I have been a naughty blogger, not keeping up with my entries as quickly as I’ve been consuming tasty vegan food. I do have a good excuse, as far as excuses go—I recently moved from Los Angeles to the central coast of California and started a new job as a science writer.
But never fear, I still have plenty of L.A. vegan restaurants to tell you about, and I’ll be traveling back to that area often. On top of that, I’ll add posts about vegan experiences I have in the wider California region (and maybe even beyond!).
I will start to make amends this week with a review of one of the newest vegan restaurants to hit L.A.: Gracias Madre. This vegan, Mexican-inspired restaurant is owned by the folks of Café Gratitude (read my brunch review here). If you are a vegan who’s spent any time in San Francisco, you probably know that S.F. has been home to Gracias Madre for a number of years. I don’t know why it took so long for the owners to open a location in Socal, but it seems the prolonged hype certainly did wonders for the restaurant’s popularity.
For several months after Gracias Madre opened in West Hollywood earlier this year, it was nearly impossible to get a reservation unless you were famous. Even now, unless you stop by after 8pm on a Monday or Tuesday, you are probably going to have to wait awhile for a table, and you will likely end up enjoying a pricey cocktail at the swank bar to pass the time–and to fit in. G.M. offers a cocktail ‘program’ (cocktail ‘lists’ are so blasé) featuring several types of exotic tequila inspired drinks.
The décor is somewhere between a quant Mexican countryside cafe and a southwest version of Urban Home—and at night the lighting is quite low, to add ambiance I suppose. There is a charm about the place, and the outdoor patio is particularly appealing. There is high energy in the air despite the low lighting. Plus, all the glitz seems a bit more exciting given the fact that this all revolves around a vegan, organic restaurant.
I was anticipating eating at Gracias Madre for well over a year, and during that time built up many high expectations (fueled by friends who have eaten at the S.F. location and raved about it). I suppose it was inevitable that the food could not live up to such unrealistic hopes. It’s not that the meals I tried were bad. They were quite decent. But were they stellar, unbeatable, unforgettable? I’m afraid not (individual food reviews below).
Perhaps I have been spoiled with the likes of Real Food Daily, Sage, and G.M.’s sister restaurant, Café Gratitude. I consider these restaurants the three pillars of high-end vegan restaurant eating in L.A. They each offer a wide variety of healthy, organic, delicious food, including vegan Mexican food. Gracias Madre is perhaps on par with these three (obviously there will be similarities with Café Gratitude), but not any better, despite its specialization.
There are many more entrees I would try before making a definitive judgment, but at this point I would say that the food at Gracias Madre, while it offers a unique interpretation of Mexican cuisine, is too pricey for what’s on offer. I suppose they can get away with the prices based on the popularity and location of the restaurant. But I’d much rather delve into a molé bowl at Sage, which offers more food for a lower price, than the tostadas I tried at Gracias Madre. That said, there are definitely some menu items I was curious about, such as the empanadas and enchiladas, and some of the desserts. Perhaps I’ll hit up the San Francisco location to see what its all about.
I also will say that I support the ethics and vision of Gracias Madre, at least as they are presented on their website. The founders have even started their own farm in California where they grow source-verified non-GMO corn for their restaurants.
Overall, I’d say that Gracias Madre is a good option for a nice date night, a celebration dinner, or when you are really trying to show off to your out-of-town vegan friend. Alternatively, just consider it a super hip spot to meet up with friends in Weho, because Mexican food, vegan or not, is something almost any L.A. “native” is up for any day of the week. On a normal night though, I’ll stick with tried and true fave locales.
