and mixed with freshly cooked peppers and onions and large leaves of basil. The smell and flavor was much like a mesquite marinade I use to grill chicken at home. Included on the plate were a large ball of white rice and a spring roll.
The chicken was delicious, and very convincing. It looked just like real slices of chicken breast. It, like the steak, shrimp, crab and other imitation meat products offered, was actually a soy-based product made of tofu. It didn’t quite have the texture of real chicken when I bit into it and was slightly chewy or rubbery. That was kind of an awkward experience for me, and even though it tasted somewhat like mesquite chicken, the ‘real’ chicken flavor wasn’t there. As for my wife, I don’t think she’s going to be making the switch to tofu anytime soon, but she did admit that it wasn’t too bad. And from her that’s a high compliment.
Nguyen says they’ve had customers who didn’t realize they were in a vegetarian restaurant. One man, he says, ate an entire chicken drumstick served on bamboo without realizing it wasn’t really chicken. When he got the steak he also ordered he noticed some similarities and asked about it. That’s when Nguyen realized the man didn’t know he was eating soy and explained the restaurant was vegetarian, at which the man was taken aback.
But why serve a product that looks and tastes like meat when vegetarians don’t eat meat? Nguyen says that when he first started dating co-owner Kieuanh Ho a few years ago they couldn’t find many restaurants they could agree on. While Nguyen is not a vegetarian, Ho is and every time they went out to eat she would have very little to choose from. Realizing the need for a vegetarian restaurant in the Greensboro area, Nguyen and Ho consulted several business mentors and began looking at property. There used to be a vegetarian restaurant at 332 Tate St. and people wanted one back. But Nguyen’s mentors said a vegetarian restaurant wouldn’t make it in Greensboro, that they would need to serve meat as well. Nguyen and Ho didn’t want to compromise with the serving of meats so they found a middle ground and opened in August 2003 serving imitation meats.
Some vegetarians, Nguyen says, still like the taste of meat and some eat meat in moderation, so imitation meat is a way to get that fix without indulging too often. For those herbivores who hang out with carnivores, there’s now a place where the two can find something they both can agree on.
All of the menu items are healthy, as well. The dishes have no cholesterol and are very low in fat and the teas have little to no sugar and are full of antioxidants.
Although I still had to take my wife through Sonic for a grilled cheese on the way back to work, it was definitely a worthwhile experience for the two of us who rarely try anything new. And I can say for certain I’ll be back for the boba tea.
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