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I've always been simultaneously intrigued by and suspicious of dishes at vegetarian restaurants that purport to be "just as good as" or "better than" the real (meat) thing. First of all, why would a veggie restaurant that was proud and unapologetic about its herbivorous offerings feel the need to cotton to the trappings of the unenlightened? Second, and really more important, how would a non-meat eater know? I mean, anyone who proudly publicizes the abstinence of carnal knowledge in my mind must either be outright lying or simply duplicitous in claiming that his wheat gluten-based "nacon" (non-meat bacon) is better than the fatty, salty pig original. It's like the priest telling the 30-year-old virgin she's not missing anything by not having sex.
Still, I find myself inexplicably drawn to menu items such as mock duck (muck?) and the quasi-famous neatloaf at Ananda Fuara (1298 Market, 621-1994, www.anandafuara.com) in the same way I'm fascinated by the perfectly replicated fake sushi in the windows of Japanese restaurants. As it turns out, neatloaf is only one of several odd and oddly compelling offerings at this longtime-favorite haunt for vegetarians.
The place is an enterprise founded by followers of Indian guru/musician/athlete Sri Chinmoy, located on an uninspiring corner in the mid-Market area. Judging by the exterior, you might expect to find a few hard-core vegan types inside munching on no-egg brownies, but you'd be wrong.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
Instead, the interior reveals a bustling, airy, and slightly bizarre combo of veggie-hipster haven meets weightlifting, sari-wearing guru den meets accountants' cafeteria. The core clientele is as trendy in its tattoos and scrunchy hats and oversize-frame eyeglasses as the barflies at Liquid on a Friday night, and as diverse in its tastes (the guy in front of me was reading Republican Noise Machine, the woman to the left a book by Chinmoy on Princess Diana, plucked from the small library in the back) as the people in the supermarket checkout line.
The waitstaff, awash in colorful saris, quietly floats past poster-size photos of Chinmoy lifting barbells, visiting the pope, and running marathons. A little bit New Age weird-o-rama, to be sure, but isn't that what makes S.F. so fabulously EssEff?
Most of these folks are clearly regulars, so well versed in the offerings they don't even require menus. The day I was there, four tables near me were having the neatloaf sandwich, which is also on the dinner menu, sans bread and augmented by mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy. From a distance, it certainly looked like meatloaf.
And when it arrived on my table, its color and heft and appearance were indeed meatloaf-esque.
But the flavor, sorry to say, does not resemble meatloaf's, though the dish is an admirable homage and quite tasty in its own right. The conglomeration of tofu, ricotta, eggs, brown rice and other grains, herbs, and spices does win points for mimicking mouth feel, however: It's almost a dead ringer, with clumps of "neat" that hold together in that slightly crumbly, moist loafy kinda way. And it comes topped with a tangy tomato- and molasses-based sauce (the crowning touch, in my opinion), which is a bit like barbecue sauce and a bit like ketchup, but not exactly either. Better, in fact.
One thing about this dish is definitely the same as the carnivorous version: When you're done, you feel like your belly's been expanded to its legal limits -- no typical vegetarian "hungry an hour later" worries here.
I suppose if nothing else, the experience has emboldened me to venture further into the fake meat repertoire. Next time, the turkey club. Bring on the nacon.