How a popular vegetarian Chinese restaurant in SLC survived a yearlong closure

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When Long Life Vegi House reopened its doors in January after a nearly yearlong hiatus, a lot had changed. The popular Chinese restaurant had moved, for one thing. Originally located in an unassuming building in Millcreek, Long Life Vegi House is now tucked into a small spot in South Salt Lake. But the most unexpected change was on the menu: Known for decades for vegetarian and vegan cuisine, Long Life Vegi House now serves real meat.

“We put something together so everyone could come by and do one-stop,” says manager Melissa Lin. But if you aren’t an omnivore, rest assured: Everything is cooked separately. Adding chicken, beef and pork to the menu was necessary, she says, after losing customers who weren’t satisfied with Long Life’s imitation meat options made with tofu and seitan.

For many Salt Lake City veggie eaters though, those “faux” meats, doused in tangy sauce and piled on top of fried rice or noodles, are the main attraction, as well as a source of nostalgia.

So when Long Life’s 3300 South location — with its red and green sign that imitated the facade of a Chinese temple — was sold to the city by its landlord in February 2020, regulars were worried.

After more than 30 years in business, Long Life had to close, and its cozy brick walls, old brown carpet, simple wooden chairs, and red and gold dragon decorations became things of the past. Sade Killpack, a regular customer since 2010, says she has a lot of memories of that location, where she would often have the vegetarian orange chicken, one of her favorite dishes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Lin and Ben Li with their children at Long Life Vegi House in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. From left are Eddie Li, Melissa Lin, Annie Li, Angie Li, and Bin Li.

“I was really bummed out when I thought that they closed for good,” Killpack says.

But Lin and her family didn’t give up on keeping the legacy alive.

Hungry customers got the news they’d been waiting for when Long Life reopened in January at 2561 S. State St.

“When we opened the new location, we shared it on Facebook, and people were so excited,” Lin says. “The first day, around 40 people shared [the post] with their friends,” and it was flooded with comments.

On social media, some promised to go back as soon as they could, and some remembered the food and circumstances that linked them to Long Life Vegi House. Users talked about how they’d been getting food from the restaurant since their parents brought them there as kids. One regular customer said every trip to Utah required a visit, or a takeout haul for the flight home.

At 9 a.m. that day, the restaurant, which usually opens at 11 a.m., had already gotten calls from old regulars wanting to preorder lunch.

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Because, aside from the carnivore-friendly additions, Long Life’s traditional menu prevailed amid the restaurant’s transformation. Lin’s love of vegetarian food is inspired in part by her experience of living in a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong for three months.

“Every morning they wake up early to sing a song for Buddha and every night they had to sing a song too,” she says. “And we all ate vegetarian food, it was so, so yummy.”

Now, the updated menu has options for all tastes, with vegetarian versions of kung pao chicken, pork and broccoli, and cashew beef, as well as those dishes made with actual meat.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crispy Beef at Long Life Vegi House in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

And after months of renovations, the new space is a mixture of old and new. While the former ornate sign has been replaced with an austere white and red one that just reads “Long Life,” the interior’s brick walls and red and gold posters should feel familiar to diners.

Due to the pandemic, Long Life is open only for takeout. The new location has room for only three tables, and they are currently unavailable because of the restriction that mandates a 6-foot distance between diners. But this modification was well-received by customers who are already used to indoor COVID-19 guidelines.

And the nostalgia factor remains. In 1994, Utah vegan food blogger Amanda Rock tried seitan, a wheat gluten meat imitation, for the first time at Long Life Vegi House. The experience expanded all the possibilities of vegan cuisine for her, she says, and the restaurant became a reliable favorite for her and her husband.

Rock remembers Long Life to be one of the first vegan-conscious restaurants in Salt Lake City. “If you ordered the egg drop soup, they would ask, ‘Are eggs ok?’ They would make sure that you knew that the egg drop soup wasn’t vegan.”

So, even if Long Life’s sign, location and menu has changed, Rock says she’ll be back, ready to order lemon chicken with brown rice.

“There’s a handful of Salt Lake restaurants that I feel so nostalgic about,” she says. “But I think that Long Life Vegi House is probably my most beloved food memory.”