Author Archives: Dr. K

Gracias Madre makes being vegan (even more) hip, pricey

Mexican food turned vegan at Gracias Madre, Hollywood

Mexican food turned vegan at Gracias Madre, Hollywood

I have been a naughty blogger, not keeping up with my entries as quickly as I’ve been consuming tasty vegan food. I do have a good excuse, as far as excuses go—I recently moved from Los Angeles to the central coast of California and started a new job as a science writer.

But never fear, I still have plenty of L.A. vegan restaurants to tell you about, and I’ll be traveling back to that area often. On top of that, I’ll add posts about vegan experiences I have in the wider California region (and maybe even beyond!).

I will start to make amends this week with a review of one of the newest vegan restaurants to hit L.A.: Gracias Madre. This vegan, Mexican-inspired restaurant is owned by the folks of Café Gratitude (read my brunch review here). If you are a vegan who’s spent any time in San Francisco, you probably know that S.F. has been home to Gracias Madre for a number of years. I don’t know why it took so long for the owners to open a location in Socal, but it seems the prolonged hype certainly did wonders for the restaurant’s popularity.

Gracias Madre, interior

Gracias Madre, interior

The exterior patio

The exterior patio

For several months after Gracias Madre opened in West Hollywood earlier this year, it was nearly impossible to get a reservation unless you were famous. Even now, unless you stop by after 8pm on a Monday or Tuesday, you are probably going to have to wait awhile for a table, and you will likely end up enjoying a pricey cocktail at the swank bar to pass the time–and to fit in. G.M. offers a cocktail ‘program’ (cocktail ‘lists’ are so blasé) featuring several types of exotic tequila inspired drinks.

The décor is somewhere between a quant Mexican countryside cafe and a southwest version of Urban Home—and at night the lighting is quite low, to add ambiance I suppose. There is a charm about the place, and the outdoor patio is particularly appealing. There is high energy in the air despite the low lighting. Plus, all the glitz seems a bit more exciting given the fact that this all revolves around a vegan, organic restaurant.

I was anticipating eating at Gracias Madre for well over a year, and during that time built up many high expectations (fueled by friends who have eaten at the S.F. location and raved about it). I suppose it was inevitable that the food could not live up to such unrealistic hopes. It’s not that the meals I tried were bad. They were quite decent. But were they stellar, unbeatable, unforgettable? I’m afraid not (individual food reviews below).

Mark digs in to the flautas and beans.

Mark digs in to the flautas and beans.

Perhaps I have been spoiled with the likes of Real Food Daily, Sage, and G.M.’s sister restaurant, Café Gratitude. I consider these restaurants the three pillars of high-end vegan restaurant eating in L.A. They each offer a wide variety of healthy, organic, delicious food, including vegan Mexican food. Gracias Madre is perhaps on par with these three (obviously there will be similarities with Café Gratitude), but not any better, despite its specialization.

There are many more entrees I would try before making a definitive judgment, but at this point I would say that the food at Gracias Madre, while it offers a unique interpretation of Mexican cuisine, is too pricey for what’s on offer. I suppose they can get away with the prices based on the popularity and location of the restaurant. But I’d much rather delve into a molé bowl at Sage, which offers more food for a lower price, than the tostadas I tried at Gracias Madre. That said, there are definitely some menu items I was curious about, such as the empanadas and enchiladas, and some of the desserts. Perhaps I’ll hit up the San Francisco location to see what its all about.

Fancy tequila drinks abound at Gracias Madre

Fancy tequila drinks abound at Gracias Madre

I also will say that I support the ethics and vision of Gracias Madre, at least as they are presented on their website. The founders have even started their own farm in California where they grow source-verified non-GMO corn for their restaurants.

Overall, I’d say that Gracias Madre is a good option for a nice date night, a celebration dinner, or when you are really trying to show off to your out-of-town vegan friend. Alternatively, just consider it a super hip spot to meet up with friends in Weho, because Mexican food, vegan or not, is something almost any L.A. “native” is up for any day of the week. On a normal night though, I’ll stick with tried and true fave locales.

INDIVIDUAL FOOD ITEM REVIEWS:

Coconut Ceviche Tostadas

GM tostadas

This entree consisted of two flat, crispy corn tortillas topped with a heap of lettuce and smaller amounts of spicy guacamole, cashew sour cream, and the ceviche. This was a light entree that came across as fresh and healthy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t struck by the flavor. The coconut ceviche didn’t add as much the to the dish as the title would suggest. Instead, I mostly noticed the lettuce and the spice, which drowned out the other flavors. If you like spicy foods, you might appreciate this better, but its definitely not a hearty dish. I will say, however, that the black beans that are served on the side of many meals are absolutely amazing–without them this dish would not be worth while for anything more than an appetizer.

Health: 4 out of 5

Taste: 3 out of 5

 

Flautas de Camote

Flautas close up

This dish centers on three ‘rolled tacos’, aka taquitos, filled with sweet potatoes, onions, pico de gallo, served with guacamole and cashew cheese plus the black beans on the side. These were definitely more satisfying than the tostadas, but still didn’t really perk up my taste buds like I was expecting based on the the menu description. The flautas mainly tasted like potato (I didn’t really even taste the sweetness of the sweet potato), but hints of flavor peeked through. Again the guacamole’s spice overpowered some of the flavor. I think these would be fairly popular for many people, but would not be one of my first choices again. Next time I will try some of the heartiest options available and see if they are more gratifying.

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (because of the fried taco shells)

Taste: 4 out of 5

…look out for more G.M. food item reviews in the future!

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Magic Mark’s Heavenly Vegan Breakfast Burritos—Two Ways

Vegan breakfast burrito in all its glory

Vegan breakfast burrito in all its glory

I’ve been on a hiatus for a few weeks for work, and sadly have neglected the Doctor Vegan site as a result. But, after three countries, two hemispheres, and a harrowing experience driving a 10 seater van on the left side of the road in a torrential downpour, I’m back home in California!

My first trip was for three weeks to Micronesia. After a 15 hour return flight, I landed back at chaotic LAX airport at 5am on a Saturday morning. My loving boyfriend picked me up and brought my red-eye bedraggled self home for a long morning nap. I awoke a few hours later to the heavenly smell of sautéing onions, potatoes, and spices—Mark was making me breakfast burritos from scratch.

The day before, in anticipation of my arrival, he had meticulously purchased all the items necessary to make the most awesome vegan breakfast burritos ever, knowing that there is almost nothing in life that makes me (and my belly) happier than burritos in breakfast form. That morning, the creation consisted of a multi-grain tortilla blanketing fried potatoes, onions, bell pepper, black beans, scrambled tofu and spices, salsa, guacamole, vegan sour cream, and vegan nacho cheese. It was practically perfect, in every way. Nearly overflowing with tasty perfection, in fact.

avocados

The start of fresh guacamole from scratch.

Raw ingredients

Getting ready to cook

But the burrito dream didn’t end there. On day two, Mark whipped up an entirely different burrito—this one stuffed with lentils, brown rice, vegan ‘chicken’ strips, almond herb ‘cheese’, and guacamole (because it just aint a burrito without guacamole). The ultimate homemade savory breakfast burrito. For the next four—that’s right FOUR—days, we continued reliving our breakfast burrito dream until finally, after nearly a week, we had used up all the ingredients. Six days in a row of homemade vegan breakfast burritos has to be close to some kind of record.

Sauteing sweet potatoes and peppers.

Sauteing sweet potatoes and peppers.

Tofu after adding seasoning and some water.

Tofu after adding seasoning and some water.

Today, I present to you the ingredients and instructions for how to prepare these magical hand-held belly-pleasing burritos in your own home. There are a million variations you could try—here I only present to you two main options, with a few suggestions for substitutes or additions (e.g., on day 3 we added sweet potatoes to the mix—highly recommended!). But let these recipes be your raw material to create your own burrito magic, and whatever you end up stuffing them with, I hope you thoroughly enjoy! It’s hard to compare any restaurant version to these labors of love—if you put in the effort, you will not be disappointed.

Mm, mm get in my mouth!

Mm, mm get in my mouth!

For both of these burrito recipes, keep in mind that the quantities are highly adaptable, depending on how many burritos you want to make (and/or how many days you want to eat breakfast burrito filling—which, if you are me, could be infinite)

Breakfast Burrito #1—The Everything Scramble

This was my hands-down favorite, and it’s so versatile. With a little bit of everything, this burrito means business.

