When you think of food in Virginia, you probably think of fried chicken and cornbread. Or, maybe, blue crabs and oysters. Perhaps, even, boiled peanuts and pork. Probably the last thing that’s likely to pop up in your head is mock meat, but it turns out Richmond is a mecca for the soy, fungus, and gluten byproducts meat-hating vegetarians across the country gobble up at alarming rates.
You won’t find the good stuff at Joe and Jane Hipster’s food truck, either. No, it’s the city’s authentic mom & pop Asian restaurants that are devising novel ways to make mock and taste and feel a little more like chicken, beef, shrimp, duck, and sundry other off-limits fare. What’s more, the prices asked are actually reasonable, too! There’s exotic specialties like pho, chicken drumsticks, and crab rangoon, all without a speck of the usual fleshy suspects.
It’s a vegetarian Shangri-La, the promised land, cuisine a confirmed vegan like Bill Clinton could appreciate.
On the crowded corner of Harrison and Grace in Richmond is one such proprietor of mock meat delights, Panda Garden. It is, without a doubt, a hole in the wall, located on the first floor of an old building with Colonial-style architecture. It’s dark, muggy, and has a distinctly fishy odor, owing no doubt to the fish tank in the back of the dining area. The cook, when I was there, was sporting a vintage ACDC shirt.
It was, for me, a most auspicious omen.
Always the daredevil, I ordered the mock duck.
I’ve had real duck a few times, most memorably in Paris next to a Jack Nicholson look-alike that was hounded by autograph seekers. But I don’t think it was Mr. Nicholson.
Point is, I’m not an expert on duck or Jack Nicholson. I do, however, know mock meat, and this stuff wasn’t half bad.
What impressed me most was the texture. It had the same raised bumps you’d see on prepackaged ducks, which gave me a strange reassurance. Cut and arranged like a smoked duck breast, if you were starved and dehydrated in the Sahari Desert, it might’ve resembled the real deal from across the dunes. I don’t know.
Not bad, Panda Garden. Not bad.
On its own, the mock duck – presumably wheat gluten or soy, I didn’t ask, didn’t want to ruin the illusion – had a hints of umami to it, the mysterious fifth basic taste that’s renowned for its beguiling savoriness (the other four tastes being sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). Served with a big dollop of white rice and inundated with a gloppy ginger sauce, the dish is a satisfyingly cheap mess in that way you expect food from a Chinese restaurant that does heavy takeout.
Let’s face it, the real chicken or duck at your favorite Chinese haunt usually isn’t anything amazing, either. This hits the spot.
In parody of Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad with Bob Dylan, I’ll close with this:
Let Kansas barbecue your ribs. Let Maine steam your lobsters. Let Arizona grill your cacti. Richmond… will cook… your mock meat.