Golden Era, a vegetarian restaurant nestled deep in the loins of the Tenderloin is a true San Francisco experience (although not an exclusively San Francisco experience as there are more than 56 affiliated restaurants scattered throughout the world). Descending a few steps below street level you pass a deserted mezzanine with empty glass counters, videotapes of the Supreme Master's lectures for sale, free pamphlets with the Supreme Master's writings, and the occasional bicycle stowed away off the crackhead-laden street. A few more steps downward and there lies a stark dining room that stinks of a faded elegance. An elegance now found only in the architectural details, not in the purely utilitarian plexi-glass topped tables and nondescript chairs, or the few wall hangings of faded travel posters circa 1984 and, of course this being an asian restaurant, the ever popular faux abalone and lacquer Chinese wall hanging. You know the one I'm talking about. And you like it.
After being seated by one of the exclusively female wait staff, the first thing you might notice about the place is how, in stark opposition to the chaos of the street outside, how darn quiet it is. There is no piped in music, the servers are subdued, and the diners, for the most part are not a raucous crew. Perhaps this is partially explained by the fact that no alcohol is served. Or maybe by the fact that this restaurant is run by what has been claimed to be one of the fastest growing cults in the world, led by the Supreme Master Ching Hai, a five-foot nothing dynamo and marketing wonder deceptively clad in the (self-designed) plumage of a newly wealthy, middle-aged Taiwanese tourist. Think Dynasty. Which is not surprising since she does hail from Taiwan, (Formosa) and, from all appearances, her wealth is somewhat newfound.
But first things first. Eat here. The food is fantastic.
Okay, back to the Supreme Master. Food for thought. According to her official sources (http://www.godsdirect.org) and various accounts written by acolytes, Ching Hai was born Hue Dang Trinh in 1950, in a small village in Vietnam (which she refers to as Aulac) to a "well off" Catholic family with a renegade Buddhist grandmother. According to her official website, " at the age of eighteen, Master Ching Hai moved to England to study, and then later to France and then Germany, where She worked for the Red Cross and married a German scientist. After two years of happy marriage, with the consent of Her husband, she left Her marriage in pursuit of enlightenment" (capitals not mine). According to other sources (Eric Lai., UC Berkeley Thesis), the Supreme Master's background is slightly more colorful. Hailing from a small village in vietnam, she fraternized with the American GI's before leaving with a German doctor doing relief work in the vicinity. In 1979 she began studying with a Buddhist monk whom she broke with three years later due to regulations that forbade women from entering the monastery. Continuing to pursue her spiritual search she then moved to India and became the disciple of Thakar Singh who had just formed his own Buddhist sect called the Kirpal Light Satang. It is alleged that Thakar Singh was not only an embezzler, but also an occasionally violent sexual libertine. It is from him that the Supreme Master learned the fundamentals of the Quan Yin method of light and sound meditation that she would later refine and export to Taiwan. After some time spent in New York as a Buddhist nun she returned to Taiwan in 1986 to begin her empire.
And an empire it is becoming. There are now more than 100,000 followers scattered throughout 37 countries (the vast majority of which are Chinese or Vietnamese). There are 56 affiliated restaurants. The Supreme Master has her own clothing line. She designs jewelry. She paints. She writes poetry. She does lectures. Everything is for sale. Nothing is cheap. She claims, and her followers concur, that she takes no donations. When you charge 10,000 for a dress, who needs donations?
But her organization seems to be relatively harmless. She promises that if an initiate practices the Quan Yin Method of sound and light meditation for two and a half hours a day and keeps the five precepts (to refrain from taking the life of sentient beings; to refrain from speaking what is not true; to refrain from taking what is not offered; to refrain from sexual misconduct; and to refrain from the use of intoxicants), then he or she will not need to reincarnate ever again. I repeat: ever again. Someone should tell the Dalai Lama. And if two and a half hours a day is too much of your time to invest in perfect enlightenment, there is a "Convenient Method" which includes no more than thirty minutes of meditation per day and adherence to a strict vegetarian diet for only ten days of each month. I say relatively harmless because there appears to be a rather sizeable group of disgruntled husbands who feel that the Supreme Master has come between them and their wives. Being a female guru, the Supreme Master is, unsurprisingly, very popular with women.
