Tibetan prayer flags hang outside Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant. Inside, a framed picture of the Dalai Lama smiles down on customers, as does a drawing by the owner’s 4-year-old daughter imploring people to “please support animals” and “please eat healthy food.”
It’s owned and run by a Tibetan refugee whose cooking took him from a Buddhist monastery to a high-end Belgian hotel to one of Oakland’s hottest vegan restaurants, before opening his own place on May 1 at 4160 Northgate Blvd., Suite 4.
That would be Luo Rong “Sam” Sang Zhu, who debuts not one but two new menus every day of the week, first for lunch and then again for dinner. While customers can order any item à la carte for $6, people are encouraged to order the entire menu for $12.75-$15.75, with pricing dependent on portion size and time of day.
Sang Zhu is flanked by his brother-in-law Bu Chu, the 24-seat restaurant’s co-owner and prep cook. That’s it. Two men, crafting and executing 14 different organic plant-based, macrobiotic menus per week.
Business has been slow so far. But Sang Zhu’s philosophy and reason for opening go beyond financial gain.
“I try to make money, of course, I’m (in) business. But I’m thinking, ‘how is it possible to make really delicious food where people like it?’ That is my No. 1 (priority),” Sang Zhu said.
FROM TIBET TO SACRAMENTO
A 39-year-old father of two, Sang Zhu is a gregarious host to Himalaya’s guests, earnestly welcoming each one through a surgical mask. On anything surrounding his homeland of Tibet, though, he’s markedly tight-lipped, he said, out of fear his family still living there might suffer the Chinese government’s wrath.
His story, then, begins in 1994, when a 12-year-old Sang Zhu and 72 others fled Tibet on foot through the snowy Himalayas. They hiked for 22 days until they reached 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 picked Sera Monastery in the South 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 made 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 cooked first at a sushi restaurant, then made pasta and other Italian food at a high-end hotel.
But those 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 own Shangri-La Vegan in Oakland and Albany.
Named one of the East Bay’s top vegan restaurant by Thrillist, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Oaklandside, Shangri-La Vegan similarly turns over its menu twice daily, seven days per week. There’s an emphasis on whole grains and vegetables, and many of the dishes are even the same as what one can now find in North Natomas.
In short, it’s the model for Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant.
Sang Zhu stayed at 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 her family, including Bu, whom Sang Zhu calls his best fried.
Sang Zhu took classes to become an electrician, but his English wasn’t developed enough to earn his state license, he said. Instead, he became a restaurateur and the fix-it man at Happy Laundry, his family’s laundromat in South Sacramento’s Lemon Hill neighborhood.
Common threads emerge throughout Himalaya’s ever-changing menu. Other restaurants saturate their food with butter and salt; Sang Zhu and Chu lean instead on the earthy tastes of whole grains and leafy greens.
A typical lunch plate might include miso-split pea soup, black-eyed peas, mixed salad with carrot-lemon-agave dressing and a brown shiitake-leek sauce over collard greens and kale. Brown rice or quinoa typically provide some body, and Chayung makes the chili oil available tableside for those who want to add a kick.
While vegans have supported Himalaya so far, converting omnivorous customers has been a harder sell, particularly those who still associate the restaurant’s space with its former tenant L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
“Some people came in here and saw that it’s a vegan restaurant, and they left,” Chu said. “One woman came in here and asked me for barbecue and I said there’s no more barbecue, we changed the business name and everything, it’s 100% organic and vegan … and she said ‘shame on you!’”
Sang Zhu and Chu start prepping food around 7 a.m. and post the day’s lunch menu on Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant’s website at 9. They start working on another batch of veggies around 1 p.m. — beans can be reheated, but produce needs to be fresh, Sang Zhu said — and post the dinner menu around 3:30 p.m. or 4.
Three or four pies are always on the menu as well: Sang Zhu’s daughter is partial to the chocolate one, as she’s quick to announce. Other flavors have included mango, strawberry and coconut.
Don’t expect Marie Callender’s flaky crusts and sugary fillings, though.
To make Himalaya’s key lime pie, for example, Sang Zhu only sweetens his lemon-lime-avocado mousse with organic agave syrup. An almond-pecan paste and a shredded coconut shell make up the pie’s thin shell, creating a refreshing dessert that won’t offset the rest of the health-oriented meal.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue left behind a soda machine and refrigerated case upon moving out of what’s now Himalaya’s space, but Sang Zhu draped flags over the former and left the latter empty, as they don’t align with the new restaurant’s values. Drink options include hot tea and a variety of San Francisco-based Lev’s Kombucha flavors.
Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant pulled in 10-20 customers per day during its first few weeks of business, Sang Zhu said. The Wendy’s across the parking lot can have that many people in its drive-thru line at once.
He’s not jealous, though. While money has become a more pressing necessity since starting a business and a family, the Buddhist teachings in which Sang Zhu was raised remain more prevalent.
“We need it to live, (but) money’s not important in your life. Your life is very peaceful and compassionate. Always, we’re thinking about (that),” Sang Zhu said. “I don’t need to make too much money. Enough to feed my family, and I have a peaceful life that I enjoy.”
This story was originally published June 3, 2022 5:00 AM.