Filling Ingredients:

– Olive oil (or coconut oil, vegan butter, etc)

– Two medium potatoes (e.g. red, russet, sweet potatoes, or a mix), chopped into small cubes

– 1 bell pepper, diced

– ½ package of organic tofu (softer tofu will crumble into more of a scramble which works well here, while firm tofu will be more cubed), chopped into small cubes

– 1 small onion or ½ large onion, diced

– 1 can black beans, rinsed and drained

– ½ tsp turmeric, ¼ tsp cumin, pinch of paprika, salt and pepper to taste

 

To top it off:

– Fresh salsa (or tomatoes, onions, chili, cilantro, seasoning)

– Guacamole (store-bought, or fresh avocado with lime juice, cilantro, seasoning–Mark made fresh, just sayin’)

– Vegan cheese (Mark used Follow Your Heart nacho cheese, but you could use any type of cheese you prefer, or be adventurous and make your own! Here are two nacho cheese; ideas here and here), sliced or shredded

– Vegan sour cream

– Multigrain wraps (we like Udi’s Multigrain wraps, but you could go with gluten-free, or whatever you prefer)

 

Directions:

  1. Heat 1-2 tbs of olive oil or other preferred oil in large pan. Add diced potatoes and onions* and sauté until tender on med heat. Add black beans and heat until warmed through.
  2. In a separate pan, cook tofu on medium heat with a bit of olive oil, add water as necessary. Add the spices, salt and pepper. Once the tofu has cooked for a few minutes, you can add it to the potato and onion mixture if you want. Add more seasoning to taste.
  3. Turn off burner. Now is where you set up your burrito station: have the wraps, cheese, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream ready to go like an assembly line. Fill each wrap with a few spoon fulls of the potato/tofu filling, then top with each of the add-ins.
  4. Now just, Wrap, Eat, and Smile. If you wish, once you wrap the burrito you can heat it for a minute or two on the pan to warm the outside as well as the inside—but if this takes too much patience, by all means just go for that first bite!

*When sautéing the filling, you could easily add in other vegetables (mushrooms and spinach come to mind) to the mix as desired—chunkier vegetables should be added earlier in the process, while leafier vegetables should be added near the end. Enjoy!

 

Breakfast Burrito #2—Savory Satisfaction

This is Mark’s version of what we call the ‘super savory’ lentil breakfast burrito from the Vegan Joint. This is a burrito that will grow some hair on your chest (figuratively), and is really an any-time-of-day burrito.

Ingredients:

– ½ onion

– ½ bell pepper

– 1 cup cooked lentils (brown, preferably, but any will do)

– 1 cup cooked brown rice (or your favorite type of rice)

– Vegan ‘chicken’ strips (Mark used the Beyond Meat grilled chicken strips; alternatively you could use tempeh or your favorite meat substitute—something that has firm chewy texture)

– Vegan cheese (for this burrito, Mark used Lisanatti garlic-herb almond cheese), sliced or shredded

– Guacamole (of course!)

– Salt and pepper, to taste

-Optional—vegan sour cream and/or salsa

 

Directions:

  1. Super easy! Heat a bit of olive oil in a large pan and warm chicken strips for a few minutes over med heat
  2. Add lentils and brown rice (pre-cooked) and continue to cook until heated over med-low heat; add seasoning as necessary (and hot sauce if you like that sorta thing)
  3. Time to wrap! Put savory filling into wraps, top with vegan cheese, guacamole, and vegan sour cream and salsa if desired. Scrumptious! Again, feel free to add veggies if you like, and to heat the filled wrap in the pan.

May the food be with you!

-Doctor Vegan

Beautiful creation.

Beautiful creation.

Seed Kitchen: Room to Grow

Seed sign

The other day I finally made it to Seed Kitchen, a small vegan café that emphasizes raw and macrobiotic entrees. Apparently the chef that founded Seed has cooked for celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s tucked away just behind the main drag of Venice Beach, along an eclectic street lined with pricey surf shops, grungy eateries, yuppy cafes, talent agencies, and everything in between. The local crowd is a similarly assorted mix of grunge, hipster, surfer, and prep. Whenever I show up to these places, I feel like I don’t fully fit into any of the ‘categories’ of people surrounding me—I’m just there to eat!

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

Seed’s interior is fairly bare, with rustic-chic accents and a few items for sale along one wall, like supplements, snacks, and bath and beauty products. You order at the front counter, where a quiet but friendly guy with huge gauged earrings, a nose ring, and an intentional bouffant nonchalantly takes your order. The menu is as low-key as the vibe, with much fewer items than other vegan restaurants I frequent. This was actually refreshing, making the choice of what to order a bit less agonizing. There was a sign on the wall claiming that Seed’s vegan burger was the best in L.A., but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to try one of the healthier items on the menu. I almost went for the probiotic macro bowl, but earring guy recommended the special—a kelp noodle dish in the style of pad thai. Never one to dismiss a food recommendation, I went for it.

My trusty sidekick and partner in food, Mark, ordered a hot seitan and vegetable dish. We sipped on chilled, unsweetened green tea while we waited for our orders, and people-watched as individuals, couples, and small groups traipsed in and out of the tiny locale. The service was fairly fast (we were one of the only ones in the café when we ordered). The first thing I noticed, however, is that Seed serves all of their food and drinks in disposable containers, which does not rank high on my sustainability spectrum. Even though signs above the trash bins tell you that these plastic dishes, cups, and utensils are compostable, I wonder why Seed goes for the once-use approach, which is much more resource intensive than reusable plates/cups/etc.

The second thing I noticed were that the portion sizes were much smaller than other vegan restaurants with comparable prices and food styles—upwards of $12 for a TV-dinner sized portion. This might have not been an issue if the food was outstanding. Unfortunately, neither of us was wowed by our meals.

Yes, the pad thai seemed quite healthy, with fresh vegetables, kelp noodles, and a very light sauce that mostly tasted like mild chilis. But the whole dish was rather bland and uninspired. Luckily I ordered tempeh (at an extra charge) on top, which made a huge difference, adding a deeper flavor and texture to the dish. Otherwise, it was pretty ho-hum. I definitely appreciated the nutritional quality of the dish, but felt that it was something I could easily throw together at home—for much cheaper.

Mark’s seitan dinner had a bit more flavor—reminiscent of Korean BBQ. But the squishy balls of seitan and steamed veggies again just did not stand out as a great, fresh, vibrant dish. There were no great distinguishing flavors or textures, and the meal was definitely not adult man-sized.

Even the vegan desserts in the pastry case looked lackluster, wrapped in plastic and looking less than fresh. Perhaps we should have listened to the sign and tried the vegan burger. I would definitely consider going back to do so. I would even try some of the other super healthy options on the menu if I was feeling like I had indulged a bit too much in rich food that week, or wanted a simple, light meal without the hassle of preparing it myself.

I do appreciate that Seed is attempting to cook macrobiotic foods in healthy ways, using local and organic sources as available. But probably on most days, I’d forgo Seed and just make a simple, healthy dinner at home, or go to one of my stand-by vegan restaurants that offer more value for money. This might be a place you go with the most hipster (or health-conscious) of friends, but probably not with your omnivore-leaning peeps. When I try the ‘famous’ burger, however, I’ll be sure to update my review.

Seed, Venice Beach

Individual Food Reviews:

Raw Kelp Noodle Pad Thai (special of the day)

pad thai

Fresh and healthy, but without the tempeh (extra charge), there wasn’t much to this meal.

Very light, raw, probably very low-calorie. But also pretty much no protein unless you order something extra (as I did with the tempeh). Fresh but bland, and definitely not filling.

Health: 4.5 out of 5 (mostly vegetables, but not a lot of substance, probably not all organic)

Taste: 2 out of 5 (not horrible, just not memorable in any way, especially without added tempeh)

 

BBQ Seitan Hot Dish (special of the day)

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

As stated above, a bit more hearty and flavorful than the pad thai, but not a lot of great texture or freshness. Mark left the restaurant still needing more sustenance.

Health: 3 out of 5 (I’m not sold on seitan, which is a form of high-gluten processed wheat)

Taste: 2.5 out of 5

Hopefully the burger will improve my ratings!

Take Back the Brunch: Café Gratitude makes me grateful for breakfast

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

Café Gratitude is probably one of the most quintessentially California ‘granola’ restaurants you can imagine—in other words, my dream come true (even if it does make me feel a bit self-righteous every time I visit). Hence, it’s not surprising you’ll find this restaurant in two locations in L.A. as well as in Berkeley and Santa Cruz—and apparently now there’s a new location in Kansas City? Didn’t expect that one. The story behind how the restaurant was originally founded and the ethics that drive its management are a worthwhile read available on their website.

The ambiance is like an upscale hippie-turned-yuppy café, with outside patio seating and inside tables, booths and community tables plus a long row of bar seating. An assortment of decadent baked goods and homemade, nutrient-dense jarred and bottled concoctions greet you from their rustic-chic displays when you walk in.

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Patio seating.

Patio seating.

I tend to frequent the West Side locale on Rose Street in Venice Beach. The Café is nestled amongst a patchwork of other upscale shops, a yoga studio, and a juicery (yep, that’s a thing in L.A.). Everything on Café Gratitude’s menu is vegan and organic, and a lot of it is raw and/or gluten free. While the range of items might sound daunting at first to your average non-vegan–options like kelp noodles, three-grain tempeh, raw bagels with cashew cream cheese, and daikon-collard wraps–you have to trust me when I say that there is probably something on this menu to please everyone, even the stubborn omnivores out there. It definitely won over my father and his fiancé, who loved the breakfast items, especially the sweet ones.

