By Miriam Wolf
Mad about you
GUESS WHAT HAPPENED since the last time I wrote this column? They
finally found mad cow disease in a U.S. cow, and now everyone's a
vegetarian! I didn't know if you'd heard this or not because it's
been seriously underreported in the meat-centric press.
Well, maybe not everyone is a vegetarian yet. And while some
vegetarian activists, such as VegNews editor Joseph Connelly, believe
the crisis shouldn't be used as a tool to recruit meat eaters into
the vegetarian fold, I still think a timely reminder to your friend
eating the hamburger over there that "spongiform encephalopathy"
really means "spongy brain disease" is not out of line.
On the other hand, it looks like unless we all do become vegetarians,
it really won't matter. Prions (the infectious agents that transmit
bovine spongiform encephalopathy), it seems, cannot be destroyed in
hot soapy water, like bacteria. They can't be destroyed in the
microwave. Nor by the dishwasher, bleach, or even ultraviolet light.
In fact, short of nuclear holocaust, prions cannot be destroyed.
Which makes eating even a delightful dish of vegetarian chow fun
somewhat suspect if it's been cooked in the same wok that fried up an
order of beef with broccoli.
So although we vegetarians may look at mad cow disease and
think, "whew, dodged a bullet there," the mess enormous factorylike
slaughterhouses and other big agriculture concerns have made of our
food supply is a problem for everyone.
But until big agribusiness is dismantled, we're lucky to have
restaurants like Cha-Ya, where the utensils haven't been keeping
company with meat. Cha-Ya, in Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue gourmet
ghetto, takes the clear, subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine and
translates them into vegan dishes.
The tiny restaurant can hold maybe 15 people max and is wildly
popular. We arrived one Sunday night about 20 minutes after the
restaurant opened and faced a waiting list that was already five
What draws people to stand out in the cold for up to an hour is the
promise that everything on the extensive menu is delicious and vegan.
Sure, at many Japanese restaurants you can get a bowl of miso and a
kappa maki, but at Cha-Ya you can feast endlessly on sushi, noodles,
tempura, stews, and other Japanese dishes both homey and ethereal.
Japan has a history of vegetarian cuisine because of its Buddhist
tradition, and Cha-Ya capitalizes on that rich history.
Cha-Ya begins to surprise almost as soon as the meal begins. The
sunomono cucumber salad, a staple of many a Japanese menu, here
features a light rice vinaigrette and an accent of chewy, sweet
pieces of dried persimmon.
Cha-Ya's sushi is inventive and well made. The rice is fine-grained
and perfectly seasoned, and aside from the familiar kappa, avocado,
and oshinko rolls, Cha-Ya also offers sushi rolls with tempura inside
(and rolls that are tempura-ed themselves), sea vegetable rolls, and
even a packed-with-veggies roll in which the rice is replaced with
The deep bowl of udon is full of noodles; the broth is flavorful
without being too salty and it's reliably free of bonito. Veggie
tempura is light and grease free.
Among the more unusual offerings is "Moon Garden," a bowl of soft
tofu "custard" artfully planted with bright vegetables: tiny
mushrooms, kabocha squash, snow peas, asparagus, and ginkgo nuts. The
subtle custard makes a great canvas for the flavors of the perfectly
cooked vegetables. This is the ultimate comfort food light but
creamy and satisfying. It's perfect for a cold winter's night.
Even more rustically appealing is a bowl of taka-sui, gyoza in clay
pot. Bean-thread noodles, thin-skinned Japanese dumplings,
vegetables, and tofu are submerged in a delicious broth that tastes
earthy and vegetal. The ponzu-citrus sauce served alongside adds some
much appreciated bright notes to the dish.
Despite the roil of people waiting outside, dining at Cha-Ya is a
relaxing experience. Service is quick and friendly; the interior is
bright and inviting. Tables aren't even as close together as you
might expect in such a tiny space.
Vegetarian-friendly restaurants are great we need all the friends
we can get. But dining at a 100 percent vegetarian or, even better,
vegan restaurant is so much more rewarding. Why settle for a tiny
corner of the menu when you can range over the whole thing without
worrying about hidden minefields of chicken stock or fish sauce? Best
of all is a restaurant like Cha-Ya, where the food is not just
regular Japanese dishes made meatless but also a creative and
delicious vegan cuisine all its own.
Cha-Ya. 1686 Shattuck (at Virginia), Berk. (510) 981-1213. Dinner,
Tues.-Sun., 5-9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout available. MasterCard,
Visa. Wheelchair accessible. E-mail Miriam Wolf at
E-mail Miriam Wolf at miriam@...