INDIVIDUAL FOOD ITEM REVIEWS:
Coconut Ceviche Tostadas
This entree consisted of two flat, crispy corn tortillas topped with a heap of lettuce and smaller amounts of spicy guacamole, cashew sour cream, and the ceviche. This was a light entree that came across as fresh and healthy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t struck by the flavor. The coconut ceviche didn’t add as much the to the dish as the title would suggest. Instead, I mostly noticed the lettuce and the spice, which drowned out the other flavors. If you like spicy foods, you might appreciate this better, but its definitely not a hearty dish. I will say, however, that the black beans that are served on the side of many meals are absolutely amazing–without them this dish would not be worth while for anything more than an appetizer.
Health: 4 out of 5
Taste: 3 out of 5
Flautas de Camote
This dish centers on three ‘rolled tacos’, aka taquitos, filled with sweet potatoes, onions, pico de gallo, served with guacamole and cashew cheese plus the black beans on the side. These were definitely more satisfying than the tostadas, but still didn’t really perk up my taste buds like I was expecting based on the the menu description. The flautas mainly tasted like potato (I didn’t really even taste the sweetness of the sweet potato), but hints of flavor peeked through. Again the guacamole’s spice overpowered some of the flavor. I think these would be fairly popular for many people, but would not be one of my first choices again. Next time I will try some of the heartiest options available and see if they are more gratifying.
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (because of the fried taco shells)
Taste: 4 out of 5
…look out for more G.M. food item reviews in the future!
The other day I finally made it to Seed Kitchen, a small vegan café that emphasizes raw and macrobiotic entrees. Apparently the chef that founded Seed has cooked for celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s tucked away just behind the main drag of Venice Beach, along an eclectic street lined with pricey surf shops, grungy eateries, yuppy cafes, talent agencies, and everything in between. The local crowd is a similarly assorted mix of grunge, hipster, surfer, and prep. Whenever I show up to these places, I feel like I don’t fully fit into any of the ‘categories’ of people surrounding me—I’m just there to eat!
Seed’s interior is fairly bare, with rustic-chic accents and a few items for sale along one wall, like supplements, snacks, and bath and beauty products. You order at the front counter, where a quiet but friendly guy with huge gauged earrings, a nose ring, and an intentional bouffant nonchalantly takes your order. The menu is as low-key as the vibe, with much fewer items than other vegan restaurants I frequent. This was actually refreshing, making the choice of what to order a bit less agonizing. There was a sign on the wall claiming that Seed’s vegan burger was the best in L.A., but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to try one of the healthier items on the menu. I almost went for the probiotic macro bowl, but earring guy recommended the special—a kelp noodle dish in the style of pad thai. Never one to dismiss a food recommendation, I went for it.
My trusty sidekick and partner in food, Mark, ordered a hot seitan and vegetable dish. We sipped on chilled, unsweetened green tea while we waited for our orders, and people-watched as individuals, couples, and small groups traipsed in and out of the tiny locale. The service was fairly fast (we were one of the only ones in the café when we ordered). The first thing I noticed, however, is that Seed serves all of their food and drinks in disposable containers, which does not rank high on my sustainability spectrum. Even though signs above the trash bins tell you that these plastic dishes, cups, and utensils are compostable, I wonder why Seed goes for the once-use approach, which is much more resource intensive than reusable plates/cups/etc.
The second thing I noticed were that the portion sizes were much smaller than other vegan restaurants with comparable prices and food styles—upwards of $12 for a TV-dinner sized portion. This might have not been an issue if the food was outstanding. Unfortunately, neither of us was wowed by our meals.
Yes, the pad thai seemed quite healthy, with fresh vegetables, kelp noodles, and a very light sauce that mostly tasted like mild chilis. But the whole dish was rather bland and uninspired. Luckily I ordered tempeh (at an extra charge) on top, which made a huge difference, adding a deeper flavor and texture to the dish. Otherwise, it was pretty ho-hum. I definitely appreciated the nutritional quality of the dish, but felt that it was something I could easily throw together at home—for much cheaper.
Mark’s seitan dinner had a bit more flavor—reminiscent of Korean BBQ. But the squishy balls of seitan and steamed veggies again just did not stand out as a great, fresh, vibrant dish. There were no great distinguishing flavors or textures, and the meal was definitely not adult man-sized.