You just have to be able to survive the hipster crowd and the artsy wait staff that leave you with a poem and a philosophical question to discuss at the table when they hand you the menus. No joke. Oh, and the menu items that are listed as Motivational ‘Intentions’ rather than descriptions of the actual meal. For example, the grilled polenta meal is called ‘I am warm-hearted’; the Indian curried lentils are ‘Humble’; and the vegetable tacos are ‘Transformed.’ Want a drink? You might go with the ‘Divine,’ or maybe the ‘Elevated’, or the ‘I am Outrageous’ for a probiotic kick. Don’t even get me started on the desserts. It’s a unique dining experience, to be sure.

A portion of the unique menu style.

A portion of the unique menu style.

It's hard not to drool wantonly when you pass by the vegan dessert case!

It’s hard not to drool wantonly when you pass by the vegan dessert case!

If you can jive with the purposeful (and perhaps slightly forced) communal all-is-love vibe that Café Gratitude strives for, your time will be well worth it. The food here is unabashedly amazing–very fresh, flavorful, healthy, and filling. Because brunch holds such a special place in my heart, that’s the focus of today’s blog. I’ll get right to the spoiler and just state flat out that the brunch items on offer rank as some of the most satisfying food I’ve tasted in L.A., and as an added bonus, are made with some of the healthiest organic ingredients as well. Double win!

I was full for about eight hours after eating here…perhaps it was that extra crepe I ordered on the side. Worth it! The prices are slightly higher than a ‘typical’ café, but in the case of Café Gratitude the price adequately reflects the quality, flavor, and portion size of the meals. I’ve definitely been to other vegan restaurants that over-charge for disappointing food—this is not one of those places. Be ‘Brave’ and try this place out for brunch. You’ll probably want to come back for dinner!

Café Gratitude, Venice Beach

Individual menu items:

WARM, aka Apple Cinnamon Muffin (gluten-free)

Muffin

Somehow, Café Gratitude has pulled off the difficult task of making healthy food taste like the classic versions you remember growing up—but better! Their muffins are no exception. This muffin melts in your mouth and has wonderful flavor and texture. You can’t tell its gluten-free or vegan. The taste is indulgent, but not overly sweet and desserty like some of the other vegan bakery muffins I’ve tasted. Thumbs up!

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (obviously this place uses pretty healthy ingredients, but I imagine the protein content is fairly low while the sugar content is higher in this item)

Taste: 5 out of 5; scrumptious!

 

OPEN-HEARTED, aka Buckwheat pancakes (gluten-free)

Buckwheat pancakes
No words are worthy. Probably the best vegan pancakes I’ve had (and its really tough to compete with Hugo’s vegan pancakes!). I love buckwheat—its hearty yet still makes fluffy pancakes, and these babies certainly had it all: light, airy texture, just slightly sweet with a nice light grain flavor, all topped with organic maple syrup, fresh fruit, and a mouth-wateringly delicious cashew whipped cream. Have I made my point? If you dig pancakes, you MUST put these in your mouth SOON.

Health: 4 out of 5 (maybe a bit lower with excessive cashew cream and/or maple syrup; otherwise, light and healthy while still hearty and satisfying)

Taste: 5 out of 5, if it wasn’t already obvious!

 

FANTASTIC, aka Crepe (gluten-free, raw)

Crepe

This raw, GF take on a classic French crepe is definitely an interesting twist. You can’t capture the same light, crisp texture of a crepe sans eggs. That said, this was an enjoyable rendition, though it was a bit heavier and chewier. The crepe itself tasted almost like a waffle cone, but the sweetness of the crepe was set off nicely by the slightly tangy coconut yogurt and fresh fruit and nuts that topped it.

Health: 3 out of 5 (probably a bit high in fat and sugar)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (interesting, unique, but no where as rave-worthy as the pancakes, though if you want a bit lighter breakfast the crepe is a good option)

 

TRUSTING, aka Tempeh Scramble

Tempeh scramble
This savory scramble is a blend of three-grain tempeh and mixed seasonal vegetables including shitake mushrooms, spinach, scallions, cilantro and avocado, and comes with whole grain sesame toast. This is definitely a hearty meal, more like a lunch or dinner item, with a nice healthy vibe, but the flavor didn’t really stick out as exciting or unique–sort of had an Asian stir-fry vibe. A solid staple kind of meal.
Health: 5 out of 5 (lots of fresh veg, high protein tempeh, light seasoning)

Taste: 3 out of 5 (nice fresh veggies and seasoning, just nothing that really popped out as exciting or note-worthy. My dad was a bit ho-hum about it—although he was obsessed with the muffin)

 

TERRIFIC, aka Kelp noodle salad

Kelp noodle salad

This dish combines kelp noodles with a Pad Thai type marinade tossed in an almond sauce with mixed vegetables including carrots, bell peppers, and kale, topped with crispy almonds and sprouts. The creaminess of the sauce was enticing, and the flavor of the dish was well balanced—light, but complex and satisfying without being overpowering. The hint of almonds really enhanced the flavor, and the avocado rounded everything out (what ISN’T better with avocado, really?). Another nice savory dish.

Health: 4.5 out of 5

Taste: 4.5 out of 5

Chocovivo—Cacao CaPow!

You can watch the oompa loompas make stone ground chocolate as you sip your dark hot chocolate.

You can watch the self titled Oompa loompas make stone ground chocolate as you sip your dark hot chocolate at Chocovivo.

I have a penchant for picking out the most expensive products at farmer’s markets. Whether it’s raw honey, organic pomegranate juice, or avocado hummus, I’m a sucker for specialty artisanal foods.

By far one of my greatest weaknesses is for good quality, vegan dark chocolate—and it just so happens that my local farmer’s market is happy to oblige in the form of Chocovivo, a small artisanal chocolate making company that makes minimally processed, stone-ground chocolates free from dairy, soy lecithin, and refined sugars.

While I typically buy Chocovivo chocolate at the farmer’s market (they maintain a stall at the Culver City market on Tuesday evenings, and one at the Mar Vista market on Sunday mornings), the company also has a small storefront on Washington Boulevard where they host chocolate tastings (awesome!), both of solid chocolate and assorted hot and iced chocolate drinks as well.

Chocovivo chocolate bars lining their adorable store shelves, and also available at local farmer's markets.

Chocovivo chocolate bars lining their adorable store shelves, and also available at local farmer’s markets.

 

One evening I just couldn’t hold out anymore, and I convinced by boyfriend to accompany me on a chocolate tasting adventure. Even before you enter Chocovivo, the storefront lures you in with its warm, rich lighting and whimsical wooden décor. Is it a wine bar? Tapas bar? Nope! It’s all about the chocolate in this place! When I entered the shop, I felt like Dorothy leaving Kansas (a.k.a. Culver City) and landing in Oz (a.k.a. magical chocolate land). Or many Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with none of the weird song/dance numbers or snotty children–although they do call the chocolate makers Oompa Loompas here.

Freshly made chocolate butter

Freshly made chocolate butter

Hand packed chocolates in adorable bags.

Hand packed chocolates in adorable bags.

No, this is a very adult type of candy store—where couples sit closely on bar stools made out of tree stumps, leaning in towards each other as they share a thick, indulgent cup of dark hot chocolate, or sample a platter of various home-made cacao concoctions. Lining the walls are various cacao products for sale, including the chocolate bars—in myriad flavors—that Chocovivo is perhaps most well-known for. Also for sale or hand filled bags of raw cacao nibs, cacao powder, and chocolate spreads. It was hard to keep my cool when all I wanted to do was try IT ALL.

It turns out, you pretty much can. One of the menu options is a chocolate sampler (along the lines of a wine or beer flight, or cheese sampler)—you can choose how many chocolates to sample, all the way up to the max, which is thirteen (I’ll give you one guess which option I went for!). I had my partner in chocolate crime with me, so I figured we could handle it.

Removing pieces of chocolate from the magic chocolate drawer. Patricia, the owner, is in the background.

Our helper removes pieces of chocolate from the magic chocolate drawer. Patricia, the owner, is in the background.

As the store assistant began pulling open drawers behind the counter and removing various pieces of chocolate to line our plate, he explained the process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting, and grinding the cacao to turn it into the bars, powders, and spreads before us. Chocovivo does not use any sort of heat processing—a step most chocolate producers use to maximize efficiency—they just grind the cacao using traditional lava stones, then mix in pure unrefined can sugar and whatever flavors they are using for each type of chocolate bar. Their website explains the process, and their relationship with cacao farms, in more detail. The result of their approach is a high quality chocolate that retains much more of the natural nutrients, as well as flavor, contained in cacao beans. Chocovivo chocolates are all vegan, natural, organic, with no additives (e.g. soy lecithin, cocoa butter, etc.).

Spreading the stone-ground chocolate so it will solidify into bars.

