Masao’s Kitchen (Waltham, MA)

Recent events in my household have led me to discover that there’s an entire subprofession of veterinary care that I didn’t really know much about: Veterinary Oncology. Yes, my poor dog Buster has cancer, and it’s back. We’ve been considering treatment options, and the consultations have required us to travel down to Waltham, MA for these and the initial treatments. However, one of the few plus sides in this whole deal is that it’s introduced me to a part of the Boston metro area that I previous wasn’t familiar with (I’ve done mostly Boston, NE suburbs, and a few things around Natick due to work). Looking at the usual suspects for online reviews in the Waltham area, I was intrigued by one place that consistently showed up at the top of area restaurant review lists: Masao’s Kitchen, winning much acclaim for the quality of their Japanese vegan food. I’m not used to vegan places, Japanese or otherwise, making the top of review lists, so I was really intrigued, especially since I’m generally not the sort of person that seeks out vegan food.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against vegan food, but I do have a thorough love for various meat products, so they generally don’t make it high on my own lists, either. And, quite frankly, several vegan places I’ve been in the past have left me underwhelmed, in that they often seem to try and please people with simulated versions of meated dishes, done poorly (although not always, I’ve had several decent vegan biscuits and gravy, for example, and the vegetarian Harvest Moon Wild Rice Pub Burger at Fitger’s Brewpub in Duluth, MN, is honestly one of the best burgers I’ve had). Often, I leave a vegetarian or vegan place with the impression that they would have done better if they just gave up imitation and just tried to do the best with the ingredients at hand.

Well, that’s what Masao’s does, with a distinct Japanese approach. Nestled in a little tiny storefront on Moody Street a bit off of the beaten path in Waltham, Masao’s primary menu attraction is their Vegan Macrobiotic Platter, which is basically a buffet, served up by weight ($8.50/lb as of this writing). And quite frankly, it’s quite a buffet, featuring an ever-changing variety of bean, tofu, and vegetable dishes. It appears there’s a regular rotation pattern in the dishes (one of the “regulars” mentioned that Fridays were “Kidney Bean” day), but on our visit, the buffet included a spicy kidney bean dish, a nice curry-like tofu, several steamed greens in sauces, a nice carrot and burdock stir fry, a few rice dishes, some very flavorful mushroom gravy, and fried seitan with puffed rice coating. The last of these was quite notable, in that it captured the essence of “fried chicken cutlet” texturally (nice soft and moist interior with a light, crispy rice breading), but still allowed the natural flavors of the seitan and rice to stand out. Paired with the mushroom gravy, and I’d gladly eat that as a regular lunch option.

What I rather liked was the simplicity of the place: aside from the fairly elaborate fried seitan, everything was a fairly simple and straightforward vegetable dish, done well, with a good application of Asian spices and flavorings. The result was a nice, pleasant meal of reasonably healthy food that was a good change in pace from most of my travellings meals.

Despite my enjoyment of my buffet lunch, watching the other customers there gave me a distinct case of “order envy”, in that about half of the other customers had opted to ordered a “half bowl of noodle soup”. This half bowl, when delivered out to the table, was a substantially large bowl filled with noodles, veggies, and a delicious-smelling broth. It definitely looked wonderful, and I’ll definitely consider coming back to Masao’s to try out one of those when my travels take me back down to Waltham.

I’ll have to say that Masao’s does a very good job making good, flavorful, and interesting Japanese food… that just happens to be vegan as well. Just goes to show what you can do if you start with good ingredients, and build dishes around them.

So what’s everyone else’s experience? Are there other vegan places like this I should be checking out?

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