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

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

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

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

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Patio seating.

Patio seating.

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

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

A portion of the unique menu style.

A portion of the unique menu style.

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

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

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

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

Café Gratitude, Venice Beach

Individual menu items:

WARM, aka Apple Cinnamon Muffin (gluten-free)

Muffin

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

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

Taste: 5 out of 5; scrumptious!

 

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

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

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

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

 

FANTASTIC, aka Crepe (gluten-free, raw)

Crepe

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

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

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

 

TRUSTING, aka Tempeh Scramble

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

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

 

TERRIFIC, aka Kelp noodle salad

Kelp noodle salad

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

Health: 4.5 out of 5

Taste: 4.5 out of 5

Take Back the Brunch: The Vegan Joint review

Vegan Joint sign

Welcome to the first review in my Take Back the Brunch series!

The Vegan Joint is one of our neighborhood go-to’s. It’s in walking distance from our apartment, and they also deliver—and we’ve felt lazy enough a number of times to take advantage of that service. In a separate entry I’ll review some of the Vegan Joint’s awesome lunch and dinner options, but this entry is all about Buh-Runch!

I’ve been ordering the Vegan Joint’s breakfast burritos for as long as I’ve been living on the Westside. They are different from any other breakfast burrito—vegan or otherwise—than I’ve ever tasted, and once you’ve had one, you WILL get periodic cravings for one of these bad boys. When I crave a breakfast burrito and I want it STAT, I head over to the Vegan Joint (or have them deliver one to my slovenly self on the laziest of days). So even though I was always tempted to try out some of their other breakfast options, I always stuck with the tried-and-true #4 burrito that my stomach was calling for.

Today, my friends, that all changed. Luckily, I had two accomplices joining me on my Vegan Joint brunch mission, and therefore ample reason to order multiple items on the brunch menu. We ordered 2 different breakfast burritos (including my classic fave, because a review wouldn’t be complete without it), but I also finally ordered the item I had wanted to try for over a year: the tropical pancakes. You can read all the individual food item reviews below. We also ordered two different ‘cleansing’ juices, plus we were offered free tortilla chips and salsa while we waited for our meals.

Free chips and 'salsa' (tastes more like water tomato paste) while we wait. The chips themselves are thick and a bit doughy, but addictive!

Free chips and ‘salsa’ (tastes more like watery tomato paste) while we wait. The chips themselves are thick and a bit doughy, but addictive!

Needless to say, we left the restaurant feeling a lot heavier than when we got there—luckily we walked and therefore worked off at least a small percentage of the food calories ingested in the name of Brunch. The Vegan Joint sits on the corner of National Blvd. and Motor Ave., nestled within a small Palms neighborhood amongst an eclectic mix of small sundry shops including a retro clothing store, a board and card game store, a few small ethnic restaurants, a deli, etc. On Sundays the block is closed to through-traffic and a small farmer’s market is held out front. Nice for people watching, but horrible for parking. Only street parking is available, so driving here on evenings, especially weekends, as well as Sunday mornings, can be a test of patience. Just be prepared for a few loops around the block.

The Vegan Joint has two other locations, though I haven’t visited them: one in Hollywood, and one in Woodland Hills. You can order from all three locations online or by phone. The restaurant chain is owned by a Thai family, and they are always courteous, attentive, and welcoming when you arrive (though sometimes ordering via phone is an adventure in inter-lingual communication). It probably makes sense, then, that some of the best food the Vegan Joint has to offer is their Asian/Thai dishes, like their amazing curries (again, to be reviewed in a separate up-coming blog entry). If you are looking for awesome vegan Mexican food, this is NOT the place to go, despite the several Mexican inspired items on the menu.

That said, the breakfast burritos are a major exception (though the name ‘burrito’ is the only Mexican-esque thing about them); and the pancakes and other breakfast items like hash browns and tofu scramble are equally mouth pleasing, as I can now personally attest. This is a no-nonsense, no-frills kind of place—many people compare it to a neighborhood diner that just happens to be vegan. You won’t get frilly parsley or fancy plating in this place; just huge portions that take two hands to eat (in the case of the burritos), and that you probably won’t be able to finish in one sitting.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend the Vegan Joint as the healthiest option for vegan brunch items, but there is something for everybody on the menu. Based on the menu and my personal experience, the Vegan Joint seems to incorporate much more refined wheat flour, sugars, fake meats (i.e. soy and wheat-based with high salt content), and vegetable oils in their dishes than some of the other more ‘upscale’ vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. You’ll notice, therefore, that my ‘health’ ratings for most items are lower than similar items at other restaurants I may review. However, compared to your ‘typical’ brunch spot or neighborhood diner, the Vegan Joint is going to be a healthier option item-for-item in regards to ingredients, fat content, and cholesterol, while still offering a lot of flavor.

As an easy, affordable treat once in awhile, this is a Brunch option with a lot of plusses—casual neighborly vibe, quick service, good prices, and most importantly breakfast served ALL DAY.

The Vegan Joint, West L.A.