Even the vegan desserts in the pastry case looked lackluster, wrapped in plastic and looking less than fresh. Perhaps we should have listened to the sign and tried the vegan burger. I would definitely consider going back to do so. I would even try some of the other super healthy options on the menu if I was feeling like I had indulged a bit too much in rich food that week, or wanted a simple, light meal without the hassle of preparing it myself.
I do appreciate that Seed is attempting to cook macrobiotic foods in healthy ways, using local and organic sources as available. But probably on most days, I’d forgo Seed and just make a simple, healthy dinner at home, or go to one of my stand-by vegan restaurants that offer more value for money. This might be a place you go with the most hipster (or health-conscious) of friends, but probably not with your omnivore-leaning peeps. When I try the ‘famous’ burger, however, I’ll be sure to update my review.
Seed, Venice Beach
Individual Food Reviews:
Raw Kelp Noodle Pad Thai (special of the day)
Very light, raw, probably very low-calorie. But also pretty much no protein unless you order something extra (as I did with the tempeh). Fresh but bland, and definitely not filling.
Health: 4.5 out of 5 (mostly vegetables, but not a lot of substance, probably not all organic)
Taste: 2 out of 5 (not horrible, just not memorable in any way, especially without added tempeh)
BBQ Seitan Hot Dish (special of the day)
As stated above, a bit more hearty and flavorful than the pad thai, but not a lot of great texture or freshness. Mark left the restaurant still needing more sustenance.
Health: 3 out of 5 (I’m not sold on seitan, which is a form of high-gluten processed wheat)
Taste: 2.5 out of 5
Hopefully the burger will improve my ratings!
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 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)
Hidden a few blocks away from the USC campus (though not so hidden for a lot of students!) is the 23rd Street Café, a little gem tucked humbly amongst the eclectic homes, apartments and storefronts of the University Park/West Adams neighborhood. From the outside, it looks somewhat like a convenience store, with a small bakery counter and refrigerated cases of drinks. But this café offers a lot more, and is particularly known for its Mexican-Indian fusion specialties like Tikka Tacos and Curry Burritos.
This is not a fully vegan or vegetarian restaurant; in fact, the menu is quite meat heavy. However, there are several vegan options to choose from and many more vegetarian, including a whole section of vegetarian thali plates (combination plates with multiple types of curries, rice, and sides). I came with friends, some of whom were not vegetarian, so the café offered a little something for everyone. One of my friends ordered the vegetable sandwich with avocado, but it came with mayonnaise so vegans be sure to check ingredients before ordering. I can see the appeal to USC students, since the menu has options ranging from burgers and burritos to curries and salads, plus a whole breakfast menu—all for remarkably low prices. L.A. weekly has highlighted its fusion fare, as has USC’s online newspaper the Neon Tommy.
I was a bit skeptical about the quality and health of the food, but I decided to be adventurous. I skipped the purely Mexican and Indian sections of the menu and ordered the Samosa Sandwich from the ‘fusion’ menu. My boyfriend chose the Aloo Gobi Burrito so we could try both (detailed food reviews below). There are ample healthy beverages to choose from, including a range of Yogi brand teas and bottles of Kombucha. Unfortunately, none of the desserts were vegan from what I can tell. This is a pretty no-frills café as far as the food goes. No brown rice, spinach tortillas, or black beans here, although the online menu lists a kale salad that is sometimes available. According to an interview with the owner, however, the sauces and fillings are all fresh made on site.
We decided to sit outside in the peaceful courtyard at the back of the restaurant. The interior had a decent ambiance though. It was clean and simple, just like what you’d expect from a neighborhood café, but with added accents like paintings of Gandhi on the wall. Super casual vibe, which I imagine would be a nice place to study (or take a study break!) if you are a student, or to do some writing or reading even if you’re not–lots of little tables where you can sit with a laptop, a coffee (the café serves espresso drinks), and maybe a big burrito.