Spreading the stone-ground chocolate so it will solidify into bars.

For someone who has never tried minimally processed chocolate before (or dark—I’m talking 80% chocolate), Chocovivo may take some getting used to. The bars have a slightly gritty texture, from the pure ground cacao beans, and a rich, slightly bitter flavor that is non-existent in processed milk chocolate—because milk chocolate has barely any real chocolate in it at all! Needless to say, the texture and the flavor are actually what draw me to Chocovivo. A little goes a long way—the two of us only made it through about half of our chocolate flight—but the complex flavors and textures are ooh-so-satisfying.

Ready for that flight to heaven....chocolate heaven.

Ready for that flight to heaven….chocolate heaven.

Included in our tasting flight were four types of plain dark chocolate (ranging from 60% to 100% pure cacao!). Of these, I’d have to say I preferred the 85%, followed by the 75%, which was just ever so slightly sweeter and milder. My boyfriend was more into the lighter side of dark, going for the 60%.

Then came the blended chocolates: Almond with sea salt, Shangri-La (black sesame with goji berries), Mayan Tradition (cinnamon and spice), Cherry-almond and Black peppercorn, and coffee and vanilla bean. Each of these was intriguing in its own right, and it wouldn’t really be fair to rate them in any order. However, the Shangri-La is one of the most uniquely flavored chocolates I’ve come across, definitely worth a taste. I always love coffee flavored chocolate because of the contrast between sweetness and bitterness, and the cherry-almond flavor was satisfying on a number of levels. But we weren’t done yet.

There were also the limited edition blends: Macadamia Nut and Coconut, Lavender and Lemon, Nibby Bar with raw cacao nibs, and Hazelnut and Sea Salt. Wow. Talk about an overwhelming array of flavors. We bravely took our time sampling each one and compared notes. The macadamia/coconut blend was the richest, the nibby bar was an all around winner with nice texture and flavor, but my favorite was the lavender/lemon combo—a slight perfumy fruitiness balanced with rich dark chocolate. Out of all of the thirteen flavors, the only one that fell flat, surprisingly, was the hazelnut/sea salt blend. Neither of us thought it compared to the rest—something about the flavor fell flat. Perhaps it was just a bad bunch of hazelnuts, or not the right balance of nuts to other ingredients. But it was the only bar out of the thirteen that I wouldn’t miss.

The chocolate tasting menu.

The chocolate tasting menu.

Even though we couldn’t finish our chocolate flight, I felt it was my duty to try something else on offer, perhaps a warm chocolately drink. I also was looking for excuses not to leave this adorable sanctuary of a shop so I could continue to watch the oompa loompas (that’s literally what they call the chocolate makers at this shop) work their magic on the other side of the glass. So, ignoring my satiated stomach and my already-overloaded on polyphenols brain, I ordered a hot chocolate that blended a mix of dark and mayan spice with almond milk.

As we waited for the drink, I watched the owner of the shop, Patricia, meet and greet various customers, explaining with passion the various aspects of her business and the sourcing of her chocolate. I worked up the nerve to approach her and chat for a few minutes, and even took a picture with her! It’s always rewarding to meet the entrepreneurs behind socially and environmentally forward-thinking ventures.

Sipping on hot chocolate, trying not to neglect the chocolate in the corner.

Sipping on hot chocolate, trying not to neglect the chocolate in the corner.

The hot chocolate was incredible; thick, rich, warming, soothing. But soooo intense after 13 other chocolate flavors! I tried to finish as much as I could (also pressuring the BF to help out), and eventually we slid off our bench seats, still in a chocolate stupor, and wandered out of the shop just before closing time (oh, and I definitely had a doggy-bag in hand with our un-eaten remnants of the chocolate flight).

No fillers here!

No fillers here!

Lovin the sustainability ethic of Chocovivo.

Lovin the sustainability ethic of Chocovivo.

I had successfully fulfilled a lifelong dream of eating chocolate, and nothing but chocolate, for dinner; and supporting a wonderful local business while I was at it! Chocovivo is an absolutely perfect place to go on a cute first date, a romantic second, third, or hundredth date, or just to treat yourself or a friend to a hot (or iced) chocolate after a long week. And if you are serious about your dark chocolate love affair, Chocovivo is your answer to satisfying that craving in a healthier, more sustainable, and enjoyable manner.

Getting to meet Patricia, Chocovivo's owner, was an extra sweet treat!

Getting to meet Patricia, Chocovivo’s owner, was an extra sweet treat!

Chocovivo: Culver City, CA

There are way too many varieties for me to provide individual ratings, but you can get the gist of my preferences above. However, here is my overall rating for Chocovivo chocolates.

Health: 4 out of 5 (this is taking into consideration that dark chocolate is meant to be enjoyed in small portions. However, Chocovivo chocolate is unprocessed, organic, full of natural vitamins and minerals, and has very low sugar. Therefore, as far as chocolates go, its pretty much as healthy as you can get–especially if you choose the pure, darkest varieties. Chocolate has many health benefits that I won’t go into here, but only high quality chocolate like this contains significant amounts of these nutrients)

Taste: 4-5 out of 5 (depending on the variety; for those who prefer milder chocolate, stick with the 60% and blended, for the purists, go for the darkest for ultimate taste bud pleasure!)

Ambiance at shop: 5 out of 5 (Adorable, very cute date spot as well as just fun to browse in, friendly staff, can watch chocolate being made)

Superfood Muffins: The Sequel (this time with Nibs!)

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Some of you may have read about my first Superfood Muffin recipe, a mix of healthy flours, oils, and ‘superfoods’ like goji berries and chia seeds. Well, today I want to share with you a different version, one that I think I may like better than the original!

While the recipe I use for both versions is similar in many ways, I used a different website for my inspiration this time around—Blissful Blueberry Banana Spelt Muffins provided by oh she glows, a great website about vegan and gluten-free living (and eating).

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries...hard not to eat them all right now!

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries…hard not to eat them all right now!

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

This time around, I changed up my superfoods. The muffin batter has a similar base, including banana and avocado. But from there I took some different turns, including the addition of almond milk, and apple cider vinegar–thanks to oh she glows’ inspiration. For the add-ins, I incorporated a whole lot of fresh blueberries and a large handful of raw cacao nibs—my new favorite Super ingredient! I bought mine from Chocovivo, an amazing local raw chocolate shop that I will post about very soon. You can also find nibs at health food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, and of course online.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

On their own, cacao nibs (if they are 100% cacao with no added sugar) are quite bitter and potent, but once you add them into a recipe or mix them into a smoothie, their flavor is mellowed out and provides a rich, chocolatey complement to whatever you serve them with, plus a bunch of great minerals and nutrients. Raw cacao nibs are packed with fiber and beneficial polyphenols, much more than processed chocolate. Turns out you can have your cake—er, chocolate—and eat it too!

I wrote about the health benefits of many of the other ingredients in my previous recipe post, so feel free to check it out for more info. If you do make any of these versions, let me know how they turn out and how you modify them. Hope you have fun trying out your own twists on these recipes!

May the Food be with You,

-Dr. K

Fresh out of the oven

Fresh out of the oven

Superfood Muffins: The Sequel

Ingredients

-2 bananas

-Approx ½ medium avocado

-¾ cup almond milk (you could use hemp, coconut, soy, or whatever floats your ‘milky’ boat)

-1 tsp apple cider vinegar (if you don’t have any on hand your muffins will still be edible, this just helps the batter rise a little better for a lighter texture)

-1 tsp vanilla or almond extract

-¼ cup coconut oil, melted

-2 cups flour; I used 1 c. spelt, ½ c. oat flour, ½ c. millet flour (you could use any combo of flours your heart desires!)

-1/3 cup coconut sugar (you can find at TJs!)

-½ cup oats

-2 tsp baking powder

-1.5 tsp cinnamon

-¼ tsp Himalayan sea salt

-½ tsp baking soda

-1-2 cups fresh or frozen* blueberries (I used 1 whole punnet of fresh berries)

-Optional add-ins: ¼ cup chia seeds or hemp seeds, ½ cup chopped walnuts, ½ cup goji berries, ½ cup cacao nibs (I went with the nibs, added amazing depth of flavor and are little bits of superfood goodness!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil
  2. In a medium bowl, mash bananas and avocado.
  3. Add the milk, vinegar, maple syrup, and vanilla to mashed banana/avocado mix. No need to stir it yet.
  4. Melt the coconut oil in a small pot over low heat (or in microwave). Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda).
  6. Stir coconut oil into the wet mixture. Pour wet ingredients onto the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not overmix as spelt is a fragile flour.
  7. Gently fold in your chosen add-ins and then the blueberries, being sure not to overmix as this can result in dense muffins.
  8. Spoon batter into muffin tin cups about 3/4 full (or if you are like me, all the way to the top!)
  9. Bake at 350F for 23-27 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean, or when you press the tops gently they are somewhat firm (not doughy) to the touch.
  10. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes and then transfer muffins to a cooling rack and cool for another 15 minutes.

