San Franciscos only kosher Chinese restaurant closes

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Chinese food is no longer an option for kosher Jews wanting to dine out in San Francisco.

The Lotus Garden Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown went on vacation July 1 when its lease expired, and it's not coming back.

Restaurant owner Kam Yan Lai isn't sure what will happen to the building on Grant Avenue, but said he is hoping to reopen the kosher restaurant at a new location within the next few years.

"The Lotus Garden served a very important purpose," said Adath Israel Rabbi Jacob Traub, chairman of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco. "It was the only [kosher] restaurant in the Chinatown area for a long time and it was a big boon to the lunchtime trade for people who worked downtown. But the main source of income for most restaurants in Chinatown is not locals, it's the tourists."

While there are other vegetarian Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, the Lotus Garden, which opened in 1980, was the only one under the supervision of the council. About 60 percent of the restaurant's customers were Jews who keep kosher, according to Alice Lai, the owner's daughter. Expenses were always high for the restaurant; it was located in a large building that required a lot of maintenance and had high property taxes, she said.

"We are going on vacation because we have not been making profits and the lease is up," Alice Lai said. "Business has gone down each year and we have tried cutting expenses by hiring less people and buying directly from grocers rather than through a vendor. But we hope to open a new restaurant within two years."

Local customer David Kosak of Alameda, who works at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, liked most of the dishes. "The vegetarian sea bass was fantastic," he said. "It was made with wheat gluten in a seaweed that had a good texture.

"But the vegetarian goose was wrapped in a strange thin skin that wasn't very good."

A majority of the restaurant's kosher diners were tourists.

Murray Sragow of Teaneck, N.J., in town on a business trip, tried the Lotus Garden upon the recommendation of his brother. There are about 40 kosher Chinese restaurants in New York City and even several in Teaneck, said Sragow, who rated the Lotus Garden on favorable terms with its East Coast counterparts.

"We are spoiled back East but the egg rolls here are very good," said Sragow, who ate at the restaurant on both days of his stay here. "And the portions are great. They would have charged me twice as much for this much food in New York."

Sragow also heard about the Lotus Garden from Harry Chefitz's comments on the kosher restaurant database of www.shamash.org, the Jewish Internet Consortium. Although Chefitz considers himself a "meat-and-potatoes type of guy," he enjoyed the pareve restaurant during a visit in 1989, returning during a San Francisco trip this spring.

"For those of us who eat only kosher food, it was a thrill to eat Chinese food that did not taste like it came from a deli," said Chefitz, who lives in Edison, N.J. "They had wonderful pot stickers, not kreplach disguised as Chinese food."

Michael and Miriam Shapiro are kosher Jews from Phoenix, where there are no kosher Chinese restaurants. They discovered the Lotus Garden through local friends, Dr. Ami and Abby Goodman, members of Beth Sholom.

Of course, Lotus Garden was not strictly for kosher Jews. "Whenever I come up to San Francisco, I stop by to eat here," said Faith Greenfield of Palo Alto. "I don't keep kosher and I'm not vegetarian but do like the food, as well as the price and the ambiance."

David Burley of San Francisco, a vegetarian who works in the Financial District, often lunched at the Lotus Garden. He and many of his fellow congregants at Central Seventh-day Adventist Church on California Street enjoyed the Lotus Garden, he said, adding, "Seventh-day Adventists have similar dietary laws to kosher Jews."