Plenty for meat lovers, and for real and faux vegans, too

When I visit a restaurant, I try to sample a representative cross-section of the menu. At the Moonlight Cafe, a Vietnamese restaurant on Jackson, that would have taken weeks.

Moonlight has a menu featuring more than 110 dishes. Then they have a second menu, featuring more than 110 different dishes. One menu is vegan and replete with all manner of faux meats ("the meat & seafood in the menu are for name sake only"). The other has real meat.

You're welcome to order off of both, though as soon as the staff sees you perusing one menu, they may try to snatch the other away. Don't be so easily pigeonholed as a meat or nonmeat person, because both menus are worth your time. But since I eat more than enough real meat, I decided to stick to the vegetarian menu.

Nearly everything I tried was tasty and more or less convincing — you may not say, "I can't believe it's not beef," but it sure seems like some animal product.

The room at Moonlight is as nostalgic as the name; it feels like an aging Vegas lounge. I don't mean that as a criticism; it's the sort of hangout I wish had been available when I was in high school, and it invites lingering. A piano and a lounge singer wouldn't be out of place and, indeed, the place used to offer karaoke.

In the end, my omnivorous nature got the best of me. I had to try something from the meat menu, so I went for lunch and had Com Bo Luc Lac ($6.95), also known as shaking beef. It's nothing more than cubes of beef stir-fried with garlic and onions and served with rice. I liked it, but Moonlight's vegetarian menu had already invaded my consciousness, because I was wondering whether the meatless version would be just as good.

Check please:

Thit Nuong: Skewers of chewy and sweet marinated grilled "beef" are served with lightly pickled vegetables. As with most of the imitation meats, the giveaway is that the morsels of soy protein dissolve in the mouth more quickly than real meat, but it was happy chewing while it lasted.

Canh Chua: There are dishes on the vegetarian menu that contain no meat substitutes, just vegetables. This is one of them — a big bowl of tamarind broth with several veggies, including tomatoes and a spongy pale-green vegetable called "elephant ears," which are actually sliced taro stems and do an admirable job of carrying the tart broth to your taste buds.

Ga Xao Xa Ot: The best of the fake meat dishes was this stir-fry of "chicken" cubes, crusty on the outside and chewy within, served with red peppers and onions atop a bed of fried cellophane noodles.

Bo Xao Ngo Sen: The protein in this stir-fry with lotus roots and snowpeas was supposed to be impersonating beef, but with its crackly skin, it was more like skin-on pork. I wasn't sure how I felt about that until I realized that I kept reaching over to the plate with my chopsticks to grab another crunchy morsel.

Tom Xao Hat Dieu: Modern technology can produce nearly anything, like Velcro and the Clapper, but apparently good fake shrimp is not currently within the realm of possibility. The specimens in this cashew prawn dish were mushy, with a flavor that makes you wonder how they make fake fish flavor, and why.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Thit Nuong $5.95

Canh Chua $7.50

Ga Xao Xa Ot $8.95

Bo Xao Ngo Sen $8.95

Tom Xao Hat Dieu $8.95

Tax $2.50

Total $42.80

Matthew Amster-Burton:

Moonlight Cafe

1919 S. Jackson St., Seattle; 206-322-3378



Hours: 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Mondays- Fridays. 10 a.m.- 11 p.m. Saturdays.

Beer and wine / credit cards: Visa, MC / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

Rating: recommended.