The Dish: mock sesame eel
The Location: Sunflower Vegetarian Cafe, 2531 Chain Bridge Road, Vienna, (703) 319-3888
The Price: $4.75
The Skinny: Get past the hippie vibe (entrées have names like “Peace and Harmony” and “Songbird”) and the overstated sunflower motif (the dining room is packed with sunflower-themed tchotchkes) and you’ll find plenty of really good vegetarian riffs on Chinese and Japanese dishes at this Vienna restaurant. Of all of the stand-ins for meat, poultry, and seafood on the menu here, seafood would seem to be the hardest to imitate and, to be fair, Sunflower doesn’t really try.
Don’t let the name fool you—this dish isn’t as much a mock sea creature as it is entirely its own faux animal. The tender, flaky cakes are made primarily of soy protein and tofu, flavored exclusively with a salty-sweet barbecue sauce, giving the “eel” its pinkish hue. A nori “skin” holds everything together and lends the mock eel just enough fishiness to warrant its moniker. The fritter-like cakes are served atop a bed of shredded lettuce (which is baked along with the whole thing, adding another interesting textural component), sprinkled with sesame seeds and garnished with pickled ginger. The sushi-size pieces emerge from the oven light and savory, their crispy, glazed skins giving way to a satisfying and subtly flavored interior, making this one of the better ways to kick off a meal at this temple of healthy eating.