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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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!