A trip to the Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant in San Francisco’s not-so-glamorous Tenderloin district is an adventure worth taking. From the outside, the eatery looks like another tiny joint, but walking in reveals an open, high-ceiling, sunken dining room with slightly dimmed lighting and a welcoming ambience. You can pause to peruse the flyers and pamphlets on vegetarianism, veganism and a woman called Supreme Master Ching Hai (a Buddhist humanitarian considered to have reached enlightenment). Or, you can move right into the dining experience. (Fear not: the restaurant is not bent on proselytizing vegetarian living!)
We were greeted right away and seated quickly, easing toward a great meal. The servers are friendly, helpful and prompt. The hardest decision that you will have to make is simply what to eat, as Golden Era’s menu is full of tempting treats. From appetizers to entrees and soup to sizzling clay pots, the choices are many. You’ll find a number of familiar Asian vittles, such as pot stickers, spring rolls, wonton noodles, chow mein and fried rice. All of the items here are vegan, unless marked on the menu as simply vegetarian. Some of the desserts, such as the caramel flan and fruit smoothies, are available in regular, non-vegan or vegetarian versions. They offer a selection of lunch specials, and we focused our attention there. We ordered the lemon “chicken” and mixed vegetable “chicken” black bean dishes, knowing it would be tofu-based (as is all of the “meat” at this restaurant) and hoping for the best.
There is no sense of rushing here. You won’t find a pretentious soul around and though the food is primarily Vietnamese, anyone can feel comfortable in their surroundings. The décor is just enough to remind you of the Eastern world, but not enough to make you feel you have been transported across the sea. A soothing mix of jazz played on the stereo eases you closer to nirvana ever so slightly.
The food arrived before we had sipped even half a cup of their delicious tea – a speed we especially appreciated at lunchtime. I had feared that the “chicken” would be noticeably “bean-y,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The batter-fried “chicken” complemented the lemon sauce smoothly, with the rice adding a hint of texture. Trying to keep up with the healthy theme, we both ordered brown rice instead of white, which turned out to be a delicious enhancement. The mixed vegetable “chicken” black bean dish received two thumbs up from my dining companion. She was most notably impressed with the fact that all of the vegetables carried their own flavor without being overwhelmed by the black bean sauce. Despite being a seafood fan and cautious vegetarian experimenter, she consumed her entrée with scrumptious glee.
With a $5.50 lunch special under my belt, it was time to spoil myself with a dessert. The carrot cupcake was calling my name, while my cohort went for the eggless cheesecake. Two thumbs up for the cupcake, especially the tasty vegan icing on top; the cheesecake got a positive review as well, not lasting for more than five minutes on her plate.
For less than $20 for two people, this had to be one of the most enjoyable and soothing meals I’ve had in a long time. As a yogi, coming here after a class would only help to extend your sense of compassion and private practice. A pleasant surprise awaited me later that day when, more than four hours after my meal, I was still delightfully satisfied. With such accessible prices and a central location, the Golden Era will leave you more than gratified.