Tibetan prayer flags hang outside Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant. Inside, a framed picture of the Dalai Lama smiles down at customers, as does a drawing of the owner’s 4-year-old daughter imploring people to “please support animals” and “please eat healthy food.”
It is owned and run by a Tibetan refugee whose cooking took him from a Buddhist monastery to a high-end Belgian hotel and one of Oakland’s hippest vegan restaurants before he opened his doors on January 1st.
That would be Luo Rong “Sam” Sang Zhu introducing not one but two new menus every day of the week, first for lunch and then again for dinner. While customers can order each item a la carte for $6, it’s recommended to order the entire menu for $12.75 to $15.75, with prices depending on portion size and time of day.
Sang Zhu is flanked by his brother-in-law Bu Chu, the co-owner and prep chef of the 24-seat restaurant. That’s it. Two men who create and execute 14 different organic plant-based macrobiotic menus per week.
Business has been sluggish so far. But Sang Zhu’s philosophy and reason for opening goes beyond financial gain.
“I’m obviously trying to make money, I’m (in) business. But I think, “How is it possible to make really delicious food where people like it?” That’s my No. 1 (priority),” said Sang Zhu.
FROM TIBET TO SACRAMENTO
39-year-old father-of-two, Sang Zhu is a gregarious host to Himalayan guests, and sincerely welcomes anyone with a surgical mask. He has been extremely secretive about anything concerning his native Tibet, he said, fearing his family who still live there might face the wrath of the Chinese government.
So his story begins in 1994, when a 12-year-old Sang Zhu and 72 others fled Tibet on foot through the snow-capped Himalayas. They trek for 22 days before reaching Nepal, where Tibetan expats helped coordinate the newcomers’ final destination. “Do you want to go to school? Do you want to go to a temple?” they asked Sang Zhu.
He chose Sera Monastery in the southern Indian city of Mysuru and learned meditation, Buddhist philosophy and the Tibetan language, as well as cooking. For 14 years, Sang Zhu baked bread and prepared vegetarian dishes for 200 of the temple’s 5,000 other monks.
That lasted until 2008. Sang Zhu left the monastery to join his cousins in Belgium. He first cooked at a sushi restaurant, then he made pasta and other Italian dishes at a high-end hotel.
But they were distant cousins, and in 2013 Sang Zhu moved to the Bay Area to be closer to his uncle, a father figure who happened to be an owner Shangri-La Vegan in Oakland and Albany.
Named by one of the East Bay’s top vegan restaurants Thrillthe Chronicle of San Francisco and The Oakland side, Shangri-La Vegan similarly flips its menu twice a day, seven days a week. The emphasis is on whole grains and vegetables, and many of the dishes are even the same as those now found in North Natomas.
In short, it is the model for the Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant.
Sang Zhu stayed in Shangri-La for five years and met his now wife, Karen Chayung, while living in the Bay Area. They eventually moved to Sacramento to be closer to their family, including Bu, whom Sang Zhu calls his best friend.
Sang Zhu took courses to become an electrician, but his English is not good enough to earn his state license, he said. Instead, he became a restaurateur and repairman at Happy Laundry, his family’s laundromat in South Sacramento’s Lemon Hill neighborhood.
Commonalities emerge in the ever-changing Himalayan menu. Other restaurants saturate their food with butter and salt; Instead, Sang Zhu and Chu rely on the earthy flavor of whole grains and leafy greens.
A typical lunch plate might include miso pea soup, black-eyed peas, tossed salad with carrot-lemon-agave dressing, and a brown shiitake leek sauce over collards and kale. Brown rice or quinoa usually add some body, and Chayung provides the chili oil for those who want to add a kick.
While vegans have supported Himalaya, omnivorous customers have had a harder time converting, particularly those who still associate the restaurant’s premises with its former tenant L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
“Some people walked in here and saw that it was a vegan restaurant and they left,” Chu said. “A woman came in here and asked me for a barbecue and I said there’s no barbecue anymore, we’ve changed the company name and everything, it’s 100% organic and vegan… and she said, ‘Shame on you!'”
Sang Zhu and Chu start preparing the food around 7 a.m. and publish the lunch menu of the day Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant website at 9. They start work on another batch of vegetables around 1 p.m. — beans can be reheated, but produce must be fresh, Sang Zhu said — and release the evening menu around 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m.
Three or four cakes are always on the menu: Sang Zhu’s daughter loves the chocolate cake, as she quickly announces. Other flavors included mango, strawberry, and coconut.
However, don’t expect Marie Callender’s flaky crusts and sugary fillings.
For example, for the Key Lime Pie from the Himalayas, Sang Zhu sweetens his lemon-lime-avocado mousse with only organic agave syrup. An almond pecan paste and shredded coconut husk make up the cake’s thin shell, creating a refreshing dessert that doesn’t balance the rest of the health-focused meal.
The L&L Hawaiian Barbecue left a vending machine and refrigerated display case when it moved out of what is now the Himalayas, but Sang Zhu draped flags over the former and left the latter empty because they don’t align with the new restaurant’s values. Beverage options include hot tea and a selection of San Francisco beverages Lev’s Kombucha flavors.
The Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant attracted 10 to 20 customers a day for the first few weeks of its existence, Sang Zhu said. The Wendy’s across the parking lot can have that many people in its drive-thru line at once.
However, he is not jealous. While money has become a more pressing necessity since starting a business and family, the Buddhist teachings Sang Zhu grew up in remain more pervasive.
“We need it to live, but money doesn’t play a role in your life. Your life is very peaceful and compassionate. We always think about it,” said Sang Zhu. “I don’t need to make too much money. Enough to support my family and have a peaceful life that I enjoy.”
This story was originally published June 3, 2022 5:00 am.