Category Archives: Desserts

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)

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

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!)

Farmer’s Market Treat: Bond Bars hit the chocolatey sweet spot

Kimberly of Bond Bars shows off her delectable chocolate treats.

Kimberly of Bond Bars shows off her delectable chocolate treats.

Every Wednesday USC hosts a farmer’s market on campus for students, staff, and community members alike to conveniently purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and a variety of snacks and prepared foods. I love famer’s market day because it’s a wonderful excuse to take a stroll outside for a little while, get some sun, and pick up a few snacks to stash in my desk at work.

Today I visited the market on the earlier side, before many of the stalls had been set up. My stomach was growling, and I was still craving something more than the tangerine and almonds I had already purchased. I noticed one solitary stall on the far end of the pathway with a small crowd of students in front of it. I decided to check it out, and discovered a magical little table displaying an assortment of mouth-watering chocolate treats.

The woman behind the table immediately greeted me with a contagious smile. She introduced herself as Kimberly, the sole owner and chocolatier of Bond Bar. Kimberly explained that she runs a very small operation; in fact she makes all of her chocolate bars and barks in her home, and sells that at a few wineries and specialty markets.

She sources quality Belgian chocolate (her website mentions that she studied abroad in Belgium where she was inspired to pursue her chocolate making endeavors) and combines it with both sweet and savory elements to create irresistible bars. The chocolate bars on display contained flavors ranging from coconut and cookies and cream to peanut butter toffee crunch and ‘Celebration’ a bar that supposedly tastes just like birthday cake. Not all the bars are vegan, but many of them are, and most are gluten free as well.

Kimberly gave me a sample of the vegan/GF dark chocolate bar with dried cherries and roasted almonds. Needless to say, it was amazing! The 72% cocoa content contrasted nicely with the slight sweetness and tartness of the cherry, and savory aspect of the almonds; plus the bar is topped off with a subtle hint of cypress salt for an even more complex flavor. When you unwrap the bar, you can actually see big chunks of cherry and almonds all throughout, not like the more processed store-bought variety.

Each Bond Bar contains as much chocolate as 2-3 typical sized chocolate bars. Two of the vegan bars are displayed.

Each Bond Bar contains as much chocolate as 2-3 typical sized chocolate bars. Two of the vegan bars are displayed.

Now these are not your typical delicate chocolate bar—these Bond Bars are hefty! A single bar probably ways a quarter of a pound, and is much thicker than a typical chocolate bar. It almost looks like fudge in the wrapping. So even though the price per bar may drop your jaw momentarily ($5-10 at the market, up to $12 online), I can vouch for the fact that you are actually getting the same quantity of chocolate that would normally be in 2-3 ‘typical’ sized bars, and therefore is not actually so outrageous—especially considering the small scale at which Kimberly is producing her products.

Besides, I’m always inspired by individuals who are brave enough to start their own businesses, especially when they are genuinely passionate and driven enough to take a risk and produce something for others to enjoy. Kimberly won me over instantly with her friendly, enthusiastic disposition as she described her products and business. I was happy to support her by purchasing one of the cherry/almond bars (and almost immediately devouring a good portion of it with my colleagues upon returning to my office!).

The quality of the chocolate is apparent, and the variety of flavors Kimberly has on offer is impressive. There is no nutrition label on the bars, so I cannot determine the quantity of sugar or other ingredients in the chocolate. I will likely inquire next time I attend the market to get a better idea of the ingredients Kimberly uses. I would also be more likely to continually purchase a product like this if I knew that the cocoa and other key ingredients were organic and/or fair trade, which would further justify paying a higher price. But I know that with a small business, you have to take one step at a time (check back in the coming days for my review of Chocovivo, another local artisanal chocolate company that is making minimally processed, organic stone-ground chocolate, as well as KindKreme, which produces vegan raw chocolate desserts).

These bars are definitely a bit of an indulgence, but if its a choice between home-made dark chocolate or the sickeningly sweet kettle-corn that’s taking over farmer’s markets by storm, I’ll choose the artisanal chocolate any day of the week!

