Too often when people bring up the topic of vegetarian cuisine in this country, there's this notion that it's all sprouts and nuts: "hippie food." That's just silly, especially in the Bay Area, where there's such a diversity of veggie fare — from the elegant, multi-layered creations at a place like Gather right down to your hole-in-the-wall falafel joints. And sometimes it's good to remind ourselves of the vegetarian traditions of other cultures: In China, for instance, Buddhists developed a cuisine that's rooted in various permutations of tofu and wheat gluten: fake meat, in other words. In Oakland, there's no better place to sample the stuff than at Nature Vegetarian, where chef-owner Jian Liu — a devout Buddhist himself — makes all of the restaurant's gluten- and soy-based meat substitutes in-house. Menu highlights include the super-crispy sesame "chicken"; roast "duck" made from tofu skins; and stuffed eggplant that's batter-fried, shaped like a whole fish, and carved tableside. All this served with a smile in one of the most tranquil dining rooms in all of Chinatown.
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