You know that old line that starts, "If it walks like a duck ..."? Well, it doesn’t apply at Happy Buddha, a new all-vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown. Amid the clanking construction, Happy Buddha is a welcome oasis of tranquility, down to the beech-wood furniture, bamboo candle lanterns, and lotus-flower salt-and-pepper shakers. Soy protein and its many incarnations are the staples here, but you’d almost never know it, based on how it masquerades as various meat and fish products. As my waiter said — in response to my I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-actually-shrimp double take when he delivered my veggie-seafood with black-bean sauce ($8.75) — this imitation is "like an art." The artistic replications come in four "styles": chicken, beef, pork, and seafood. While the veggie-squid swam a bit on the tough, rubbery end of the spectrum, the shrimp had a smooth texture and a sufficiently convincing briny tang. Even more recommendable are the beef-style dishes, such as veggie-beef with lemongrass ($8.50). And the sauces, like sweet-and-sour ($8.50/with veggie-pork; $9.25/with veggie-fish) and curry ($8.50/with veggie-beef), are rich in flavor yet light enough not to overpower the distinctive taste of the veggie meats.
Regular old tofu also plays a starring role here, both in traditional preparations, such as stir-fried with ginger and scallions ($7.50), and where you might not expect it, like in the wonton soup ($2.75). Floating amid the giant chunks of cabbage, turnips, and carrots are bite-size dumplings stuffed with a sweet tofu-and-carrot filling. Think of them like bean-curd bonbons. And speaking of traditional, there are plenty of noodle soups ($5.75–$6.50) and fried-rice platters ($7.50) to please comfort-food seekers.
You may have heard soy meat referred to as "fake meat." That’s true in a sense, but bear in mind the old adage that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Still, the cuisine here has a funky originality all its own.
Happy Buddha, located at 5 Beach Street, in Chinatown, is open Sunday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Call (617) 451-1121.