Product review:

Dark chocolate Bond Bar with dried cherries and toasted almond ($10)

Bond bar cherry almondHealth rating: 2.5 out of 5 (no nutrition label on the bar, so this is qualitative; the cocoa content is fairly high at 72% which is good, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar—not sure whether it is refined or not—and perhaps soy lecithin as well)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (rich dark chocolate taste with generous amount of cherries and almonds, in a thick satiating bar; I could handle a bit more bitterness though)

 

 

 

Dark Chocolate Bond Bar with Sea Salt

Health rating: 2.5 out of 5 (see above)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (Wonderful rich dark chocolate flavor, just slightly too sweet to be my fave, and not as complex as the cherry/almond bar above, which is still my fave)

Rising Hearts Bakery

Making vegans and the gluten intolerant feel warm and fuzzy in Culver City

IMAG0596

When you are vegan, stumbling upon a bakery that makes delectable vegan-friendly treats is as thrilling as being a kid in the Lego aisle of the toy store (ok who am I kidding…the Lego aisle is amazing at any age!). Anyway, it takes a lot for me to get excited about a bakery these days. When you are trying to eat a mostly healthy, natural, vegan diet, most bakeries are off limits; and to tell you the truth, I don’t often crave any of the super sweet, overly processed pastries and cakes that seem to make others swoon.

Still, when I learned that a gluten-free (GF), dairy-free bakery called Rising Hearts existed not five minutes from my apartment, my ears perked up. First, I did some sleuthing on their website, which confirmed that their entire bakery is free of gluten and dairy, is kosher, and that they have a tantalizing list of vegan breads and baked goods. The site lists ingredients for most products, and discusses their reasoning for choosing key ingredients. The bakery used to go by the name ‘The Sensitive Baker’, but under new ownership was re-Christened to Rising Hearts Bakery.

RIsing Hearts Bakery website provides nutrition facts for most products.

The Rsing Hearts Bakery website provides nutrition facts for most products.

I want to be upfront–I am generally weary of pre-made GF products due to their lack of nutrients and reliance on various potato and corn starches and emulsifying gums, making them fairly processed. These were indeed in the ingredient list for many Rising Heart Bakery products. Most products also contain palm oil or shortening, an ingredient that is causing a lot of controversy. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to completely avoid palm oil (unless you make absolutely ALL your own food and bath/body products) because it is ubiquitous in most processed foods and toiletries. Palm oil is much cheaper than coconut oil and therefore more cost effective for businesses. But its popularity is causing widespread destruction of virgin rainforest to make way for palm plantations (not to mention that it might contribute to increased inflammation in the body). I try to support brands that use only organic or sustainably sourced palm oil, or better yet, healthier oils like coconut, olive, or rice bran.

Rising Heart products also contain canola oil, carrageenan, and cane sugar—none of which is necessarily detrimental in small amounts, but again all are fairly ubiquitous in pre-made and processed foods, so I try to minimize how much of these I consume.

However, I was impressed with the number of ‘healthy’ ingredients that Rising Hearts tried to incorporate as well (millet, hemp milk, flax meal, oat flour, rice syrup, etc.), and their openness about how they source their ingredients—including that it is impossible to verify that some of their ingredients are GMO free. I appreciate honesty, especially when it comes to food preparation.

Then I saw the vegan  coconut oatmeal and snickerdoodle cookies, and knew I had to to give this place a shot.

Within minutes, I was dressed and heading to their Culver City location. Their store is tiny but immediately enticing. I arrived in the morning, so the smell of various baking breads permeated from the back kitchen area. I was greeted warmly by a woman from behind the counter, then left to wander as she helped a prior customer.

The refrigerated bakery case was filled with an assortment of cupcakes, dessert bars, cookie sandwiches and whoopee pies. On a tall rack against the window, I was distracted for a few minutes by the hand-made granolas, vegan cookies (with classic flavors from chocolate chip to the more exotic quinoa cranberry), and various GF/vegan bread and cookie mixes. Then, I found the freezer case—stacks of vegan muffins (apple oatmeal, sweet potato), breads (millet and oat loafs, sourdough baguettes, bagels), cakes, and more. I was paralyzed by choice!

