Van Bui had never run a restaurant, but the need for one was clear.
Cost is a large hurdle for those exploring vegan and vegetarian dining, and while City Heights is filled with affordable Vietnamese restaurants, most have limited options for those seeking meat-free meals.
The lack of affordable vegetarian food in City Heights (and beyond) begged for a solution.
“We wanted to open a business in which we can introduce Vietnamese vegetarian and vegan cuisine to the local people at an affordable price; so everyone can go for healthier food,” Van Bui explained.
Thanh Tinh Chay is built for regulars, with a philosophy pitched by many—to bring fresh, healthy food to the masses—but practiced by few.
Knowing that most of her customers would be mid-city locals, the menu is structured around a five-dollar-per-plate price point that is on par with the cost of cooking at home (depending on what you value your labor at).
The menu, broken down by appetizers, entrees, and soups, includes helpful photos for those less familiar with Vietnamese cuisine, or curious about portions and style of the various dishes.
“We aim to meet and serve a diverse range of customers from both local and other areas,” she says. “We want to provide a place that people can come and enjoy their meals within the peaceful and happiness environment, so most people in San Diego County, despite their differences in cultures and dietary choices, will know about our restaurant and visit to try our foods.”
While food media headlines are hooked on modern mock meats (or really, mock beefs), at Thanh Tinh Chay the kitchen pulls from the vast library of vegan proteins that existed long before Silicon Valley got involved.
From classic cubes of tofu to textured soy protein slices that are fried like jerky to reconstituted yuba (tofu skin) knots, a variety of which float in broths and over rice noodles.
The chả lụa chay is a standout. It's a vegan version of a banana leaf wrapped pork roll. Here it is made with compressed yuba layered with spices and whole peppercorns. Wrapped tightly and steamed, it forms a delicate white loaf of petal-like tofu, medallions of which float through some soups.
Although much of the offerings are built to share, the heart of the menu is made up of soups. Locals clamor $5 bowls of Hu Tieu (vegetable soup), Bún Riêu (rice vermicelli with fresh tomato), and Bún Huế (“beef” noodle soup).
The appetizers menu holds dishes rarely found vegan in San Diego, from Bánh Bèo—delicate “water fern cakes” made with carrot paste topped with shredded tofu and yams—to Bánh Xèo—a sizzling rice flour, mung bean, and coconut crepe stuffed with bean sprouts, mushrooms, and tofu.
What to Order
#1 Chả Giò / Veggie Eggrolls (2 for $1)
A straightforward eggroll starter order in multiples of 2. The finger sized rolls come stuffed with vermicelli, taro, carrots, yams, mung beans, and mushrooms bound tight and fried crisp with a lightly sweet dipping sauce.
#21 Bún Huế / “Beef” Noodle Soup ($5)
Soups are the heart of the menu. The Bún Huế offers a bit of everything: Tofu, textured soy flats, recondituded yuba sticks, and chả lụa chay (mock pork roll) over thick rice noodles. On the side comes a heaping plate of shredded cabbage and lettuces to dump on top with fresh squeeze of lemon.
#8 Cơm Hoa Từ Bi / Combination Rice ($5)
A mound of broken rice with fried mock pork and shredded root vegetables, tofu, and noodles. Served with chewy cuts of deep fried beef-style soy and a pat of lettuce topped with cucumbers and tomato. Notably, this dish also includes a diamond of veganized chả trứng—traditionally a steamed egg-loaf. Here it is instead made with turmeric-hued tofu strung through with glass noodles and vegetables.
Pro Tip: If you are vegan, clarify with the staff and they will hold egg from fried rice or swap out egg noodles for rice noodles in any dishes.
Thanh Tinh Chay
4591 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115
9am - 9pm (closed Wednesdays)
Phone: (619) 255-0134