Under Shangri-La Tea Room's billowy pink, purple and teal gauze-shielded fluorescent lights, my dinner date dealt herself tarot cards from the restaurant's deck. A longtime skeptic (read: secret believer), I flipped through the accompanying book to decode her fate. The reversed Three of Cups said everything she needed to know: excess and self-indulgence had become the norm; it was time to purify. Good thing we had found our way to Boise's only vegetarian restaurant for a good, old-fashioned cleansing.
Shangri-La is an interesting blend of a head shop for tea paraphernalia, a massage parlor and a Montessori school lunchroom. The restaurant was originally located in Spirit at Work Bookstore, but for the past six months, it has occupied a building on Federal Way and Overland Road. A path of strewn rugs guided us through the restaurant's entryway and past a wall of various teas blended by owner and in-house herbalist Toni Hodge. With her long gray hair pulled back and dangling earrings chiming, Hodge placed a heart-shaped teapot warmer next to our pile of discarded tarot cards and lit a small candle. In a memorial gesture for the recently deceased Days of Our Lives writer, James E. Reilly, we turned over the three-minute hourglass and let our pot of Northern Blue Star blueberry herbal tea ($4) steep in reverent silence.
Two tables down, next to windows overlooking the Foothills, a father and daughter spoke in hushed voices, sharing bubble tea and green tea ice cream. Behind them, an Indian tapestry was hung beside a stage for weekend music, and a back hallway led to three massage rooms. Overhead, soothing music floated out of the speakers as a brightly colored feather wind chime danced to the sounds of flutes and soft rain.
Before we were lulled into a relaxation coma, Hodge's husband Bob had finished ladling our shared bowl of wild mushroom miso soup ($4.50). The steamy, dark brown dish was an earthy potion of porcini, black trumpet, golden oyster, portobello and shitake mushrooms that filled our nostrils and stirred our hunger. Though the name seemed like a miso-nomer, the hearty soup was the star of our meal, with chunky bits of mushroom, onion and thyme floating in a dark vegetable broth. Before we had slurped the last of the soup's savory contents, Hodge was back with our main courses: the Boca Burger ($4.95) and the Mediterranean Pizza ($6.95). My dinner date and I halved the two dishes, unfurled our flowery cloth napkins and got down to business.
Though the menu described the pizza as a pungent pile of pesto, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes, the mound of mozzarella cheese seemed to suck the kick out of these otherwise flavorful accoutrements. The Boca burger, on the other hand, ended up having more pizzazz than expected, with a dollop of oniony mango salsa and creamy goat cheese holding the whole-wheat bun to the grainy burger patty. Though it didn't surpass the Wimpy-approved, droolworthy-ness of Kulture Klatch's version—a little beast my carnivorous mother crowned the best burger (veggie or not) she'd ever eaten—Shangri-La's meat-free morsel was more than satisfying.
As we finished off the rest of the pot of tea, my dinner pal and I ruminated on the plight of the vegetarian restaurant. An ex-vegan, I've sampled my fair share of tasty and tongue-scrapingly bland cruelty-free cuisine. Unfortunately, many veggie menus either fall back on time-tested Asian and Middle Eastern staples (stir-fries and hummus pitas) or dressed up soy products pretending to be something they're not (proverbial lipstick on a faux-pig). Though I'm a sucker for a good Tofurkey, the secret to a great vegetarian meal will always be fresh, flavorful, well-prepared vegetables. What we sampled from Shangri-La's menu nailed fresh and well-prepared, but lacked the distinctive flavor that can elevate veggie cuisine from wanting to wanted.
—Tara Morgan suffers the slings and tarots of outrageous fortune.