Luckily, at this point another woman stepped out from the back to re-stock the freezer, and I asked her for recommendations. The woman turned out to be the owner, Edie Erwin. She was immediately friendly and helpful. I wanted to taste one of everything they had, but in order to minimize embarrassment (and impact on my bank account) I forced myself to narrow my choices down. I ended up choosing the apple oat muffins, a loaf of millet bread, a chocolate-banana cupcake, and a coconut oatmeal cookie sandwich with chai frosting filling (see individual reviews below). As I was paying for my bounty, Edie offered me a few slices of Rising Heart’s new vegan GF brioche. She also pointed out the bagel samples next to the register—I don’t think anyone would have been able to tell that those bagels were GF; in fact the texture and taste was richer than nearly any bagel I’ve tried, and I was half raised in Jewish delis!

Delectable vegan and GF brioche--how DO they do it??

Delectable vegan and GF brioche–how DO they do it??

I barely made it back to my car before stuffing a big chunk of brioche into my mouth, and I was not ready for the mesmerizing buttery softness that seemed to melt on my tongue. Memories of my pre-vegan days in Paris flooded back. If you aren’t familiar with brioche, it is one of those tantalizing, decadent egg and butter filled breads that for vegans is typically relegated to the ‘never again’ pile. So to experience this remarkably light, moist, just slightly sweet bread in vegan form (not to mention GF!) was a special moment. A moment all by myself, in my parked car. Somehow I managed to get the other two slices home for my housemates to try, but I admit it was difficult not to just shove them all in my mouth at once. That good, really. My opinion was reaffirmed by both my boyfriend and his non-vegan, non-GF brother.

While the muffins and bread were decent, I would say the real gems of this bakery are the fresh pastries and desserts in the front case, plus the brioche and fresh bagels. Below are my overall conclusions (so far) about Rising Heart, followed by my individual product reviews.

Rising Heart Bakery, Culvery City

Pros:

*Great selection of cupcake, cookie, and dessert varieties, including many vegan options (all are GF, dairy-free, and kosher).

*Family owned business with friendly staff

*That vegan brioche was the bomb!!

Cons:

*Many products have long-ish lists of ingredients (therefore are fairly processed), including sugar, palm oil, canola oil and potato and corn starches;

*Most products have high fat and carb to low protein ratio, so are not particularly nutritious for daily consumption

*Pricey! But the prices are to be expected at this type of specialty bakery

Recommendations:

*Reduce reliance on palm oil/shortening and processed DF milks and flours

*Increase number of organic ingredients (Breakaway Bakery is a good example of this)

*Don’t be afraid to play around with other healthy GF flours (buckwheat, more oat and millet, amaranth, etc.) for heartier baked goods

Conclusions:

Definitely worth a visit.  For those trying to minimize processed foods and/or sugar from their diets, save this bakery for a special treat now and then and for parties or get-togethers with GF and vegan friends.

Individual product reviews:

IMAG0592

Oatmeal coconut cookie sandwich with chai filling: Decadent, in the best way! Two gi-normous vegan cookies–dense, moist, slightly crumbly, with a rich buttery coconut taste–filled with a generous amount of lightly spiced frosting. Enough to share! Beware–this is a hefty, dense cookie concoction.

Health: 1.5 Stars out of 5

Taste: 4/5 stars

IMAG0594

Chocolate banana cupcake: Again, I was impressed with how moist this GF cupcake was, while still maintaining a nice light texture. The chocolate flavor was rich, and there was just the right amount of sweet and creamy banana frosting to balance the less sweet cake.

Health: 1.5 /5stars

Taste: 4.5/5 stars

IMAG0597

Apple oat muffin: These muffins were in the freezer case, and they come in a package of 6. On the plus side, the muffins were moist and flavorful, but they tasted more like a desert muffin to me–i.e., too sweet, not very healthy tasting. If you like cake-y muffins that remind you of Hostess, this is the muffin for you.

Health: 1.5/5 stars

Taste: 2.5/5 stars

IMAG0593

Millet bread: Unlike the fresh bagel and amazing brioche samples I tried, the millet bread had the much more typical GF bread texture one comes to expect with GF products. Fairly dry and crumbly when toasted, and slightly more dense than non GF bread. When microwaved the bread is more moist and rich. The flavor was above average–slightly buttery, definitely a nice light millet flavor. But a slice of this bread contains 200 mg of sodium and not much of protein, so this would not be my go to ‘healthy’ bread for toast in the morning. Next time I want to try their oat bread as it might be a better breakfast option.

Health: 2/5 stars

Taste: 3/5 stars