*Note: If using frozen blueberries, be sure to leave them in the freezer (do not thaw) until just before you stir them into the batter. This helps prevent bleeding—unless you like purple muffins, in which case disregard! J

23rd Street Café: Where Mexico and India meet—in your mouth

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Hidden a few blocks away from the USC campus (though not so hidden for a lot of students!) is the 23rd Street Café, a little gem tucked humbly amongst the eclectic homes, apartments and storefronts of the University Park/West Adams neighborhood. From the outside, it looks somewhat like a convenience store, with a small bakery counter and refrigerated cases of drinks. But this café offers a lot more, and is particularly known for its Mexican-Indian fusion specialties like Tikka Tacos and Curry Burritos.

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

This is not a fully vegan or vegetarian restaurant; in fact, the menu is quite meat heavy. However, there are several vegan options to choose from and many more vegetarian, including a whole section of vegetarian thali plates (combination plates with multiple types of curries, rice, and sides). I came with friends, some of whom were not vegetarian, so the café offered a little something for everyone. One of my friends ordered the vegetable sandwich with avocado, but it came with mayonnaise so vegans be sure to check ingredients before ordering. I can see the appeal to USC students, since the menu has options ranging from burgers and burritos to curries and salads, plus a whole breakfast menu—all for remarkably low prices. L.A. weekly has highlighted its fusion fare, as has USC’s online newspaper the Neon Tommy.

I was a bit skeptical about the quality and health of the food, but I decided to be adventurous. I skipped the purely Mexican and Indian sections of the menu and ordered the Samosa Sandwich from the ‘fusion’ menu. My boyfriend chose the Aloo Gobi Burrito so we could try both (detailed food reviews below). There are ample healthy beverages to choose from, including a range of Yogi brand teas and bottles of Kombucha. Unfortunately, none of the desserts were vegan from what I can tell. This is a pretty no-frills café as far as the food goes. No brown rice, spinach tortillas, or black beans here, although the online menu lists a kale salad that is sometimes available. According to an interview with the owner, however, the sauces and fillings are all fresh made on site.

We decided to sit outside in the peaceful courtyard at the back of the restaurant. The interior had a decent ambiance though. It was clean and simple, just like what you’d expect from a neighborhood café, but with added accents like paintings of Gandhi on the wall. Super casual vibe, which I imagine would be a nice place to study (or take a study break!) if you are a student, or to do some writing or reading even if you’re not–lots of little tables where you can sit with a laptop, a coffee (the café serves espresso drinks), and maybe a big burrito.

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

You can read my food reviews below, but overall this place will satisfy a growling stomach, but it definitely doesn’t hit the health spot. Eating this food made me feel pretty guilty–it was heavy with oil, salt, and refined carbs. I also didn’t see anything organic on the menu, and I’m guessing they are using at least some lower quality or unhealthy oils to fry and saute foods with. Perhaps some of their other items on the menu (like the salads) would be an exception, but this is not the place to go when you are trying to eat a healthy whole foods diet. That said, if you are cruising around USC and you want a cheap, filling meal, or if you can’t decide between Mexican or Indian tonight, the 23rd Street Café has you covered. For a once-in-awhile craving, this is definitely a little spot to try out.

23rd Street Café, University Park

Individual food reviews:

Samosa Sandwich

 

Samosa Sandwich

Samosa Sandwich

Going into this I knew it was going to be indulgent, and indulgent it was. Two crispy fried vegetable samosas (filled mostly with potatoes) wedged between wheat bread, laced with mint and tamarind chutneys. Though it definitely wouldn’t qualify as particularly healthy (the wheat toast seems like a half-hearted attempt), this sandwich was definitely packed with flavor, texture, and fried tasty goodness. As a splurge, it was well worth the probably hefty amount of calories. I mean, how often can you find a sandwich stuffed with samosas??

Health: 1.5 out of 5 (if the bread was fried too it would be a 1; comes with lettuce, tomatoes, and whole wheat bread…but the fried samosas and starchiness are going to weigh you down)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (interesting, satisfying, a bit spicy)

 

Aloo Gobi Burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

 

I was really excited at the prospect of this burrito. One of my favorite dishes when I visited India was aloo gobi (a spiced cauliflower and potato dish), so putting it in a burrito sounded pretty epic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations. The aloo gobi just tasted like an insanely salty mush, and the rest of the burrito filling was mostly rice with some pinto beans mixed in. The burrito itself was definitely not the health-food variety of wrap, and probably contained a lot of fat as well as refined white flour. So basically, this is just a classic bean and rice burrito with a bit of salty veggies stuffed in. The other vegan fusion burrito on the menu is the Chole burrito, a mix of spinach, chickpeas, and burrito filling, which I would consider trying to compare.

 Health: 1 out of 5 (oily, salty, starchy, with little to redeem itself except the bit of protein from pinto beans and slight bit of vegetables)

 Taste: 1.5 out of 5 (I know its harsh, and other people might not be so picky, but a fusion burrito has to have a nice balance of flavors, and this just tasted like a salty bean and rice burrito. Fusion fail!)

The Rabbit Hole Cafe: a Wonderland of Vegan Delights!

My newest find on my continuous treasure-hunt for vegan friendly, organic restaurants!

My newest find on my continuous treasure-hunt for vegan friendly, organic restaurants!

I absolutely love trying new vegan (and vegan-friendly) restaurants, and lucky for me it seems like every week a new one pops up somewhere in L.A. It used to be that the further away you got from the city, however, the fewer vegan options you could find. Thankfully that seems to be changing, as vegan versions of popular foods seem to be making their way onto mainstream menus far and wide–at least in California! Picking up on this shift in health awareness (or trendiness), the Rabbit Hole Café is one of the newest restaurants on the scene, an unpretentious but innovative neighborhood café “with a conscience”, as is their motto.

The Rabbit Hole Café is fairly hidden, nestled in an unassuming strip mall in Agoura Hills (about half an hour north of Los Angeles proper). I was up in the area the other day to take my mom to lunch, and was trying to decide where to go. I may never have wandered down the Rabbit Hole if I hadn’t at the last minute decided, on a whim, to search for ‘vegan restaurants’ in Agoura, assuming that only Hugo’s would show in the results (and as much as I love Hugo’s, I wanted something different for a change). To my surprise, however, Rabbit Hole Café popped up in the google results, so I clicked on the website to take closer a look.

Alice in Wonderland themed decor provides a whimsical ambiance.

Alice in Wonderland themed decor provides a whimsical ambiance.

Cute little tables to sip coffee and read at.

Cute little tables where you can sip tea and debate with a mad hatter.

On their homepage, the Rabbit Hole Café says that they source local, organic, non-GMO products whenever possible, and cater to vegans, vegetarians, gluten-intolerant, and other dietary constraints. They even list every ingredient that is organic right on the menu. The cafe also makes efforts to reduce waste, to compost, and to follow sustainable practices. I was instantly smitten.

A quick glance at the menu was enough to make my stomach grumble in anticipation—vegan sandwiches and burgers, kale bowls, vegan baked mac and cheese…jackpot! Within a few minutes I got my mom out the door and we made the short drive to the Rabbit Hole. It was a Saturday, early afternoon, and though there was a steady stream of customers, seating was ample. My mom and I grabbed a shaded table outside to enjoy the warm spring weather.

The inside, however, is adorable! The Rabbit Hole takes full advantage of its Alice in Wonderland theme, with whimsical signs describing smoothie flavors or the day’s specials, quirky decorations, and a black and white checkered floor. Inside seating is a mixture of small and large tables, with the opportunity for communal seating, or for wedging yourself in a private corner with a laptop or a book. There are only a few tables outside, located at the front of the restaurant on the sidewalk. Again, nothing fancy, just simple and sufficient.

It didn’t take us long to decide on our order (I had already pretty much decided when I looked at the online menu). We opted to sample three items: the chickpea toona melt (vegan tuna sandwich), violet shrooben (a vegan take on the Reuben, starring sautéed mushrooms and a homemade thousand island dressing), and the Rabbit Hole Bowl, a mix of quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, and fried kale (individual food reviews can be found below). I vowed to go back to try the vegan/GF mac and cheese and Rabbit Hole Pizza as well as the brunch menu. While most options are vegetarian and vegan, The Rabbit Hole also offers non-vegan sandwiches, breakfast items, and full on baked meals. I could also imagine coming by to enjoy a nice organic tea or coffee as well.

The best tasting vegan 'tuna' melt I've had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

The best tasting vegan ‘tuna’ melt I’ve had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

My only beef (pun intended) with the Rabbit Hole Café is that they use Daiya cheese on everything. As I’ve written before, I am not a big fan of this vegan cheese. Some people swear by it, but to me it has a distinctive, fakey taste that overpowers most dishes. For my orders, I left the Daiya on the Reuben (they used the swiss version, which I figured I would give a shot), but I ordered the toona melt without the Daiya cheese and instead ordered avocado on the sandwich. Spoiler alert—that was the best decision ever!

