by Len Lear
On March 27 of this year I received an email from Mary Ann Baron, Chestnut Hill resident and co-founder of Philadelphia Advocates for Deer, which often protests the slaughter of deer in Wissahickon Park. She wrote, “Just ate at a vegan restaurant on 40 W. Skippack Pike in Broad Axe (in a strip mall right behind the Broad Axe Tavern). To say the food is awesomely delicious is putting it lightly. Their use of spices and seasonings is outstanding! They have Thai and other Asian specialties but all vegan.”
I must admit that I did not act on Mary Ann’s suggestion, but then in mid-July I received a phone call from Lisa Maguire of Blue Bell, whom I did not know, who said, “You have to go to Mi-Lah. The food and service are so great! We have been there between 30 and 40 times in the past year! Sometimes three times in one week. I love these people. I put them on my Facebook page. I would go door-to-door handing out their brochures!”
That did it for me.
Before going to Mi-Lah, however, I checked their customer reviews on yelp.com. Of the first 14 that came up, nine diners gave it five stars, and four gave it four stars. A typical five-star review from July 15 said in part: “I’ve been to Mi Lah twice and have enjoyed the food and the quiet, relaxing atmosphere very much. The owner and staff are very friendly. I’m not going to go down the list of what we ate, but everything, the soups, appetizers and entrees, were beautifully presented, and we were all saying, ‘Yum, this is so good,’ sharing bites and spoonfuls.”
The only non-rave was from a woman who did not even eat there, but she was upset because when she and her friend went to the restaurant late at night, they had already closed the kitchen. Well, you can’t please everybody.
The owner of this vegetarian fusion gem, Jason Lay, 33, was born and raised in Cambodia, but he came to the U.S. 12 years ago. He went to college in Cambodia for three years and worked for an engineering company for one year after coming here, inspecting bridges and highways. Two of Jason’s relatives, an aunt and grandfather, died in the Cambodian Holocaust. The rest were rescued by the Vietnamese Army.
Jason became a vegetarian at age 23, which improved his health and overall outlook so much, he decided that running a vegetarian fusion restaurant would be a lot more fulfilling than inspecting roads and bridges. “I wanted to show people that vegetarian cooking is not just about eating boring salads,” said Jason, who opened Mi-Lah in 2008 on 16th Street near Locust in center city.
On Valentine’s Day of 2015, however, water pipes burst, flooding the building, and the heat was shut off. When the building’s owner announced that he was going to have the building demolished, Jason left and reopened Mi-Lah in April, 2015, in its current location, formerly occupied by a Thai restaurant, Thai Aroma.
Jason has plans to open a second Mi-Lah by this October on 3rd Street, between South and Bainbridge in center city. Steve Mov, the Cambodian-born, super friendly manager at Mi-Lah, will run the new restaurant.
The word Mi-Lah was taken from an Indian word, “maitreya,” which means “mercy, nature, love, kindness and happy, anything good on earth.” According to Jason, “We try hard to make customers feel warm and welcoming. (They succeed.) We motivate our staff to smile always. We do not only want to make money; we want to spread joy. Our philosophy comes from nature. Your mood may be stressful, but once you come in here, it will be peaceful. We have soft music. People tend to stay in a restaurant longer with loud music, but we would rather have people fully enjoy their time here, no matter how short or long it is.”
The dishes we ate unfailingly showed the high quality of the ingredients and the impeccable preparation. The flavors are as delicately balanced as the wings of a hummingbird. For example, the edamame dumplings ($8), served with a creamy sunchoke puree, are as soft as down feathers, a mingling of flavors that sing in the mouth.
Six spring rolls ($6) are a combination of veggies and veggie ham wrapped in crispy rice paper and served with a sweet and sour sauce, tuning the subtle dials of texture, temperature and presentation to render each roll inventive and fresh.
An entree of baked phyllo ($17) with mushrooms and vegetables over a sublime cashew nut cream sauce, was complemented by farm-fresh kale and mashed potatoes, the flavors resonating with the clarity of a prized violin.
Another entree, grilled king mushrooms ($18), epitomized the depth and elegance of explosive, earthy flavors at Mi-Lah. The heavenly brandy-tequila tomato sauce blends with vegan chorizo and corn masa cake with the precision of a thread slipping through the eye of a needle. Desserts, not listed on the printed menu, have also earned encomiums from internet reviewers.
I have had carnivores tell me they would never go to a vegetarian restaurant. This is silly, of course. Great flavors are great flavors. Dead animals are not the only food that tastes good, and when the food is not only delicious but also ridiculously healthful with no artery-clogging saturated fats, hormones, additives, chemicals, sugar overload, etc., it is even better. Anyone who could not find dishes to love at Mi-Lah could not find a clown in a circus.
Rich Landau, chef/owner of Vedge in center city, called the best vegetarian restaurant in the country by more than one food magazine, told me that more than 50 percent of his customers are not vegetarians, and I am sure the same can be said for Mi-Lah. Only about 3 percent of Americans are vegetarians, according to a number of studies, and these wonderful restaurants could not possibly stay in business if they only catered to vegetarians. (There are now 16 vegetarian restaurants in the Philadelphia area.)
We were at Mi-Lah on a hot Tuesday night in July, and the beautiful dining room was quite crowded. Mi-Lah can seat 50 people. They have a brunch on Saturday and Sunday that offers American, Mexican and Asian dishes. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch Tuesday through Friday and brunch Saturday and Sunday. For lunch only there is a cheesesteak that is crazy good, exploding with flavors. I never before had a seitan dish (fake meat made from gluten) that tasted so good. And service is extremely friendly and efficient.
Not all BYOBs are created equal. Mi-Lah does not charge a corkage fee, and they supply big buckets filled with crushed ice.
For reservations: 215-646-1808 or www.milahvegetarian.com.