You can read my food reviews below, but overall this place will satisfy a growling stomach, but it definitely doesn’t hit the health spot. Eating this food made me feel pretty guilty–it was heavy with oil, salt, and refined carbs. I also didn’t see anything organic on the menu, and I’m guessing they are using at least some lower quality or unhealthy oils to fry and saute foods with. Perhaps some of their other items on the menu (like the salads) would be an exception, but this is not the place to go when you are trying to eat a healthy whole foods diet. That said, if you are cruising around USC and you want a cheap, filling meal, or if you can’t decide between Mexican or Indian tonight, the 23rd Street Café has you covered. For a once-in-awhile craving, this is definitely a little spot to try out.
23rd Street Café, University Park
Individual food reviews:
Going into this I knew it was going to be indulgent, and indulgent it was. Two crispy fried vegetable samosas (filled mostly with potatoes) wedged between wheat bread, laced with mint and tamarind chutneys. Though it definitely wouldn’t qualify as particularly healthy (the wheat toast seems like a half-hearted attempt), this sandwich was definitely packed with flavor, texture, and fried tasty goodness. As a splurge, it was well worth the probably hefty amount of calories. I mean, how often can you find a sandwich stuffed with samosas??
Health: 1.5 out of 5 (if the bread was fried too it would be a 1; comes with lettuce, tomatoes, and whole wheat bread…but the fried samosas and starchiness are going to weigh you down)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (interesting, satisfying, a bit spicy)
Aloo Gobi Burrito
I was really excited at the prospect of this burrito. One of my favorite dishes when I visited India was aloo gobi (a spiced cauliflower and potato dish), so putting it in a burrito sounded pretty epic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations. The aloo gobi just tasted like an insanely salty mush, and the rest of the burrito filling was mostly rice with some pinto beans mixed in. The burrito itself was definitely not the health-food variety of wrap, and probably contained a lot of fat as well as refined white flour. So basically, this is just a classic bean and rice burrito with a bit of salty veggies stuffed in. The other vegan fusion burrito on the menu is the Chole burrito, a mix of spinach, chickpeas, and burrito filling, which I would consider trying to compare.
Health: 1 out of 5 (oily, salty, starchy, with little to redeem itself except the bit of protein from pinto beans and slight bit of vegetables)
Taste: 1.5 out of 5 (I know its harsh, and other people might not be so picky, but a fusion burrito has to have a nice balance of flavors, and this just tasted like a salty bean and rice burrito. Fusion fail!)
I absolutely love trying new vegan (and vegan-friendly) restaurants, and lucky for me it seems like every week a new one pops up somewhere in L.A. It used to be that the further away you got from the city, however, the fewer vegan options you could find. Thankfully that seems to be changing, as vegan versions of popular foods seem to be making their way onto mainstream menus far and wide–at least in California! Picking up on this shift in health awareness (or trendiness), the Rabbit Hole Café is one of the newest restaurants on the scene, an unpretentious but innovative neighborhood café “with a conscience”, as is their motto.
The Rabbit Hole Café is fairly hidden, nestled in an unassuming strip mall in Agoura Hills (about half an hour north of Los Angeles proper). I was up in the area the other day to take my mom to lunch, and was trying to decide where to go. I may never have wandered down the Rabbit Hole if I hadn’t at the last minute decided, on a whim, to search for ‘vegan restaurants’ in Agoura, assuming that only Hugo’s would show in the results (and as much as I love Hugo’s, I wanted something different for a change). To my surprise, however, Rabbit Hole Café popped up in the google results, so I clicked on the website to take closer a look.
On their homepage, the Rabbit Hole Café says that they source local, organic, non-GMO products whenever possible, and cater to vegans, vegetarians, gluten-intolerant, and other dietary constraints. They even list every ingredient that is organic right on the menu. The cafe also makes efforts to reduce waste, to compost, and to follow sustainable practices. I was instantly smitten.
