Hsi Lai Vegetarian Buffet: Chew With Purpose
Ben Calderwood Climbing the hill to the temple entrance
Most people visiting Hsi Lai Temple, the 15-acre Hacienda Heights campus of Taiwan's Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order, seek spiritual rather than culinary restoration. This is born out by the contents of Hsi Lai's vegetarian lunch buffet, served daily in a sprawling dining hall beneath the main shrine. Traditionally "stimulating" spices like onion, garlic and chive are forbidden--for eaters anticipating the Asian sour-spicy-hot-sweet panoply on tap in the valley below the monastery, this will not excite. But treat your meal, like your visit to this largest Buddhist temple in the United States, as an opportunity for contemplation and you will be sated. It's hard not to. The Five Precepts are mounted on the dining room wall.
There's a lot of food for your seven-dollar donation. Selections rotate, and while some dishes are so neutrally flavored they may as well be invisible (see: cucumber in broth), others are more flirtatious. Fresh seitan, pillowy, minimally kneaded and stewed with ribbons of wood ear mushroom, weeps hot oil and soy, and is best heaped atop a mound of broken rice and spiked with Hsi Lai's sambal-like chili paste (absent any cured shrimp, of course). Quarters of young bamboo shoot, textural semi-crunch wisely un-tampered with, are paired with edamame for a gentle, nutty-sweet mouthful. There is napa cabbage lightly sautÃ©ed with golden bean curd skin and shitake, and an over-oiled baby bok choy.
I didn't understand the gai lan (Chinese broccoli), reduced to a vinegary, rubble-like mince rather than being left intact, and muddled with scraps of wide rice noodle. The anemic fresh salad and fruit bar--all shredded lettuce, those knobs of pre-fab baby carrot that look like they've been fed through a rock tumbler and oxidizing wedges of apple--is clearly an attempt to placate non-Asian visitors. Relegated to a wall opposite the main buffet, it was avoided by everyone--diners and staff alike--during my last visit. And while watery tea is available from the self-serve urns past the steam-table, you'll be much happier with the brewed-to-order stuff and a handful of almond cookies in the neighboring tea room/giftshop.
Ben Calderwood Only exterior photography is permitted
Hsi Lai hides many treasures. There are classrooms, conservatories, a small museum, manicured gardens and artificial pools overflowing with granite and gold-painted statuary. A stone courtyard leads visitors to the mammoth central shrine--avoid shorts, skirts and tank-tops if you wish to enter. The view from the vaulted walkways, overlooking the San Gabriel Valley to the west, is magnificent. It's best to consider your meal at Hsi Lai Temple one moment of a longer, more nourishing meditation. The monks behind the stove will thank you for taking as much as you can consume, and not a spoonful more.
Hsi Lai Temple: 3456 Glenmark Drive, Hacienda Heights; (626) 961-9697.