Individual food reviews

Breakfast Burrito #3

Burrito #3: Stuffed with lentils, brown rice, onion, bell pepper, soy chicken, and a lot of savory seasoning.

Burrito #3: Stuffed with lentils, brown rice, onion, bell pepper, soy chicken, and a lot of savory seasoning.

If there were one word to effectively describe this burrito, it would be Savory. This burrito should more accurately be called a wrap (along with all the other burritos served here) because the filling is enclosed in lavash bread rather than a tortilla. As a result of this however, the burritos are huge because the lavash bread comes in large thin pieces, and the filling is then rolled up into layers of this bread. The Burrito #3 is stuffed full with a lentil loaf (a dense mix of lentils, brown rice, onion, bell pepper, and spices), grilled soy chicken, garlic sauce, and vegan cheese. No room for fresh vegetables in this monster. This is a burrito that even the most enthusiastic of meat eaters will marvel at for its flavor, density, and ability to fill you up for hours! The first few bites are a melt-in-your-mouth heavenly savory experience. The next few bites feel like guilty pleasures as you start to feel more and more full. By the time you finish the first half of the burrito, you feel like a lead weight and the other half seems to sit incredulously on the plate mocking you for your weak eating abilities. Seriously though, I wouldn’t recommend eating the full burrito in one sitting. But if you crave umami-dominant foods, this is going to fulfill your needs and then some. For me, personally, I can only handle about ¼ of this burrito at a time, and I have to eat something slightly sweet or lighter at the same time to balance out the heftiness of this beast.

Health: 2 out of 5 (good amount of natural protein from the lentils, and the lavish bread appears to be whole wheat; but loses points for soy chicken, salt, and processed vegan cheese plus lack of fresh ingredients)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (lots of flavor, but if you eat too much of this burrito at once, the salty/savoriness takes over and starts to strangle your taste buds)

Breakfast Burrito #4

Burrito #4: Magical mix of sweet potato, tofu scramble, and vegan cheese

Burrito #4: Magical mix of sweet potato, tofu scramble, and vegan cheese

This is my favorite breakfast burrito from the Vegan Joint because it’s the perfect combo of savory with a bit of sweetness from the potato. The #4 is stuffed with sweet potatoes, tofu scramble, and vegan cheese. This burrito is lighter than the #3 thanks to the tofu scramble (though it’s still incredibly filling), and less overwhelmingly savory and salty as well. The scramble has a seasoning that almost reminds me of Indian spice—turmeric and cumin, among other spices, but none are extremely potent. These flavors, in combination with the mild and slightly sweet potatoes and the savory aspect of the cheese, combine to make a wrap that’s hard to beat. Again, there aren’t really any fresh veggies in this (as if there would be room!), and it is tofu heavy which may not please those trying to reduce their soy intake. And like the #3, you’ll be pressed to finish the entire burrito in one sitting (not recommended).

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (sweet potato has natural vitamins and minerals, the tofu scramble adds protein and healthy spices—and I would say that tofu is a slightly healthier, less processed option than fake meats—but this burrito still contains the processed vegan cheese, decent amount of oil, and lack of fresh vegetables)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (like I said, a nearly perfect combination of sweet and savory, with a great texture and enticing mix of seasonings)

Tropical Pancakes

I would definitely take these tropical pancakes with me if I was deserted on a tropical island.

I would definitely take these tropical pancakes with me if I was deserted on a tropical island.

These vegan pancakes are probably the closest to the classic concept of light, fluffy pancakes that I’ve tried around L.A. Not only is their texture pleasant, but the flavor is light and these babies are jam-packed with fresh blueberries and banana—no skimping on the fruit factor! The pancake batter tasted slightly sweet, so I’m guessing there is added sugar in the mix, very likely white sugar. The pancakes come with vegan butter on the side, which tasted great and melted well, but was probably a margarine type vegan butter containing soy, canola, palm and similar type oils. The syrup served on the side tasted decent as well, so it was likely real maple syrup, but again hard to tell. If you are craving the ultimate classic, indulgent fruit pancake, these are the cakes you are looking for. For those of you looking to avoid refined sugar and wheat, stay clear of these and opt for one of the less processed versions I’ll review in my upcoming blog, particularly the buckwheat pancakes and crepes from Café Gratitude.

Health: 2 out of 5 (sugar, wheat flour, margarine, and syrup do not add up to healthy, but the abundant fresh blueberries and lack of animal fats keep these pancakes from getting the lowest score)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (I have to admit these really hit the Brunch spot, despite the subtle guilt I felt knowing I was probably eating several servings worth of white flour and sugar)

Apple Sage Sausage

Vegan apple sage sausage--dare I say better than REAL sausage??

Vegan apple sage sausage–dare I say better than REAL sausage??

