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Seed Kitchen: Room to Grow

Seed sign

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

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seed, Venice Beach

Individual Food Reviews:

Raw Kelp Noodle Pad Thai (special of the day)

pad thai

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

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

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

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

 

BBQ Seitan Hot Dish (special of the day)

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

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

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

Taste: 2.5 out of 5

Hopefully the burger will improve my ratings!

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

IMAG0781

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

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

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

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

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

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

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

23rd Street Café, University Park

Individual food reviews:

Samosa Sandwich

 

Samosa Sandwich

Samosa Sandwich

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

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

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

 

Aloo Gobi Burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

 

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

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

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

S’up with Soy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

peerreview

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

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

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

S’oy vey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo’s: A little somethin’ for everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sampling some of the many exotic teas on offer.

Sampling some of the many exotic teas on offer.

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

 Kale Burrito

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

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

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

Mung Bean and Rice Burrito

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

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

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

 

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

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

Vegan Mac and Cheese

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

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

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

 

Kale taco casserole layered with refried garbanzo beans and tortillas.

Kale taco casserole layered with refried garbanzo beans and tortillas.

Kale Tacos Casserole

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

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

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

 

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

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

Vegan Tamales

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

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

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

 

Fresh and light kelp noodle salad.

Fresh and light kelp noodle salad.

Kelp Noodle Salad

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

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

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

 

Delicious (and supposedly healthy?) vegan chocolate torte.

Delicious (and supposedly healthy?) vegan chocolate torte.

Chocolate Brownie Torte

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

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

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

 

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

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

Flan de Almendra

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

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

Taste: 5 out of 5 (a fave!)

Reaping the Tasty Benefits of Organic Gardening

Howland's Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

Howlands Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

This week I’ve been writing about my time on Catalina learning what some of the brilliant minds of today are doing to solve problems of food security for a better future.

You can read my recent posts on reducing food waste using black soldier flies and revolutionizing food production with aquaponics to learn more. Both of these processes involve a little (or a big) investment to get started, and while both will hopefully become a huge part of our future food system, there are even simpler things each of us can be doing right now to increase our food security, reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and the corporate food system, while also reconnecting with the environment.

Spring onions are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

Touring the CELP garden at Howlands Landing, Catalina Island. Spring onions and garlic are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

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I was able to reconnect with nature a bit myself while on Catalina—not just through peaceful morning walks on the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or enjoying the stars in a night sky free of the Los Angeles street light pollution—but also with a special trip to Howlands Landing. Howlands is a campground on the West End of Catalina Island, and plays host to the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP).

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The 'wet' ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with 'dry' ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right balance for composting to function.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The ‘wet’ ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with ‘dry’ ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right mix for composting to function optimally.

The program teaches students of all ages, elementary school through college, about sustainability using their own organic edible garden and composting facility. Howlands is nestled in a gorgeous little hidden valley nestled between the steep hills of Catalina’s northwest corner and a rocky cove that looks out onto the sparkling ocean, teaming with coastal kelp forests and marine wildlife.

A student takes the time to stop and sniff the flowers at Howland's Landing organic garden.

A student takes the time to stop and smell the flowers at the CELP organic garden.

Last Thursday, as part of the USC alternative spring break program, I was able to tour the garden and even partake in some of the amazing fresh vegetables being grown there. The garden is maintained largely by groups of volunteers. The day we visited, there was a group from the University of Colorado, and another group from a midwestern university, helping staff build new garden beds, remove cactus, and plant the spring crop.

CELP also exposes younger children to gardening and teaches them about compost and permaculture. In fact, every group that visits Howlands participates in hands-on activities in the garden. Our group helped pour the morning’s breakfast leftovers into the compost bin and stir it together with carbon-rich cardboard. Liz, our amazing tour guide for the day, explained how Howlands Camp composts all of its own vegetarian food waste (meat and dairy are transported to another facility on the island to be processed since these products can be more difficult to compost in a sanitary, non-smelly way). She showed us the worm composting bins as well, where worms break down food waste and create a nutrient dense compost tea that can be used as concentrated fertilizer.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

The camp actively promotes conscientious eating, offering at least one meatless meal each day. Camp visitors learn about and participate in composting, recycling, planting, and harvesting of the organic produce grown in the teaching garden. Most of the plants are watered using water-efficient drip irrigation, and plants are chosen based on their appropriateness for the dry Mediterranean climate of the island.

The solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

The solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

The day we visited, Liz guided our students through the garden while they snipped fresh herbs, kale, chard, lemon, and more. Bees buzzed lazily passed us as we strolled along the pleasant garden paths attracted by purple sage and other bright flowers. Dozens of tiny succulents and seedlings dangled from little hanging glazed pots. Fruit trees and native Malva Rosa provided sprinklings of shade. It was entirely pleasant and relaxing, yet full of energy from bursting new growth and volunteers bustling around the garden beds.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howland's is working towards sustainable practices.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howlands is working towards sustainable practices.

After our garden tour and ‘harvesting’ session was complete, Liz helped the students chop the greens and massage the kale (yep, that’s a thing), dressing the mix with olive oil and vinegar. The best part of our homemade snack was the loaf of rosemary bread that had been freshly baked in a solar oven right in the garden! Nothing hits the spot more than fresh warm bread and crisp salad after a morning working in the garden. The leafy greens were bursting with flavor, and the lemon wedges we finished the meal off with were sweet and juicy enough to eat on their own.

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Liz finished off our tour with a discussion about organic versus ‘conventional’ agriculture. The CELP program teaches children about the dirty dozen (the fruits and vegetables with the highest recorded pesticide contents) and how to reduce their exposure to these toxins. CELP also teaches about the benefits of organic gardening and permaculture. I was truly impressed with CELP’s hands-on style, their beautiful grounds, and the extent of their sustainable practices. I hope that they can continue to serve as a successful model for many other teaching facilities looking to reduce their ecological footprint. And that they keep baking that amazing bread!

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Finishing touches.

Finishing touches.

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And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

Let doctor vegan be your guide!

Welcome to doctor vegan, the latest venture in healthy plant-based eating in L.A. Make sure to follow this blog to read the latest reviews on vegan and vegetarian restaurants, bakeries, and markets, plus receive healthy vegan recipe suggestions and the latest in food and nutrition news.

Check out the ‘Doctor Who?’ link above to learn more about me and this website. I’ve been eating at a LOT of vegan locales recently so there are many reviews in the pipeline. I hope you’ll follow me so that we can all enjoy this vegan foodie adventure together!

May the Food Be With You,

Dr. K

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