As we lounged in the partial sun after ordering, I overheard the conversation of the people at the next table over—a group of four high school students (two girls, two guys), sharing health advice, talking about kale and quinoa and drinking warm water with lemon juice first thing in the morning. It made me smile. What a far cry from the health ‘consciousness’ of my high school peers and me! Even though I was a vegetarian in high school, those were times (not that long ago I might add) when romaine was a specialty item and tofu was the only non-meat option for vegetarians—if you could find it.

The other customers were a mix of young and old, couples enjoying a leisurely weekend afternoon, or members of the small country club from across the street taking a break from golf. But the vibe was definitely not the typical yuppie Westlake feel; this is a casual, but slightly quirky, spot that you would probably never even notice if you didn’t know about it. Luckily, now you do!

Within minutes our order arrived, and my mom and I dug in with ravenous pleasure. I opted to try the vegan Reuben first, and while it was tasty, once I took a bite of the toona melt there was no turning back. It was love at first chew. It was all I could do not to scarf the entire thing down in one sitting—but I kept my composure and allowed my mom to try some, and even saved most of a half for my boyfriend to try later (I knew he would appreciate the amazingness of this sandwich as much as I).

Besides, I had to save room for dessert! Next to the counter inside where you order and pay is a large refrigerated case lined with mesmerizing vegan desserts, from mini cupcakes and cookies to tarts and cakes. Most are also gluten-free. Also available are frozen breads, muffins and other baked goodies from none other than Rising Hearts Bakery. I opted for two desserts made by Karma Baker: mini carrot-cakes, and a chocolate coconut tart. Neither disappointed, and the chocolate tart was probably one of the best vegan desserts I’ve had in recent memory—and that’s saying a lot, because I eat a LOT of desserts!

Vegan desserts line a refrigerated case inside. Also available are homemade pickled vegetables, sandwiches, and more.

Vegan desserts line a refrigerated case inside. Also available are homemade pickled vegetables, sandwiches, and more.

After one visit I can definitely say this is my new Agoura obsession, and I can’t wait to visit again. Everything tasted fresh and somehow nostalgic despite being novel and ‘trendy’. Wholesome, yet slightly indulgent—sourdough and rye breads reminiscent of corner delis, spreads and sauces that have a home-made charm—all served in a delightful atmosphere by friendly staff. This café with a conscience sure knows how to cater to picky eaters and food lovers alike!

Rabbit Hole Café, Agoura Hills

Individual Food Reviews:

Chickpea Toona Melt

 

Mouth-watering vegan tuna melt!

Mouth-watering vegan tuna melt with avocado!

The description may not immediately win you over—chickpea and seaweed ‘toona’ with grilled tomatoes, vegan cheese, and chipotle mayo—but let me tell you, this may be the BEST vegan tuna sandwich I’ve ever had. Most vegan tunas are made from either soy or jackfruit, the latter of which typically is pretty tasty. But this chickpea version, which I imagine was mixed with veganaise, was instantly addictive. I literally wanted to fill a bathtub with this filling and just immerse myself in it (sorry if that grosses you out). I will say that I made an important substitution to the sandwich that I believe made a huge difference—I swiched the Daiya cheese for avocado, and I think it was the best food decision I could have made. Whichever way you choose however, I venture to say you will not be disappointed by this sandwich, what with the magical filling, complemented perfectly by the sourdough bread, tomatoes and vegan mayo. I am still dreaming about this sandwich days later!

Health: 3 out of 5 (chickpeas and seaweed equal good protein and nutrients, however the vegan mayo adds fat from oil and the bread is decent carbs, though sourdough is supposedly one of the healthiest bread options a person can choose).

Taste: 5 out of 5! Can I say 6 out of 5??

 

Violet Schrooben

Rabbit Hole's take on a vegan reuben with mushrooms and homemade sauerkraut.

Rabbit Hole’s take on a vegan reuben with mushrooms and homemade sauerkraut.

Grilled mushrooms and purple sauerkraut with homemade thousand island dressing and swiss Daiya cheese, all on toasted rye bread. It sounds great, and it was tasty, but I think calling it a Reuben created certain expectations that just couldn’t be met. Other vegan Reubens I’ve tasted tend to use seitan or tempeh as their protein choice, giving the sandwich a ‘meaty’ heartiness that this sandwich couldn’t mimic. The flavors were all decent, but all together it just fell a little flat compared to the toona melt. I think the issue was that I loved each of the ingredients individually—the grilled mushrooms were lovely and savory, the sauerkraut had an interesting sweetness, and the dressing was nice and tangy. But put all together, the flavors didn’t blend as well as you might expect. It probably didn’t help that it included Daiya cheese, which just isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t totally write off this menu item, but I suspect that you are better off trying one of the other delectable choices your first time off—unless you have a mushroom obsession, in which case you might be perfectly satisfied with this sandwich, which is loaded with them.

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (healthy mushrooms, but not much else besides the fake cheese and dressing; the rye bread is very light, probably some refined wheat)

Taste: 3 out of 5 (decent, but not my pick for this restaurant)

 

The Rabbit Hole Bowl

Layered brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, onions, and kale

Layered brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, onions, and kale

This is a meal in a bowl (which I love); a base of quinoa and brown rice, topped with grilled sweet potatoes, carmelized onions, crispy fried kale, and a peanut ginger lemon dressing. The combination of all these ingredients was a perfect blend that felt healthy, yet satiating and flavorful. The dressing was wonderful—slightly sweet and tangy but not overpowering. The sweet potatoes were of course a great flavor addition, and the fried kale is pretty addictive (the even offer an appetizer that is just the fried kale). It was a bit oily, but had a crispy, flaky texture that balanced the heaviness of the rice and potatoes. It definitely won my mom over, and she had been skeptical of kale up to this point. This is a simple yet completely satisfying dish, which would perhaps seem plain if it weren’t for the wonderful addition of the dressing.

Health: 4 out of 5 (as a meal out, this is probably one of the healthiest you can get other than a salad; the fried kale is on the oily side so brings down the rating a bit, but overall this is a good healthy choice).

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (a nice balance of flavors and textures, may not blow your mind but is a general crowd pleaser, and a great way to introduce first-time kale eaters to this versatile vegetable.

 

Karma Baker mini Carrot Cupcakes (vegan, GF)

mini carrot cakes

Itty bitty satisfying vegan carrot cakes.

These little cuties are both adorable AND delectable. They have a wonderful rich flavor and a nice, moist, slightly dense texture. The ingredients are minimally processed (which is especially pleasing since they are made with gluten-free flour) with few questionable ingredients. The frosting is made with soy and palm shortening, and though both of these are listed as organic, some people may have qualms with these ingredients for health or sustainability reasons. Nonetheless, these are a light, satisfying dessert or sweet snack with no processed sugar, and lots of healthy ingredients (flax, walnut, carrot, coconut, etc).

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of healthy ingredients but still going to have sugar and fat; but per each mini cupcake, I’d say these are pretty high on the healthy dessert wagon!

Taste: 4 out of 5

 

Karma Baker Chocolate-Coconut Cream Tart (vegan, GF)

Mmmmmmm mmmm good....chocolate melt down!

Mmmmmmm mmmm good….chocolate melt down!

This was a melt-in-your mouth velvety chocolate experience that rocked my world. I could have eaten the whole thing, even though it was incredibly rich and dense—so I forced myself to share it. The tart is a sweet little size, big enough to share among 2-3 people, but definitely small enough to scarf down yourself without feeling too guilty (although you might feel a bit overwhelmed at the last bite). I cannot begin to rave enough about this amazing chocolate bit of heaven—the top half is a mousse-like consistency, while the bottom is a chocolate crust that gives sturdiness and a nice crumble to balance out the smooth creamy topping. If you love chocolate, or even like it just a little bit, do yourself a favor and try this tart!

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (almost all the ingredients are organic which is great, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar and coconut oil/cream in this dessert, as well as soy)

Taste: 5+ out of 5!

carrot cake ingredients

chocolate tart ingredients

S’up with Soy?

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

As a trained scientist, I can’t help but get discouraged sometimes at the amount of unsubstantiated or misleading information that exists on the internet. While it can be empowering to have so many sources of information and opinion at our finger tips, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us are by nature very easily swayed by the power of anecdote.

This tendency is taken advantage of by all sorts of interests, not least by the food and health industries. Every day I read conflicting ‘evidence’ about things like grains (they are either the foundation of a healthy diet or the source of all our health ills, depending on who you ask), meat, dairy, GMO’s, and more. Recently, I’ve investigated some of the debate over soy.

Depending on the sources you choose to ‘believe’, soy is either a nutrient dense super-food or a cancer-causing poison–at least, according to the sources that garner the most attention. Just do a Google search for ‘soy health benefits and risks’ and you’ll see what I mean. It can be overwhelming! Like any issue, being an extremist is more likely to get you noticed, for better or for worse. Or get your book published. Or get you your 15 minutes of fame. That’s why I am always skeptical of completely condemning or glorifying any one food source, perspective, or idea.