And if the fear of crack heads and golden little flecks of cult-dust sprinkled over your supper hasn't frightened you off, then you have indeed earned passage to the land of good food. You may continue.
Golden Era specializes in Vegetarian Vietnamese/Chinese cuisine, with an emphasis on meat analogs that will have you taking scraps home to conduct kitchen-sink experiments to make sure it's not really meat.
The portions are large and the prices are very reasonable, some might say cheap. The menu is extensive and includes a variety of soups, noodle dishes, favorite fake meat entrees, vegetable items for purists, appetizers, desserts and beverages (non alcoholic). Get the Spicy Gourmet Chicken (9.95), it rocks. Amazingly textured soy chunks are fried up nice and crispy on the outside, juicy and chicken-like on the inside, and covered in a sweet and spicy sauce with lots of ginger and lemongrass. It comes served with florets of broccoli crispy-steamed and vibrantly green.
Another item not to be missed is the Pho (5.50). The menu describes it as a "famous Vietnamese savory 'beef' flavor rice noodle soup w/ tofu, gluten, soy protein & bean sprouts". As a vegetarian it is almost impossible to get any pho much less a good pho. Or rather a good faux pho. This one is superior. The broth is flavorful without being overpoweringly spiced. A generous portion of thin rice noodles float (okay, they clump initially) in the bottom and slices of fake ham, gluten, and fried tofu add substance to the dish. The ham is terrifying in it's pinkness and haminess. It is also excellent. With each bite I can almost hear a squeal. The pho is served with the requisite bean sprouts, sliced jalapeno peppers, wedges of lime and basil leaves.
We also sampled the Ginger Fish (7.50). It was amazing. It looked like a fish (granted a bottom-feeding one). Its texture was very fish-like. It tasted of fish. It wasn't fish. It came on a platter, filet style but with an incredibly realistic looking seaweed skin wrapped around it. The texture of the skin was a little bit rubbery and taste was very strongly of the ocean. A very intense seaweed flavor. Inside, the "meat" was white and almost flaky. The flavor was slightly fishy inside, less so than the skin. This was served with a ginger dipping sauce that I would recommend using. It was an amazing rendition of the real thing. I won't get it again.
Appetizers are varied and for the most part good. We had the Tay-Ho rolls (5.95), described as "scrumptious steamed rolls stuffed with tofu, carrot, mushroom, steamed bean sprouts & lettuce". I would describe it as cigar-shaped shu mai in a slightly rubbery and gelatinous wrapper filled with lots of tasty stuff and covered in a pile of vegetables and fried onion bits that simulated fried shrimp. The sauce that came with it was excellent. Slightly sweet. Slightly tangy. Although they rolls had a steamed texture, they were a little greasy.
The summer rolls (4.75) "Non-fried rice paper rolls w/ lettuce, vermicelli, marinated tofu, soy protein, mint leaves, cilantro. Served w/ peanut sauce" were pretty standard. If you like summer rolls, you'll like these. I particularly like the peanut sauce that is served along with it.
My favorite appetizer at the moment is the steamed buddah bun (2.25), "Steamed dough filled w/ tofu, soy protein, carrot, water chestnuts and bean thread". It is a big doughy soft white mountain of tastiness filled with minced bits of veggies and soy stuff - the flavor is excellent both in the dough and in the filling, and there is a nice play of textures.
For desert we had the vegan chocolate mocha cake (3.50). Dark, dense, chocolate-y with a mocha frosting you'll actually want to eat instead of scrape off into a sad little reject mound. What more could you ask for? Well, I guess you could as for vegan ice cream (2.50). Not the greatest, not the worst, the ice cream is at it's best once its had a little time to melt some of its ice crystals. They also have regular ice cream , vegan and regular caramel flan, and a vegan carrot cupcake.
Highly recommended, and don't forget to pick up some literature on your way out. For more details go to http://www.goldeneravegetarian.com