Category Archives: Entrees
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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!
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!
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)
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)
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!
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.
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.
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:
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
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!)
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.
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.
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!
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
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??
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
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)
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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!):
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
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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!)
Finding the trifecta of food perfection (vegan, organic, and most importantly TASTY) can be difficult, especially on a college campus where fast food is the go-to lunch fare. Even most of the salads and vegetarian options are not very healthy. Luckily, last semester one of my students introduced me to the Good Karma Café, a bastion for vegans and starving students alike.
The Good Karma Café is hosted by The Office of Religious Life and the United University Church, and run by chef and Hindu Monk Sarvatma Das. Das is often at the ‘front lines’ serving students and staff and initiating witty banter. A long-time monk, cook, world traveler, writer, and artist, Das never fails to hit me with a sidelong comment that starts an impromptu conversation—about the mystery novel he’s working on, for example.
The Good Karma Café is Das’s brainchild, but was initiated at USC thanks to the Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, who saw the need for better vegan and vegetarian options to accommodate the Hindu and Jain communities on campus, as well as vegetarians more generally. All of the food is consecrated according to Vaishya Hindu tradition. Yet you’ll find just as many meat-eaters at vegetarians lining up at the Café because the food is so fresh and flavorful—and the setting is so enticing.
The Café serves up organic, all-you-can-eat vegan meals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12-2pm in a pleasant sunken courtyard next to the Unity University Church on 34th Street. You can eat at one of the many community tables outside amongst soothing fountains, flowers, and vines, or inside the adjacent mess hall. On Tuesdays, Das serves classic Indian fare called kitcheree—a thick rice and bean ‘stew’ filled with vegetables and lovely mild spices. On Wednesdays you can get your Italian on with a hefty dose of pasta (Das rotates between marinara and homemade pesto sauces).
Both meals are served with organic mixed greens topped with a home-made almond dressing that has such a strong following that Das now sells bags of it on-site and online. You also get a big scoop of Halava with every meal—a sweet, semolina based dessert that melts in your mouth. The flavor of halava changes each day, ranging from walnut-chocolate chip to vanilla hazelnut, cardamom raisin, and more. All are De-Lish.
For those who like to burn their taste buds out of existence, the Good Karma Café always has a sufficient supply of hot sauce on hand (I’m a major self-proclaimed spice wuss, so alas I cannot comment on the hot sauce), as well as a cooling drink—the flavor of which rotates like the halava. Some of the flavors I’ve seen include lemon tamarind tea, pineapple passion fruit, and lemongrass fennel.
An entire meal, including main course, salad, dessert, and drink, costs $10. Ten bucks may not sound cheap for a student meal, but the servings are generous, and the best part is that you are welcome to seconds (and thirds if you really want, though I imagine you might explode by that point!). Better yet, the servers are happy to fill any Tupperware containers you bring so you can take extra food to go as well. I usually have enough left overs to last me for at least one, if not two, extra meals.
If you happen to find yourself in or around the USC campus on a Tuesday or Wednesday around lunchtime, especially if your stomach is growling, do yourself a favor and hit up the Good Karma Café. Your belly (and maybe your karma) will thank you!
Good Karma Cafe, University of Southern California
Individual food reviews:
This rice dish is quite rich and filling. Definitely chock full of wonderful spices, beans (e.g. lentils and mung beans) and mixed vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots). I am not sure how much oil or ghee (clarified butter) is used, but the Chef sources mainly organic ingredients and appears to take great care in making good quality, healthy meals. I usually can’t finish a full helping because the kitcheree is so hearty. Definitely satisfying, and tastes great mixed in with the salad served on the side. I imagine this is a gluten-free dish as well as rice is the only grain. If ghee is used, this dish is not fully vegan, only vegetarian.