As a centrist, my ideas probably aren’t that ‘sexy’. However, I think being cautious but open is much preferable to taking someone’s word because they’ve cited a few non peer-reviewed or biased studies. The underlying problem is that most readers have not been trained to differentiate between opinion and fact, or peer-reviewed versus non peer-reviewed scientific research. Even among published scientific studies, if you don’t realize whether a journal is funded (or controlled) by some corporate interest or other, versus being a more independent journal, you fail to understand the underlying biases of a piece of evidence.

peerreview

Many health articles cite faulty science or non-peer reviewed sources that lack substantial scientific evidence to back up their claims.

While some authors and bloggers purposefully deceive their readers, I think that it’s the ones who unwittingly mislead the public that may be even more dangerous to true rational thought. I’ve read many a web page that either references faulty or non peer-reviewed studies, or fails to reference any sources at all for their information. While some viewers point out these flaws, many take these posts at face value or even claim them as gospel.

Regardless of the topic, taking the initiative to do a little of your own research (to the extent possible) and read with a dose of healthy skepticism (which is not the same thing as disbelief) will go a long way toward improving your critical thinking skills, and hopefully encourage writers to do their homework on sourcing accurate information.

S’oy vey!

So, back to soy. Not too long ago, soy was considered the staple of a modern vegan diet. Don’t eat meat? Eat tofu. Don’t drink milk? Drink soy milk. Luckily, these days most of us have a lot more options—ranging from coconut, almond, and hemp milks, to protein sources like mung beans, quinoa, and millet. Still, is soy really so bad a food choice?

In a matter of years, soy went from being touted as a miracle food to being ostracized for its hormone-wrecking, cancer-causing compounds. Are any of these supposed characteristics actually founded in scientific fact? According to Holly Wilson, MD, a doctor who practices a vegan lifestyle, the misinformation regarding soy has resulted in a number of ‘myths’ that have unnecessarily made people fearful of consuming soy products.

To Wilson, soy is a reliable source of a variety of nutrients as well as protein, and has played a healthy role in Asian diets for centuries. She attempts to debunk a number of negative perceptions about soy (with the exception of genetically modified soy, which she says to avoid as a precaution and opt for organic non-GMO instead), claiming that a lot of the ‘research’ comes from one particular organization—the Weston A. Price Foundation—that has a vested interest in protecting the rights of dairy and cattle farmers, who see the rise of soy as a threat to their business. In other words, the science against soy is biased, in Wilson’s opinion.

Her arguments are convincing, and she provides a number of peer-reviewed articles to substantiate her claims, and she writes with a clear, rationale approach. However, it’s very possible she has a personal vendetta against the Weston A. Price Foundation. Maybe the Foundation is actually doing legitimate research in the name of sustainable farming. Maybe the studies cited by Wilson as providing evidence that soy is safe were funded by corporate entities with a vested interested in soy production (which is a massive industry in the U.S.).

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Ironically enough, when I did a bit more perusing on this topic, I came across a post by Kristen Michaelis on her website called Food Renegade, detailing the dangers of soy. Michaelis is neither vegan nor a doctor, so she approaches this topic from a very different perspective. She advertises a way of eating that condones eating red meat and lots of fresh dairy. Her post is laid out clearly, covering a number of supposed health issues of soy—but surprise surprise, her cited evidence largely comes from one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Are you starting to see how conflicted the ‘evidence’ is out there? Some of Michaelis’s links didn’t work when I tried to follow them, or were not from peer-reviewed papers, which is a bit of a caution sign for me. Still, a lot of her nutrition perspectives on the website hold weight, and I appreciate her support of local, sustainable agriculture. It may very well be true that large amounts of soy (especially GM soy) can cause problems for our bodies—but the same can likely be said for pasteurized dairy, meat, or even a number of fruits and vegetables eating in too large of quantities.

The point of this post is not to demonize one view over another, but rather to argue that we all have biases, and that we must each come to reasonable conclusions based on the information available. I’m also not going to discuss every study ever published for and against soy–there is plenty of that already in existence on the web. It’s easy to get misled by catchy headlines that scare us out of (or into) eating something OR ELSE, but the world generally doesn’t work that way. Both Michaelis and Wilson provide some valid points, but neither can provide the entire perspective.

After doing a lot of research and reading, my tentative conclusion is that moderate amounts of soy will not harm your body (assuming you are not allergic to it), and it may in fact be a valuable source of protein and certain nutrients. However, it should not be a product you rely on as a cure-all. Rotate soy products with other nutrient-rich foods, like coconut milk/oil, legumes, organic whole grains, and more importantly organic fruits and vegetables. I would also suggest opting for the least processed soy products possible, such as miso, tempeh, and tofu, rather than soy-based fake meats and cheeses, which contain a lot of fillers and other ingredients that are probably much worse than soy for our bodies. Most reasonable health practitioners seem to agree that fermented soy products are generally safe to consume, while processed foods such as those containing soy protein isolate are not recommended.

Also, definitely stick with organic soy products because over 90% of conventionally grown soybeans are genetically modified (although most of these are fed to animals, which means if you eat meat you are eating GM soy). Plus, conventionally grown soy, the second largest crop by acreage grown in the U.S. (after corn), requiring the application of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides each year. Much of this soy is converted into cheap oil, diesel fuel, animal feed, or used in processed foods.

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Bottom line: Just as there is no short cut to long-term good health, there is no short cut to educating yourself. Sifting through information and doing background research takes time, but when your health is on the line, I would argue that it’s worth it. That’s just my opinion though—I guess each of you ultimately have to determine that for yourself!

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line--look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don't believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line–look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don’t believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Hugo’s: A little somethin’ for everyone

Looking for a place where vegans and meat eaters can fraternize in harmony? Hugo's is a good bet.

Looking for a place where vegans and meat eaters can fraternize in harmony? Hugo’s is a good bet.

It’s a common plight among vegans—where do you take your non-vegan family members to eat when they come into town for a visit? Unless they are remarkably easy going or adventurous, taking a meat eater to a vegan restaurant can be overwhelming for them (or underwhelming, as the case may be).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we are very lucky here in Los Angeles in regards to the shear number of food options available to us. Because of this, there are a number of restaurants I enjoy introducing to friends and family because they cater to vegans and non-vegans alike, as well as a wide variety of palettes and preferences.

One of my go-to favorites for any meal is Hugo’s (whether its with family or not!), which has locations in West Hollywood, Studio City, and most recently Agoura Hills. There are also a number of Hugo’s Tacos locations, where you find a condensed menu of Hugo’s Mexican inspired items, both vegan and non. I tend to frequent the Agoura Hills location, part of the re-vamped Whizin’s plaza where you’ll also find some hidden frou-frou shops, yoga studio, zen living shop, and a cozy little bookshop upstairs run by an adorable retired, aging man with a million and one stories to tell.

Hugo's in Agoura Hills is the latest addition to this Los Angeles chain.

Hugo’s in Agoura Hills is the latest addition to this Los Angeles chain.

If you know the history of Hugo’s, you’d think it an unlikely vegan hot spot. The restaurant got its start as a butcher shop, and slowly added other deli fare, including a specialty bakery. Eventually the deli morphed into a full-blown restaurant most revered for its seductive breakfast options (brunch, in fact, is my favorite meal at Hugo’s—but that’s a blog for another day).

These days, Hugo’s offers unique fusion food (their tamales are amazing!) as well as a variety of healthy meal options like kale tacos and hemp seed salad. They also offer build-your-own plate option where you can select items ranging from quinoa and mung beans to fried plantains, sweet potatoes, and turmeric infused basmati rice to make your own combination meal. Whew!

For the more traditional eaters, there are chicken sandwiches, burgers, shepherd’s pie, and classic pastas. Many options can be made vegan (they have a bomb veggie burger) and gluten free. Hugo’s also serves tantalizing juices, seasonal cocktails, and a lengthy tea menu with green, white, black, pu-erh and herbal teas. The food menu clearly labels for each entry with it is vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or contains nuts.

The inside patio is a lovely place to sit day or night.

The inside patio  with bright windows and a full length fountain is a lovely place to sit.

I’ve been to Hugo’s enough times now to get a good sense of their vegan style. They tend to emphasize Indian and Mexican flavors in these dishes, both of which I love. But some of the items can end up tasting similar as a result (i.e. a similar filling will be used in the burritos and casseroles). Some of their healthier items include the very green casserole, kelp noodle salad, collard green wrap, vegetable noodle pasta, and seasonal specials like the current ‘kapha plate’, an Ayurvedic-inspired mix of vegetables and tofu in a tiki-masala sauce.

When I’m not stuffing myself with their awe-inspiring vegan pancakes (served until 4pm), or vegging out on a salad, I tend to go for one of the vegan casseroles or burritos (individual food reviews below). Most of the ingredients used in Hugo’s meals are not labeled organic (with some exceptions), so I don’t give them top health ratings. But most things I’ve tried have wonderful fresh flavor.

