Buddha Bodai: eating vegan in NYC’s Chinatown


Vegan Thai and Chinese restaurants in big American cities are ten-a-penny, but I was keen to revisit a vegan Chinese restaurant in New York after a previous disastrous attempt with my parents.

My dad knows what he likes to eat – tofu carved into the shape of a chicken is not one of these things. We went expecting chow mein and we left slightly startled and still hungry. I fear that experience has put him off Asian eating for life. 

Although I’ve travelled to China since – and really enjoyed the choice and tastes of vegetarian food – I’ve always been a little unnerved by fake meat and things that are meant to resemble chicken feet or intestines but are actually tofu. 

We poked around San Francisco’s Chinatown – at 24 blocks, it’s the largest Chinatown outside of China, but already full and rolling from a hefty brunch at Herbivore we just couldn’t make room for dim sum. 


So an opportune day trip to New York arose in the form of a lengthy layover at JFK, and we decided to fully embrace a trip to Chinatown to Buddha Bodai to give vegan Chinese another go.

For $7.50 you get unlimited hot tea, a starter of soup or spring roll, rice, and an enormous plate of main meal (19 options!). These ranged from the weird (chicken nuggets in sauce, to the delicious, normal sounding broccoli and deep fried shiitake mushroom in sauce. 


It’s canteen style, with tables relatively close together and a busy, impersonal service, but the food is phenomenal.

I have never eaten such an incredible sweet sour soup in my whole life, and Sam, who eats meat, agrees. It’s a little over-thickened and the texture is a tad gloopy, but who the hell cares? It’s warm, and spicy, and sour without being rich and without any hint of that sticky red sweetness that constitutes a sweet and sour soup in London’s Chinatown. 


The spring roll had that pleasing crunch of pastry and slight ooze of oil that you hope for in a spring roll. Even better, you could taste the vegetables inside it – they were crunchy too and hadn’t just been denigrated to a slimy mush. 

The mains were a slightly mixed bag, but that’s only because I wanted to try the plate of bean curd skin, and in reflection, that was a mistake. The mushrooms and broccoli was a dish from another world. I hadn’t quite realised the mushroom would be deep fried and coated in a sticky, gelatinous sauce, so it was crunchy and sticky at the same time. 


Too tired after my bumpy-non sleeping night flight to even chew, (#firstworldproblems), Sam polished off most of two mains and the two starters and tea. 


It was a noble effort, and we waddled out of Chinatown and towards the subway, where I promptly fell asleep.