Overshoot Todd Couples Superstore by less than a mile, and you could easily mistake the barred windows and the nondescript street sign emblazoned Loving Hut for a different sort of establishment.
Instead, you'll find Mike Tyson, Pamela Anderson and non-GMO bean curd inside.
The celebrities' framed mugs adorn the walls of Loving Hut, a sit-down vegan restaurant curiously situated across the street from House of Meats. The international franchise opened its Tampa location in May 2010.
Our table delighted in what a companion called "vegan Hollywood Squares," squinting from a back booth to identify the glamour shots of famous faces who supposedly don't eat meat. We had awhile to absorb the otherwise clinically clean décor during a lunch punctuated by solemn glances at the hour on our phone screens. If you're short on time, don't test your boss' generosity.
A small sign apologized for a small staff that day, but the same sign was posted at a visit weeks prior.
The place has heart, though, evident not only in the earnest vegan propaganda, but in a handful of hits that would really shine if some misses were axed from the large menu.
None of the nearly 40 dishes and more than a dozen drinks contains any meat or animal products, but soy milk and soy protein delight as dairy and beef understudies in the frothy Strawberry Smoothie and the spicy Noble Philly Sub, respectively.
Its bounty initially piled high over the rim, the smoothie flute soon stood empty after we dug into the Philly. The creamy pink drink countered the sandwich's fiery sauce, drizzled generously over a warm, crunchy roll stuffed with red peppers and chewy soy protein.
The Vegan Ball Spaghetti rendered sausage an afterthought, subbing tidy morsels of soy protein with a pleasant nutty undercurrent. Simple but hearty, we relished the pile of pasta and the chunky tomato sauce's substantial flavor that stopped short of overwhelming.
Other imitation-meat dishes fell short. The Ocean Alfredo Pasta consisted of vegan gum protein costumed like prawns, but the flavorless, orange-dyed decoys only gave an illusion of substantiality to the modest bowl of linguine. The five crispy slabs of soy protein called Golden Nuggets could have easily passed for a mystery meat churned out of the Golden Arches. Their flavor came solely from the burnt-gold breading, more texture than taste, and the accompanying ketchup.
The Pad Thai, an oft veg-friendly selection, disappointed as a puddle of noodles wallowing in much-too-sweet juice.
Flagrantly vegetarian fare such as the Cheerful Satay – skewers of hot soy protein coated with a tangy glaze, flecked with sesame seeds, nestled atop a bed of cabbage and shaved carrots – proved the restaurant doesn't need to copycat meaty meals.
Loving Hut's prize offerings deftly layer vegetables, sauces and bean-based proteins into balanced dishes that can stand on their own, no comparative meat moniker required.
But manager Ying Wei, 41, has a calling to convert the carnivores.
"We have a combination because some people are doing the transition from a meat diet. They need something to help them make the transition. But most of the dishes, we don't really need the imitation at all."
If only she'd heed her own advice .
DINING REVIEW Loving Hut
Bottom line: A mixed-bag of strict vegetarian fare with a message
Where: 1905 E. Fletcher Ave., Tampa
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 3:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major except Discover
Children's menu: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Price: Entrees range from $4.95 to $11.95
Call: (813) 977-7888