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Restaurant creates vegetarian haven
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Lotus owner Oanh Ha became vegan after a health scare. She wants to inspire others to make healthier food choices.
PINELLAS PARK - Who said a plant-based diet has to be bland and boring?

Oanh Ha, owner of Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant on Park Boulevard, is certainly doing a good job of doing away with that preconceived misconception. The restaurant’s meatless menu offers a healthy twist on authentic Vietnamese cuisine, attracting veggie lovers and carnivores alike since first opening its doors this past March.

In fact she says – through the translation of her 14-year-old daughter Anna Ha – people come in thinking it’s still China Lantern, which called the location home until it closed down last year.

“Sometimes they just don’t read the sign,” Oanh Ha said. “Usually they stay and try us out.”

Her food has even convinced at least one lifelong meat-eater, that she knows of, to convert to vegetarianism, and attracted repeat customers.

Several years ago, Oanh Ha was diagnosed with cancer. Western doctors told her radiation therapy was the only treatment available.

“I was scared of the side effects,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose my hair.”

So she got a second opinion – from her Buddhist teacher. He recommended that she give up all animal products, adopting a vegan diet and, for a brief period, eat organic brown rice and toasted black sesame seeds on a daily basis. She decided to give his suggestions a try.

“It wasn’t that difficult,” she said. “I found that I liked it better than eating meat. It’s not as heavy on your stomach.”

When she saw her doctors for a check-up a few months later, they found a drastic reduction in cancer cells. “They were so surprised,” she said.

That’s when Oanh Ha vowed to open a vegetarian restaurant to inspire others to make better choices.

“Being vegan is healthy for you,” she said. “I want other people to eat healthy too.”

“We’re across the street from a Burger King and a KFC,” added her daughter. “People have to realize [our food] is healthier.”

With no restaurant experience (the Clearwater resident worked as a seamstress at Peggy Jenning Designs in Boston) Oanh Ha had a lot of work ahead of her. She had a passion for cooking, though, and before becoming vegan had helped cook at the Buddhist temple on Sundays. “But they cooked a lot of meat,” she said.

Creating the menu took a lot of trial, error, and mock meat. She cooked each item on it in her home kitchen, perfecting it until it was ready for public consumption. Some favorites, she said, are the mushroom hot pot, summer rolls, lotus salad, and, of course, pho.

As one of only a handful of vegetarian restaurants not just in Pinellas County but the Tampa Bay area as a whole, Lotus is slowly building a fan base through word of mouth. It’s connected with many of the area’s vegetarian, animal rights, and yoga groups and organizations, which appreciate the vegan offerings. And the restaurant also hosts a popular monthly vegan buffet. The next buffet is this weekend, on Saturday, Oct. 27, starting at 6 p.m.

For more information, visit www.l­otusv­egeta­rianr­estau­rant.­com or www.f­acebo­­m/lot­usveg.
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