Health: 4.5 out 5 stars (may have oil or ghee, but generally appears very healthy)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (the richness makes it hard to finish a whole serving)
I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of Chef Das’s marinara sauces yet, but the pesto is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Wholesome fresh basil and olive oil succulently coat organic pasta. The pasta was also cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness to firmness ratio–so delectable! Even though the pasta is filling, I could easily eat a whole serving because the pesto has such wonderful, tantalizing flavor. This is one of the best pesto sauces I have every tasted.
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (due to high oil content and high carb content of pasta)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (That’s right! This is a big flavor winner!)
Divya’s Almond Dressing
This is a remarkably creamy vegan dressing that is used on all the side salads served with the main meal. A small amount packs a whole lot of flavor, and seems to go with EVERYTHING (even the halava!), not just salad. The ingredients are simple: almonds, nutritional yeast, amino acids (a vegan sort of soy sauce type mix), oil, and water. But the ratios must be perfect, because the result is divine. You could make something similar at home (in fact, I just recently tried), but something about this version just can’t be topped.
Health: 4 out of 5 (high fat content, but its good fats from nuts, plus some oil, not sure what kind they use; all natural, no fillers)
Taste: 5 out of 5
Assorted flavors. I am never disappointed with the halava, regardless of what flavor is being served. The walnut chocolate was one of the best ever, but I’m biased as a complete chocoholic. The dessert is sweet but not sickeningly so (as some Indian desserts can be), and makes a nice end to a wonderful meal. Not appropriate for gluten-intolerant folks because this dish is made with semolina, a type of wheat. Also may contain ghee, so not vegan (though Das sometimes has an alternative vegan option as well).
Health: 3 out of 5 (Das doesn’t use refined sweeteners, but you still are getting some sugar and wheat with this dish)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5
9021Pho does vegan right
I had driven by 9021Pho a number of times in Westlake Village, each time wondering whether it was worth a stop (or whether there would be vegan options available). Then one night my dad mentioned a pho craving and asked if I wanted to try the place out. I can’t believe I waited so long!
Once you get passed the cheesy name, there is a lot to like about this place. Not only does 9021Pho have a variety of vegan options, but they also have a nice variety of full leaf teas (love!) which one can partake of during their daily tea AND alcohol happy hour. The white tea, which I tried on my first visit, has a natural sweetness and delicate flavor, making it my favorite so far. The tea is served in lovely glass pots over a candle to keep the tea warm throughout your meal.
The ambiance of 9021Pho is like an upscale noodle bar and café. Classic jazzy music (another of my faves) permeates and sets a mood of upbeat relaxation. As I turned each page on the menu I grew more excited by the options. First, with the appetizers: we tried the vegan crispy spring rolls and vegan postickers. Each comes with a dipping sauce–a sweet chili sauce for the spring rolls, and a rich hoisin and tamarind type sauce for the pot stickers. Both were great, but I’d have to say the pot stickers, with their unique filling of pureed yucca and mushrooms, won me over. You can also order the vegan sampler, which comes with both of the above plus crispy mock chicken.
For my entrée I of course tried the vegan pho, called Pho Chay. This generously sized soup was filled with fresh vegetables, including bok choy, mushrooms, baby corn, and carrots, plus tofu. But what really won me over was the vegetable broth. I am used to most veggie broths tasting pretty much the same, so I was blown away by the complexity and lightness of this version. There was a slight sweetness, a distinct freshness (enhanced by the fresh lime and basil served on the side), and wonderful complement of flavors that I wish I could identify in this soup. It was love at first Pho. (Sorry, had to do it). The best part was that the serving was so large I had plenty to take home for leftovers, which were just as good—if not better—than the night of.
Dessert was coconut sorbet, and despite usually avoiding sugar I couldn’t resist. It was rich and filled with tantalizing chunks of coconut, and best of all it was served in a half coconut shell! The mango sorbet was served in half a mango skin. Nice touch. I appreciate attention to detail and presentation, especially when the taste lives up to the look. However, if you are trying to avoid processed sugar, I would say stay away from the dessert menu.
