Mary Tai, the owner and manger of Yuan Fu, spends a lot of her time dispelling the confusion that her menu creates. The document is deceptive. It includes a full-color photo of a “soft-shell crab” dish that contains no seafood whatsoever. Instead, the dish is made with shoestring strips of Chinese eggplant, lightly battered and fried to a crackle. “Meatballs” and “chicken,” though texturally and geometrically distinct, are essentially the same thing: soy bean. Around Thanksgiving, Tai changes the menu so that Yuan Fu “chicken” becomes Yuan Fu “turkey”—without changing one ingredient in the actual dish. “So funny,” she says with a laugh. “People like it. It’s a holiday special.”

The word “vegetarian” is emblazoned clearly on the building, and the year-old restaurant’s menu includes a statement explaining the white lies within, but still Tai has problems. “People don’t see that,” she explains. “They come in [and say], ‘I want shrimp chow mein. I want chicken fried rice.’” Once Tai tells her potential customers, in so many words, that meat is imaginary at Yuan Fu, they usually still stay. Eight out of 10 diners, she estimates, return.

For the most part, the dishes prepared by Li Ming Tai, Mary Tai’s husband and Yuan Fu’s chef, are defined by what they don’t contain—namely, meat, eggs, dairy, and wine. It’s vegan, only more strict. Mary Tai says that her husband mastered the art of Chinese vegetarian cooking, at first, because there was a market for it. But the cooking style is informed by a strain of Buddhism that both the Tais practice, one that regards both garlic and onions as off-limits. According to some, those vegetables are shunned because they’re seen as stimulants, and harvesting them kills innocent bugs. And you won’t find either in the food at Yuan Fu also because, as Tai puts it, “They make your breath stink.”

It all sounds like a recipe for tongue-numbing dullness, but Yuan Fu’s food quickly demonstrates that chef Tai sees possibility in the limitations. Some of the dishes are exquisitely simple, like a Chinese cucumber that’s been de-seeded and re-rolled so as to look deflated, then doused with sharp pepper oil. A plate of finely diced vegetables is an earthy rendition of moo shu, with broad leaves of iceberg lettuce sitting in for pancakes. “Orange beef” features a gluten-based version of meat with its own idiosyncratic texture, both melting and firm, and glazed in a spicy-sweet sauce. Those crab cakes are candylike, cooked so that the eggplant oozes from inside its crisp shell. It’s all enough to make you wonder why this byproduct of Buddhism still exists largely underground.

Mary Tai explains that the kind of food her husband prepares isn’t much more common in Taiwan, where both are from, than it is here. “This food is very hard to make,” she says. “Soybean or gluten or wheat flour or yam—it’s very hard to prepare. If you [haven’t worked] in a vegetarian restaurant before, a lot of people don’t know how to make it.”

Mary Tai claims that Li Ming Tai (who doesn’t speak English) was responsible for introducing locals to Chinese vegetarian cuisine when he was the chef at Vegetable Garden, a similar restaurant that sits a few miles south from Yuan Fu on Rockville Pike. When that restaurant opened five years ago, it followed the Buddhist tenets more strictly than it does today; it’s still fiercely vegetarian, but now it also offers dishes made with onions and garlic as well as such non-Chinese offerings as veggie burgers and penne with tomato sauce. Tai downplays any competition between the two restaurants, but says that her customers prefer Yuan Fu to its neighborhood counterpart.

Garden manager and co-owner George Zhong claims he didn’t even hear about Yuan Fu until a customer tipped him off to his competitor; his regulars tell him that they still find the Garden better, healthier. And although Tai describes Zhong as an old friend, urging me to introduce myself to him, Zhong says he’s never heard of the Tais. When I tell him about Mary Tai’s claim that her husband once ran his kitchen, Zhong replies, “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

Regardless, Zhong’s not worried about losing any business. His entryway is wallpapered with national magazine clippings, among them one from Self that rates the Garden as one of the top 10 vegetarian restaurants in the country. Zhong, a native of China who’s neither Buddhist nor 100 percent vegetarian, says that despite the widening focus of the Garden’s cuisine, health consciousness is still the bottom line: The restaurant serves no dairy or meat products, uses only soybean oil, and distinguishes itself by catering to those looking to maintain strict macrobiotic or organic diets. “When we went over there,” he says, referring to a scouting trip he made to Yuan Fu, “we asked them for organic and macrobiotic [dishes]. It seemed like no one knew what we were talking about.”

Like Yuan Fu’s, the Garden’s food shines in spite of its restrictions; the crispy black mushrooms are irresistible, chewy and salty-sweet, a more-than-worthy treatment for a fried-calamari jones; and its mock-meat and vegetable hot pots are complex, deep-flavored stews. At their cores, both restaurants are Chinese; if there’s a difference between the two, it is one of philosophy. Zhong pleads guilty to breaking some of the rules his restaurant had at the beginning, but adds that not all Buddhists are vegetarians and that, after all, garlic and onions, smelly as they may be, are technically vegetables. For her part, Tai is puzzled as to why Zhong denies knowing her. “A couple years ago, some people changed,” she says of the Garden’s proprietors. “We didn’t.”

Yuan Fu Vegetarian, 798 Rockville Pike, Rockville,

(301) 762-5937.

Vegetable Garden, 11618 Rockville Pike, Rockville,

(301) 468-9301.

Hot Plate:

Nine months ago, when Swagat opened in Woodley Park, one reader was “ecstatic”; the feeling diminished after one visit, after which she rated its vegetarian food inferior to that of its long-beloved sister location in Adelphi (now called Chowpatty). I’d say Swagat has few peers when it comes to churning out delicately crisp masala dosa, the ridiculously long potato-and-onion-plumped crepes that are one of the staples of Indian veggie cooking. It’s what most people are eating the day I have to wait 10 minutes for a table to free up—at 2 p.m.

Swagat, 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 462-4786.

—Brett Anderson

More from WCP