Whole Food for the Soul

A former Buddhist monk finds his calling as a vegan chef.
Partners Luo Rong Sang Zhu (Sam) and Bu Chu at their Hamalya Vegan Organic Restaurant
Partners Luo Rong Sang Zhu (Sam) and Bu Chu. Photo by Francisco Chavira.

What does peace have to do with eating? According to Luo Rong Sang Zhu, it’s simple: Eat healthy and you will be happy. This, he says, is peace.

Luo Rong Sang Zhu (in this country he goes by the name Sam) is a former Buddhist monk from Tibet. In 2013, he came to the United States to visit an uncle and ended up staying and working at the uncle’s vegan restaurant in the Bay Area. Last spring, Sam opened his own eatery, Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant, in an unassuming North Natomas strip mall.

Sam prepares the day’s meal at the restaurant
Sam prepares the day’s meal. Photo by Francisco Chavira.

True to its name, the restaurant serves only vegan and organic fare, right down to the organic canned kombucha from Lev’s Original. It’s a low-frills, fast-casual spot where you place your order at the counter. The menu has an unusual format: Instead of ordering individual dishes, you choose the size of the meal you want, either “full” or “moderate.” What you get is a combination plate with six separate vegetarian dishes, including a green salad, a mound of long-grain brown rice, a heaping spoonful of beans, some steamed vegetables, sautéed greens, plus a cup of soup. Everything is fresh, simply prepared and clean tasting.

Vegetable soup; pineapple juice; sautéed beets, zucchini and carrots; kale with mushroom sauce; beans; salad with lemon agave dressing and brown rice
Vegetable soup; pineapple juice; sautéed beets, zucchini and carrots; kale with mushroom sauce; beans; salad with lemon agave dressing and brown rice. Photo by Francisco Chavira.

Sam describes his food as “peaceful.” In addition to vegan and organic, everything is gluten free. A small amount of organic olive oil is used for sautéing. Diners who want their food more boldly seasoned can add their own at the table with soy sauce, olive oil, sesame seeds, salt and cayenne pepper.

The menu changes twice a day. Sam and Bu Chu—his business partner, best friend and brother-in-law—start work at 8 in the morning, chopping the vegetables for that day’s lunch. They don’t even start to think about the dinner menu until sometime that afternoon. “It’s not fresh otherwise,” Sam says.

Each plate features a colorful panoply of vegetables. You might get French lentil soup with miso and vegetables; garbanzo beans with onion and ginger; steamed red and green cabbage with carrots, zucchini and yellow squash; collard greens and kale with shiitake mushroom sauce; and an arugula salad with red beet lemon agave dressing. It’s no trouble eating the rainbow here. There’s also a handful of vegan pies—chocolate, Key lime, coconut, mango and strawberry—for dessert.

Strawberry, mango, coconut, chocolate and Key lime pie
Strawberry, mango, coconut, chocolate and Key lime pie. Photo by Francisco Chavira.

At Himalaya, some customers come in several times a week for Sam’s fresh, healthful food. One regular suffering from high blood pressure started dining frequently at the restaurant. He told Sam he no longer needs to take blood pressure medication. “I wish people would eat more healthy food,” Sam says.

Sam was only 12 years old when he left Tibet and ended up in India, where he lived with his brother, a Buddhist monk. There, Sam studied Buddhism and, like his brother, also became a monk. At the temple, his job was to cook for the other monks. He fell in love with Buddhist food and culture, which emphasizes a simple, plant-based life. Eventually, he moved to Belgium, where he had relatives, and worked as a cook at a five-star hotel.

Now 40, Sam has a wife and two young children. He works to feed his family. He doesn’t dream of getting rich. “My meal is small, but it’s from my heart,” he says, touching his chest. His labors as a chef reflect his Buddhist philosophy of life. As he explains it: “Do your best. Be healthy. Live a simple life. Be happy. These are the important things.” That, Sam says, is peace.

Kale being prepared at the restaurant
Kale being prepared. Photo by Francisco Chavira.

Himalaya Vegan Organic Restaurant

4160 Northgate Blvd.;
(916) 622-5728