I can’t speak for the meat options at this restaurant, but I will vouch for the tastiness of the vegan options. I’ve seen yelp reviews about 9021pho that complain it isn’t ‘authentic’ Vietnamese. To me, if something tastes wonderful and healthy, I don’t care whether it is classified as authentic anything (as long as its vegan!). Besides, who is to say what is and what is not authentic in our widely mixed cultures. The owner and head chef of 9021Pho is Vietnamese and grew up in Vietnam, so I’m guessing she knows a thing or two about Vietnamese cuisine. I for one am quite happy with her culinary interpretations.
There are other vegan options on the menu as well, including salads, curries, and noodle dishes. So far I’ve tried the tamarind tossed salad and Vietnamese Curry with vegan chicken. Both were fresh, healthy dishes with nice flavor, but just not as unique and exciting as the pho. Besides, I’m not typically a big fan of fake meat unless it is REALLY good. I’ll be sticking with the classics at this place.
In fact, I’ve been back three times since my first visit (which was only about 2 months ago). I even chose to go here for my birthday. I can tell it’s going to be one of my regular favorites, whether there is a chill in the air, a rumble in my tummy, or I know I’m going to want the leftovers the next morning—even vegan pho can be a great hangover cure…not that I know from experience. 😉
9021Pho, located in Westlake Village, Beverly Hills, Sherman Oaks, and Glendale
* Great selection of vegan options (plus non-vegan for friends who like the more traditional meaty pho). Bonus: Noodles are gluten-free
*Very fresh and light, seems healthy without too much salt or oil
*Pleasant ambiance and friendly wait staff
*Tea happy hour!
*May be perceived as slightly pricey as pho goes (just under $10), but you will likely have decent leftovers, and the quality/flavor of the food is worth it in my opinion.
*Not a fully vegan restaurant (for those who prefer not to eat in places that serve meat)
If you love pho, or have never tried it but want to be a bit adventurous, this is the place to go! Even my Midwestern mom, who things black pepper = spicy, loved her chicken pho. A fun, casual place to grab lunch or dinner, and even to celebrate special occasions. This may not be your hole in the wall pho place, but how many of those are vegan-friendly??
Individual food item reviews:
Vegan spring rolls: These bite-sized crispy fried rolls are definitely a treat, but I was not completely won over on their flavor. I tend to be less than enthused by most deep fried foods (which I am assuming these were), even if they are vegan. A good all around crowd-pleaser, just not my favorite.
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (because fried, fake meat)
Taste: 3.5/5 (though I know others who absolutely love these)
Vegan won tons: I know these are not much healthier than fried spring rolls, but these little dumpling like won tons are boiled, so the vegetable flavor comes through in a cleaner, more satisfying way. One of my preferred appetizers!
Pho Chay: A unique vegetable pho that packs a lot of flavor without seeming heavy or overly seasoned. A wonderful balance of freshness and warmth. Good for what ails you. Addictive!
Health: 4/5 (based on what I can gather from ingredients)
Coconut sorbet: Creamy and smooth, with chunks of coconut and a strong, natural coconut flavor. I’m sure there is a lot of sugar in this sorbet, but it didn’t taste overly sweet—the sweetness was well balanced with the creaminess.
Health: 1/5 (I’m assuming high concentration of refined sugar)
Tamarind tossed salad: This is a great option if you are looking for something light or to share as an appetizer. It was less exciting than expected, with mostly lettuce and a few other veggies. The dressing was decent but a bit sweet for my taste (I’m not a big fan of sweet vinaigrettes either). This would not be my first choice for a meal.
Vietnamese Curry with fake chicken: Again, not a bad choice if you are into a more mild, light stir-fry. The curry sauce has a nice flavor but is not memorable. I did like that the curry didn’t seem overly oily or processed. Other than the fake chicken (which was tasty but not necessarily healthy) I’d say this is a fairly healthy dish, but not very memorable.