Sampling some of the many exotic teas on offer.

Sampling some of the many exotic teas on offer.

The best thing about Hugo’s is that they don’t associate ‘vegan’ with fake meat. You won’t find Gardein on this menu! Instead, you can choose from all sorts of healthy protein options, from mashed garbanzo beans (Hugo’s version of refried beans), to lentils, mung beans, or the more conventional tofu.

The only disappointment in my view is that Hugo’s uses Daiya as its vegan cheese brand. To me, Daiya tastes incredibly fake; not quite as bad as soy cheese, but definitely with a distinct taste that detracts from the other flavors of any dish its sprinkled on. My suggestion is skip the Daiya, and either go cheeseless, or if you are vegetarian stick with the regular cheese (mozzarella is the most likely to be true vegetarian cheese without animal rennet).

Luckily, Hugo’s makes up for the vegan cheese factor with some awesome vegan desserts–most notably their indulgent sticky buns and the Flan de Almendra (yep, vegan flan!). They also have vegan pumpkin pie and chocolate torte. I’m salivating just thinking about them…Save room!

Conclusion:

Hugo’s let’s you mix and match and substitute to your heart’s content, so you are bound to come up with something that you will enjoy eating. The prices are average for Los Angeles, with an average $12-15 for a full meal. Not cheap, but not outrageous. Great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and also dessert!

Hugo’s Restaurant (WeHo, Studio City, Agoura Hills)

Selected individual item ratings (I’m sure I will be adding more in the future!):

Kale burrito (left) and mung bean burrito (right)

Kale burrito (left) and mung bean burrito (right)

 Kale Burrito

Hugo’s burritos are fairly hefty, and this one packs a spicy flavor punch (almost too spicy for me, which means most people will have no trouble with it!). An organic spinach tortilla is stuffed with refried mashed garbanzos, guacamole, organic dark leafy kale, cooked cauliflower, onions, garlic, spices and tomatillo sauce. The tortilla is topped with mozzarella cheese (or vegan Daiya cheese), negra-nacho sauce and pico de gallo. I absolutely loved the flavor of this burrito—the filling was a perfect combination of beans, veggies, and spices (except the chili which was a bit much for me). The only thing I regretted was the Daiya cheese, which you can see from the picture didn’t even fully melt. Better to leave it off next time. Otherwise, this guy is a winner!

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of vegetables, some organic, but also probably decent amount of oil).

Taste: 4 out of 5 (so close! Just get rid of the Daiya and maybe add some vegan sour cream and more guacamole to balance the spice)

Mung Bean and Rice Burrito

This burrito uses a wheat tortilla stuffed with organic mung beans, basmati rice, and mixed slow-cooked vegetables and spices. The spices were mild (especially compared to the kale burrito) and I was under-whelmed by the flavor, which was actually rather bland. The filling tasted more like a samosa than a burrito—not that this is a bad thing, but I had different expectations. Additionally, the texture is the same throughout, a thick paste, with no fresh vegetables or sauces to make it more exciting. If you like mild Indian flavors in burrito form, this is for you. Otherwise, Meh.

Health: 3 out of 5 (mixed vegetables and mung beans are healthy, but there are no fresh vegetables and the filling is quite heavy).

Taste: 2.5 out of 5 (average; I’d say there are way more interesting things to try on the menu).

 

Vegan mac and cheese with crispy onions, mushrooms, and peas

Vegan mac and cheese with crispy onions, mushrooms, and peas

Vegan Mac and Cheese

Sometimes vegans need to indulge in some comfort food nostalgia too! I mainly tried the mac and cheese to review it, because I try to avoid heavy foods like this. However, if you want to convince your non-vegan friends that vegans really can have it all, this is a good dish to share as a starter. This version of mac-and-cheese has a bit of a twist—there is garlic, mushrooms, and peas mixed in, and the dish is topped with fried onions. The reason why I loved this item so much is because they do NOT use Daiya cheese for it—instead the cheese is made of cashews and sunflower seeds. If you have never tried a “nut cheese”, you are really missing out. Every single one I’ve tried has tasted amazing! This dish doesn’t disappoint (though it is not going to taste like Kraft, so if that’s what you are looking for, pass on this)—its like a more ‘adult’ version of a kid favorite. This dish can also be made gluten-free by substituting the type of pasta.

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (The cheese is actually made of healthy ingredients, but probably high in fat, as are the onions; also the pasta adds a lot of refined wheat).

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (wonderful rich flavor enhanced by mushrooms and peas; a bit salty/heavy after eating a decent amount though)

 

Kale taco casserole layered with refried garbanzo beans and tortillas.

Kale taco casserole layered with refried garbanzo beans and tortillas.

Kale Tacos Casserole

Organic kale, mashed garbanzos, garlic, onion, and spices, layered between two GMO-free corn tortillas—one crispy, and one soft. The flavor of this casserole was similar to the Kale burrito, but I enjoyed this a little more because it was less spicy and the layered tacos were a great addition! I would say the Very Green Casserole would still be my go-to for flavor and health (it’s a mix of fresh cooked veggies, marinara and pesto sauces, Hugo’s own veggie patty, and melted cheese), but this was a very comforting, filling meal.

Health: 3 out of 5 (the crispy tortilla was probably fried in oil, but by and large the filling was dominated by the kale and other veggies)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (worth a try, great comfort-food feel, but not the most exciting thing on the menu)

 

These green tamales are a MUST try! A crowd pleaser for sure.

These green tamales are a MUST try! A crowd pleaser for sure.

Vegan Tamales

Green tamales infused with spinach and topped with avocado-tomato-cilantro salsa and sour cream. These tamales are savory and sweet, with the most amazing flavor ever! One of my favorites at Hugo’s. They taste so fresh and are simple but impressive.

Health: 3 out of 5 (they don’t taste oily or salty, and use simple fresh ingredients, but won’t have as much nutrition as some of the other more vegetable-based meals)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (definitely a great item to try, at any time of day)

 

Fresh and light kelp noodle salad.

Fresh and light kelp noodle salad.

Kelp Noodle Salad

Haven’t heard of kelp noodles? If you are avoiding gluten, carbs, fat, calories, or all of the above, this is your new wonder food! I am absolutely NOT avoiding any of those things (at least not all the time), but I still love kelp noodles. They are light with a great firm but not tough texture, and can be substituted for wheat noodles in almost any dish. I ordered this salad for dinner one night when I was still full from a decadent brunch I’d eaten hours earlier. I was looking for something light, fresh, and healthy, and this salad hit the mark. This wouldn’t be the meal I’d recommend to someone who is trying Hugo’s for the first time and isn’t used to extreme L.A. healthy vegan fare. That said, the salad is reminiscent of a Chinese chicken salad, minus the chicken of course. The noodles are tossed in a light mango-tahini dressing and fresh julienne vegetables, sprouts, spring onions and grilled tofu. I enjoyed the added sea vegetables and ginger—two of my favorite things—that garnished the salad.

Health: 4.5 out of 5 (most of the vegetables probably weren’t organic, but otherwise this salad is almost as close as you can get to the epitome of ‘health’ at a typical L.A. restaurant)

Taste: 4 out 5 (very fresh, light, and balanced; not huge on flavor in terms of seasoning and spice, and would not be filling if you were starving)

 

Delicious (and supposedly healthy?) vegan chocolate torte.

Delicious (and supposedly healthy?) vegan chocolate torte.

Chocolate Brownie Torte

A vegan classic—chocolate brownie with pecans, a thin layer of frosting and fresh sliced strawberry on top. The menu description says this brownie is “so full of whole ingredients we consider them a more nutritious food source than any ordinary dessert”. That’s a rather ambiguous statement, but going by taste I can say that this is definitely not a ‘junky’ vegan brownie, nor is it a bland, cardboard-esque hippy brownie. The flavor is rich but not overly sweet, and I can definitely tell that the ingredients are healthier than typical brownies. Yet I venture to say that non-vegans will enjoy this dessert as well.

Health: 3 out of 5 (definitely not overly sweet, but there must be a certain amount of sugar and fat. These are gluten free though!)

Taste: 3.5 out of 5 (great, but not my favorite vegan dessert ever)

 

Vegan flan with hints of coconut, almond, and mango--topped with vegan whipped cream and mint.

Vegan flan with hints of coconut, almond, and mango–topped with vegan whipped cream and mint.

Flan de Almendra

This dessert is particularly amazing—flan is typically a dessert made almost entirely of cream and eggs, yet this is a vegan version (and also gluten-free). Yet the texture and flavor are remarkable. Light, melt-in-your mouth, yet decadent with coconut milk, almond, and mango puree for a tropical twist. The vegan whipped cream and cookie crumbles on top just make this an instant favorite.

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (sweet and creamy for sure, but if you share you shouldn’t feel too guilty)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (a fave!)