Philadelphia has long been about a lot more than cheese-steak. And now, Lancaster Pike has one of the most impressive vegan restaurants we have ever enjoyed. SuTao Cafe, a peaceful diner tucked in between Power Yoga and an Indian grocer, serves elegant vegetarian fare. What’s more, the buffet offers their best items — all you care to eat — at prices students and retirees will welcome. Indeed, the restaurant attracts clientele of all ages and backgrounds. There is even a special buffet price for youngsters.
A good choice for a start is the Hot-and-Sour Soup, a tangy broth in which flashes of fire-red pepper are calmed by soft twists of tofu. Like everything at SuTao, the soup brings happiness and a healthful glow to all who enjoy it.
Obsessed with fresh vegetables, the menu’s creator, Susan (Wei) Wu, has experimented for years with various vegetarian dishes. Hence the name SuTao, which is the Chinese word for vegetarian cooking. As a child in China, Wu watched her mother cook with vegetables. Whereas children in the U.S. might recall feeling forced to eat our vegetables, growing up in China in the days of Susan’s childhood meant monthly rations of only one pound of meat per family member, and one pound of egg — less than a dozen — per family. Thanks to China’s thousands of years’ history with the art of vegetarian cooking, Susan’s mother could find many ways to prepare delicious meals from vegetables. “Much of this I learned from my mother, and experimenting from what I picked up at home,” Wu remembers.
After the 1970s, the economic situation changed in China, and meat became more popular as a rule — a rule to which this restaurant’s co-founders were no exceptions.
Susan Wu’s partner, computer programmer Tong-Yi Li, missed China because “here in the U.S., they did not enjoy some of the best things in life — like choosing a live, swimming fish to eat.”
But all that changed 12 years ago, when Susan Wu and Tong-Yi met a renowned teacher of Qigong (pronounced “chee-GUNG” ), a traditional art which focuses on healing, fitness, family happiness, social contributions, scientific progress, and longevity. Says Tong-Yi: “Although the effects are beyond the explanation of known and accepted fundamental physical forces, Dr. Yan Xin, in collaboration with scientists at Harvard University, the National Institutes of Health, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has produced the first scientifically concrete evidence that the vital life force or ‘qi’ can be projected out of the body to affect physical substances and objects at various structural levels, from molecular to nuclear.” That is why the paintings by Dr. Yan that decorate the restaurant, as Tong-Yi Li explains, may reflect the vital life force and benefit people’s immune systems — giving a new meaning to the term “healing art.”
After Susan Wu and Tong-Yi Li began to study this ancient healing method, their former interest in meat subsided. “Being tuned in with the vital human life force,” explains Tong-Yi, “seemed to naturally guide us into vegetarianism. Our bodies began to make intelligent choices. There was no feeling of resistance or loss at all; and it happened to both of us, although we had never set out deliberately to change our diets. All sorts of subtle changes occurred. If Susan, who notices the smallest detail, catches sight of a fly, she will carry the fly outside. The practice of this art does cause one to feel a gentleness about the forces of life in other beings.”
Tong-Yi continues: “In China, there has always been a tradition of gentleness — for example, in Buddhism. But most people put up a great deal of resistance, so one meets Buddhists who are vegetarians on the 1st and the 15th of the month. They find ways to interpret the teachings in all sorts of ways. But respect for life should be an everyday thing.”
Susan Wu agrees: “We try to make it possible for people to see it that way.” The pair decided that the best way to share their knowledge and good health would entail opening a traditional yet creative Chinese restaurant in the U.S. So Susan Wu earned a Master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management, and through a constant search for the perfect vegetarian tastes, Wu has developed an art that is entirely unique.
Wu notes that a healthy lifestyle must include healthy eating, if our populace is to significantly lower the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart and liver disease, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes. We hear a great deal these days about the global success of U.S. fast-food brands; what a refreshing reversal to see the healthiest Chinese vegetarian cuisine influencing tastes right in the heart of Pennsylvania. This is especially good news if there is truth to the adage that every veggie burger chosen instead of a hamburger results in six additional hours to a person’s life.
Well, I can tell you one of the most wonderful things of all,” Tong-Yi says: “Our nine-year-old child has never had a cold.”
Children who visit might well be swayed by the “SuTao Burger” — complete with an order of French fries specially prepared to be as healthy as they are tempting. SuTao is open for lunch and supper, with a menu that transforms texturized soy protein into a tender and juicy mock roasted duck. “Our customers who are accustomed to eating meat tell us that our vegetable-based imitations are so good that they cannot tell the difference,” Wu beams. Her pepper steak and lemon chicken, both served at the buffet, have made repeat customers out of meat-eaters. “I do not know whether we are creating new vegetarians,” says Susan Wu, “but vegetarians have told me that coming here has enabled them to stick with the vegetarian diet.”
The buffet also has one of the most attractive and unusual salad bars imaginable, ranging from conventional salad bar fare — fresh greens, corn, olives, shredded beetroot, a variety of beans, carrots and kale — to exotic treats such as a sweet, gingery seaweed and sesame salad, raw potato strings, bean curd with red pepper, kim chi, and cold noodles. Depending on when one visits, the buffet also includes fresh, warm vegetable dumplings with a special sauce, or a boat of sushi that is cut in a unique style — some rolls resembling bouquets with their vibrant sprigs of vegetables. The desserts include a surprisingly light, crispy fried banana dish, and sometimes even a hot “dessert soup” blending taro, coconut, and tapioca beads that resemble translucent black cherries.
Newly renovated, with a friendly, airy feel, this café is one to watch. One thing is certain: SuTao has succeeded in bringing strength to the table instead of succumbing to the pressure to serve animal products. SuTao’s survival depends on a social conscience, and we are delighted to have such a restaurant to recommend to our members residing in or visiting the Philadelphia area.
Hours and directions
SuTao provides catering as well as on-site banquet services with healthy food at an excellent value in a casual atmosphere. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 am to 9:30 pm; Friday to Saturday from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm; and Sunday from noon to 9:30 pm. Telephone: 610.651.8886.
Located in the town of Malvern at 81 Lancaster Avenue (corner of Route 30 and 401), SuTao is less than 30 miles west of central Philadelphia on the suburban Main Line, a route named for the commuter train that runs into the city and is known for its numerous colleges and universities.
Directions from Philadelphia Via I-76 westbound:
Go 15 miles and merge into US-202 south via exit number 328. Go another 8 miles to take the Malvern exit, PA-29 southbound (South Morehall Road) to its end. Turn right on Route 30 west 1/2 mile. Come to intersection of Route 30 and 401. Turn right at the KFC sign or the Great Valley Center sign.
From 476 (Radnor/Villanova/Bryn Mawr area):
From the St. Davids exit (Exit 13) take Lancaster Avenue (Route 30) west about 9 miles to the restaurant. The restaurant is just under 3 miles west of Route 252. At the 401- Route 30 intersection, make a right. Look to your right for the sign for Great Valley Center (or make a right turn into the KFC’s drive — the sign might be easier to spot, and this leads to the same parking area).