Back in 1997, when Mai Nguyen officially opened the doors of Viet-vegan concept Au Lac, devoting oneself to a plant-based diet was still pretty damn fringe. Veganism was an emerging lifestyle that was just getting its sea-legs, and as a result, dietary options were markedly one-note. It was the Goop-less era of mock-meats and tofu blocks, and it was something Nguyen, compelled by her own improved quality of health, sought out to change for the better. “To me, if I eat tofu for the rest of my life, I rather die,” says Nguyen. “It is so boring!”
Nguyen wanted to spread the tenets of healthy eating, but she wasn’t willing to give up her love for traditional Vietnamese cooking. So, she got to experimenting, blending, and sublimating, eventually enlisting the expertise of raw food advocate, Chef Ito. Au Lac has since established itself as one of Orange County’s most celebrated vegan restaurants, and with last year’s second location opening on 1st & Hope, Angelenos are no longer required to make the long trek down to Fountain Valley for a taste of Chef Ito’s Asian-infused “humanese” creations.
Chef Ito, who has gained notoriety over the years for his decade-long religious vow of silence, has become, despite declining press interviews, Au Lac’s mysterious, de-facto figurehead. He operates the kitchen sans verbal instruction, opting instead to communicate via hand gestures, modeling, and written word. And even though his voice remains unheard, his mythical, zenned-out presence, which permeates the entire restaurant, speaks considerable volumes. Step inside and you are greeted by Chef Ito’s photography, his line of essential oils, and of course, his culinary creations.
Signature dishes include curried rice, made with blended macadamia cream, wild rice soaked overnight, and plenty of veggies, shaped and molded into a heart. It’s been a fan favorite among raw foodies since 2001. For the civilians just looking to get their feet wet, familiar dishes frequent the menu as well, like pho noodle soup. It may seem pointless to order pho devoid of beef, bones, and tendon, but Nguyen’s clever dupe, made with anise, boiled onions, and a heaping helpful of herbs, really does satiate.
“In Vietnam, you steam the bowl before you put in noodles,” says Nguyen, leaning in, as if divulging a trade secret. “That’s how you get it that hot.”
The ambience is surprisingly chic, considering the restaurant’s location in a nondescript strip mall. Au Lac steers away from the expected granola-chic aesthetic, opting instead to preserve the space’s former life as a supper club. The dining room floor boasts surprisingly modern flourishes: here you will find a piano, crystal lighting, plush booths, and a full bar featuring organic cocktails, housed underneath a lit, arched ceiling.
“There’s Gracias Madre and Cafe Gratitude, but we wanted to be different,” says Linh Nguyen, Mai’s daughter. She runs Au Lac LA, while Mai helms the original location. “We wanted to cater toward people who aren’t sure about veganism. Here, we invite them into a welcoming atmosphere.”
Written by Sophie He
Photographed by Oriana Koren