I will go out on a limb and suggest that these vegan sausages may actually appeal to meat eaters just as much as vegans and vegetarians. I’m not sure where the Vegan Joint gets them from, but one of the only brands that makes vegan apple sage sausages is called ‘Field Roast Grain Meat Co.’. If this is indeed the source, than these are actually a fairly healthy option. As opposed to most ‘fake meats’ that are made out of processed soy and wheat gluten, Field Roast sausages are made from chopped vegetables, whole grains, and natural seasonings. The texture of these sausages alone is remarkable, but the flavor is outstanding—an excellent balance of savory sausage flavor with the slightly sweet apple and an umami smoked flavor (if you haven’t noticed, I’m obsessed with foods that combine sweet and savory flavors). These sausages are a great addition to any of the burritos on the Vegan Joint menu, or as a savory side to go with the pancakes or other sweet breakfast item. I typically ignore the sauce that is served with these sausages; I don’t know what it is, but while I enjoy the food at the Vegan Joint, the sauces that come with their dishes always seem a bit lackluster.

Health: 3 out of 5 (better option than other fake meats, likely decent amount of protein, but hard to tell what actual ingredients are in them)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (hard to beat in terms of flavor balance and texture; some even contend that these win out over many actual meat sausages!)

Green Cleansing Juice

Green cleansing juice (left) and veggie power juice (right), a powerhouse indeed.

Green cleansing juice (left) and veggie power juice (right), a powerhouse indeed.

This fresh juice contains kale, grape fruit, green apple, cucumber, pineapple. I love this juice—its not overly sweet, and has a fresh crispness to it, a slight tang from the grape fruit, and a tropically vibe from the pineapple. This is a great mix of fruit and veggie flavor, with no one ingredient overpowering the rest. Highly recommended!

Health: 4 out of 5 (Probably not using organic fruits and vegetables, and probably has a decent amount of sugar, albeit naturally occurring from the fruits, but overall seems fresh squeezed and healthy as juices go)

Taste: 5 out of 5!

Veggie Power Juice

This juice is a potent mixture of beet, carrot, orange juice, spinach, broccoli, ginger, celery, green apple, bell pepper, cucumber, and alfafa sprouts. This juice gets a big plus for the number of healthy fruits and vegetables packed into it. However, you really have to like beets and ginger to enjoy this juice, because these flavors dominate. If you can handle a bit of spiciness from the ginger and the earthiness of beets, than this juice is going to rock your liver-cleansing world. There is a pleasant slight sweetness to this juice that makes it very drinkable, though a bit heavier and stronger than the cleansing juice reviewed above.

Health: 4 out of 5 (would get a 5 if the fruits and veggies were organic)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (great flavor but a bit strong on the beets and ginger; some will love it, others not so much)

Smoothie (sorry, no pic for this one yet, but it is a light purplish color from the blueberries)

 This is an all-around crowd-pleasing fruit smoothie, filled with banana, blueberries, papaya, pineapple, soymilk, and orange juice. It is the sweetest of the three drinks in this review, which is to be expected from a smoothie as opposed to a juice. But the sweetness comes from the high fruit content, with some of my favorite fruits blended together! The blueberry/banana combo is always a winner, and the other fruits in this smoothie are an added bonus. The soymilk adds creaminess as well as some protein, though people trying to avoid soy products will want to pass on this drink. The smoothie is filling (though it is not huge—it comes in a regular 16 oz plastic cup), and is great on its own or to complement a meal (or as dessert, which is how I treat it when I order one!).

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of fresh fruit, but probably not organic, plus high sugar content from fruit; also contains soy)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (super scrumptious!)

Take Back the Brunch: A Los Angeles Vegan Brunch Odyssey

It's time to celebrate, because Brunch is Back, and this time its VEGAN!

It’s time to celebrate, because Brunch is Back, and this time its VEGAN!

I love Saturday mornings. Especially the mornings when I sleep in until the sun shines warmly through the slits of my bedroom shades, softly waking me without urgency or force. When I finally do get out of bed I lazily sip a cup of tea and peruse some interesting articles online or read a book until I feel compelled to change out of my pj’s. Saturday mornings have a special aura of both relaxation and anticipation—the entire weekend still lies ahead, full of possibilities, and Monday only looms far away in the distance.

My favorite Saturdays (and Sundays!) are the ones where I go out for brunch. It’s not much of a stretch that sometimes I feel like I LIVE for brunch. I know that’s not healthy (physically or mentally), but I can’t help my obsession with the one meal dedicated to both savory and sweet, the best of both food worlds; where anything goes, but a few tried and true favorites keep you coming back again and again.

As a vegan, most of the restaurant brunch scene is either off limits or incredibly boring (you get to choose between the oatmeal, dry toast, or the fruit bowl—sans yogurt—while your friends gorge themselves with pancakes, French toast, omelets, bacon, and sausage). Well, my friends, I’m here to ‘take back the brunch’ for us Vegans, and those who just happen to like eating vegan food or expanding their horizons.

Luckily, Los Angeles is overflowing with vegan brunch options (apologies for those living in more vegan-impoverished zones). And while you can probably order something vegan in nearly any restaurant you visit in the L.A. area, I’m here to share with you some of the crème-de-la-crème of Vegan-centric brunch options this town has to offer—places that your non-Vegan friends will be just as thrilled to visit as you will be.

So join me in this on-going series where I will rate and compare the best vegan breakfast/brunch options around Los Angeles. Together, we can Take Back the Brunch!!

Full brunch