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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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
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!
Making vegans and the gluten intolerant feel warm and fuzzy in Culver City
When you are vegan, stumbling upon a bakery that makes delectable vegan-friendly treats is as thrilling as being a kid in the Lego aisle of the toy store (ok who am I kidding…the Lego aisle is amazing at any age!). Anyway, it takes a lot for me to get excited about a bakery these days. When you are trying to eat a mostly healthy, natural, vegan diet, most bakeries are off limits; and to tell you the truth, I don’t often crave any of the super sweet, overly processed pastries and cakes that seem to make others swoon.
Still, when I learned that a gluten-free (GF), dairy-free bakery called Rising Hearts existed not five minutes from my apartment, my ears perked up. First, I did some sleuthing on their website, which confirmed that their entire bakery is free of gluten and dairy, is kosher, and that they have a tantalizing list of vegan breads and baked goods. The site lists ingredients for most products, and discusses their reasoning for choosing key ingredients. The bakery used to go by the name ‘The Sensitive Baker’, but under new ownership was re-Christened to Rising Hearts Bakery.
I want to be upfront–I am generally weary of pre-made GF products due to their lack of nutrients and reliance on various potato and corn starches and emulsifying gums, making them fairly processed. These were indeed in the ingredient list for many Rising Heart Bakery products. Most products also contain palm oil or shortening, an ingredient that is causing a lot of controversy. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to completely avoid palm oil (unless you make absolutely ALL your own food and bath/body products) because it is ubiquitous in most processed foods and toiletries. Palm oil is much cheaper than coconut oil and therefore more cost effective for businesses. But its popularity is causing widespread destruction of virgin rainforest to make way for palm plantations (not to mention that it might contribute to increased inflammation in the body). I try to support brands that use only organic or sustainably sourced palm oil, or better yet, healthier oils like coconut, olive, or rice bran.
Rising Heart products also contain canola oil, carrageenan, and cane sugar—none of which is necessarily detrimental in small amounts, but again all are fairly ubiquitous in pre-made and processed foods, so I try to minimize how much of these I consume.
However, I was impressed with the number of ‘healthy’ ingredients that Rising Hearts tried to incorporate as well (millet, hemp milk, flax meal, oat flour, rice syrup, etc.), and their openness about how they source their ingredients—including that it is impossible to verify that some of their ingredients are GMO free. I appreciate honesty, especially when it comes to food preparation.
Within minutes, I was dressed and heading to their Culver City location. Their store is tiny but immediately enticing. I arrived in the morning, so the smell of various baking breads permeated from the back kitchen area. I was greeted warmly by a woman from behind the counter, then left to wander as she helped a prior customer.
The refrigerated bakery case was filled with an assortment of cupcakes, dessert bars, cookie sandwiches and whoopee pies. On a tall rack against the window, I was distracted for a few minutes by the hand-made granolas, vegan cookies (with classic flavors from chocolate chip to the more exotic quinoa cranberry), and various GF/vegan bread and cookie mixes. Then, I found the freezer case—stacks of vegan muffins (apple oatmeal, sweet potato), breads (millet and oat loafs, sourdough baguettes, bagels), cakes, and more. I was paralyzed by choice!
Luckily, at this point another woman stepped out from the back to re-stock the freezer, and I asked her for recommendations. The woman turned out to be the owner, Edie Erwin. She was immediately friendly and helpful. I wanted to taste one of everything they had, but in order to minimize embarrassment (and impact on my bank account) I forced myself to narrow my choices down. I ended up choosing the apple oat muffins, a loaf of millet bread, a chocolate-banana cupcake, and a coconut oatmeal cookie sandwich with chai frosting filling (see individual reviews below). As I was paying for my bounty, Edie offered me a few slices of Rising Heart’s new vegan GF brioche. She also pointed out the bagel samples next to the register—I don’t think anyone would have been able to tell that those bagels were GF; in fact the texture and taste was richer than nearly any bagel I’ve tried, and I was half raised in Jewish delis!
I barely made it back to my car before stuffing a big chunk of brioche into my mouth, and I was not ready for the mesmerizing buttery softness that seemed to melt on my tongue. Memories of my pre-vegan days in Paris flooded back. If you aren’t familiar with brioche, it is one of those tantalizing, decadent egg and butter filled breads that for vegans is typically relegated to the ‘never again’ pile. So to experience this remarkably light, moist, just slightly sweet bread in vegan form (not to mention GF!) was a special moment. A moment all by myself, in my parked car. Somehow I managed to get the other two slices home for my housemates to try, but I admit it was difficult not to just shove them all in my mouth at once. That good, really. My opinion was reaffirmed by both my boyfriend and his non-vegan, non-GF brother.
While the muffins and bread were decent, I would say the real gems of this bakery are the fresh pastries and desserts in the front case, plus the brioche and fresh bagels. Below are my overall conclusions (so far) about Rising Heart, followed by my individual product reviews.
Rising Heart Bakery, Culvery City
*Great selection of cupcake, cookie, and dessert varieties, including many vegan options (all are GF, dairy-free, and kosher).
*Family owned business with friendly staff
*That vegan brioche was the bomb!!
*Many products have long-ish lists of ingredients (therefore are fairly processed), including sugar, palm oil, canola oil and potato and corn starches;
*Most products have high fat and carb to low protein ratio, so are not particularly nutritious for daily consumption
*Pricey! But the prices are to be expected at this type of specialty bakery
*Reduce reliance on palm oil/shortening and processed DF milks and flours
*Increase number of organic ingredients (Breakaway Bakery is a good example of this)
*Don’t be afraid to play around with other healthy GF flours (buckwheat, more oat and millet, amaranth, etc.) for heartier baked goods
Definitely worth a visit. For those trying to minimize processed foods and/or sugar from their diets, save this bakery for a special treat now and then and for parties or get-togethers with GF and vegan friends.
Individual product reviews:
Oatmeal coconut cookie sandwich with chai filling: Decadent, in the best way! Two gi-normous vegan cookies–dense, moist, slightly crumbly, with a rich buttery coconut taste–filled with a generous amount of lightly spiced frosting. Enough to share! Beware–this is a hefty, dense cookie concoction.
Health: 1.5 Stars out of 5
Taste: 4/5 stars
Chocolate banana cupcake: Again, I was impressed with how moist this GF cupcake was, while still maintaining a nice light texture. The chocolate flavor was rich, and there was just the right amount of sweet and creamy banana frosting to balance the less sweet cake.
Health: 1.5 /5stars
Taste: 4.5/5 stars
Apple oat muffin: These muffins were in the freezer case, and they come in a package of 6. On the plus side, the muffins were moist and flavorful, but they tasted more like a desert muffin to me–i.e., too sweet, not very healthy tasting. If you like cake-y muffins that remind you of Hostess, this is the muffin for you.
Health: 1.5/5 stars
Taste: 2.5/5 stars
Millet bread: Unlike the fresh bagel and amazing brioche samples I tried, the millet bread had the much more typical GF bread texture one comes to expect with GF products. Fairly dry and crumbly when toasted, and slightly more dense than non GF bread. When microwaved the bread is more moist and rich. The flavor was above average–slightly buttery, definitely a nice light millet flavor. But a slice of this bread contains 200 mg of sodium and not much of protein, so this would not be my go to ‘healthy’ bread for toast in the morning. Next time I want to try their oat bread as it might be a better breakfast option.
Health: 2/5 stars
Taste: 3/5 stars