A quick glance at the menu was enough to make my stomach grumble in anticipation—vegan sandwiches and burgers, kale bowls, vegan baked mac and cheese…jackpot! Within a few minutes I got my mom out the door and we made the short drive to the Rabbit Hole. It was a Saturday, early afternoon, and though there was a steady stream of customers, seating was ample. My mom and I grabbed a shaded table outside to enjoy the warm spring weather.
The inside, however, is adorable! The Rabbit Hole takes full advantage of its Alice in Wonderland theme, with whimsical signs describing smoothie flavors or the day’s specials, quirky decorations, and a black and white checkered floor. Inside seating is a mixture of small and large tables, with the opportunity for communal seating, or for wedging yourself in a private corner with a laptop or a book. There are only a few tables outside, located at the front of the restaurant on the sidewalk. Again, nothing fancy, just simple and sufficient.
It didn’t take us long to decide on our order (I had already pretty much decided when I looked at the online menu). We opted to sample three items: the chickpea toona melt (vegan tuna sandwich), violet shrooben (a vegan take on the Reuben, starring sautéed mushrooms and a homemade thousand island dressing), and the Rabbit Hole Bowl, a mix of quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, and fried kale (individual food reviews can be found below). I vowed to go back to try the vegan/GF mac and cheese and Rabbit Hole Pizza as well as the brunch menu. While most options are vegetarian and vegan, The Rabbit Hole also offers non-vegan sandwiches, breakfast items, and full on baked meals. I could also imagine coming by to enjoy a nice organic tea or coffee as well.
My only beef (pun intended) with the Rabbit Hole Café is that they use Daiya cheese on everything. As I’ve written before, I am not a big fan of this vegan cheese. Some people swear by it, but to me it has a distinctive, fakey taste that overpowers most dishes. For my orders, I left the Daiya on the Reuben (they used the swiss version, which I figured I would give a shot), but I ordered the toona melt without the Daiya cheese and instead ordered avocado on the sandwich. Spoiler alert—that was the best decision ever!
As we lounged in the partial sun after ordering, I overheard the conversation of the people at the next table over—a group of four high school students (two girls, two guys), sharing health advice, talking about kale and quinoa and drinking warm water with lemon juice first thing in the morning. It made me smile. What a far cry from the health ‘consciousness’ of my high school peers and me! Even though I was a vegetarian in high school, those were times (not that long ago I might add) when romaine was a specialty item and tofu was the only non-meat option for vegetarians—if you could find it.
The other customers were a mix of young and old, couples enjoying a leisurely weekend afternoon, or members of the small country club from across the street taking a break from golf. But the vibe was definitely not the typical yuppie Westlake feel; this is a casual, but slightly quirky, spot that you would probably never even notice if you didn’t know about it. Luckily, now you do!
Within minutes our order arrived, and my mom and I dug in with ravenous pleasure. I opted to try the vegan Reuben first, and while it was tasty, once I took a bite of the toona melt there was no turning back. It was love at first chew. It was all I could do not to scarf the entire thing down in one sitting—but I kept my composure and allowed my mom to try some, and even saved most of a half for my boyfriend to try later (I knew he would appreciate the amazingness of this sandwich as much as I).
Besides, I had to save room for dessert! Next to the counter inside where you order and pay is a large refrigerated case lined with mesmerizing vegan desserts, from mini cupcakes and cookies to tarts and cakes. Most are also gluten-free. Also available are frozen breads, muffins and other baked goodies from none other than Rising Hearts Bakery. I opted for two desserts made by Karma Baker: mini carrot-cakes, and a chocolate coconut tart. Neither disappointed, and the chocolate tart was probably one of the best vegan desserts I’ve had in recent memory—and that’s saying a lot, because I eat a LOT of desserts!
After one visit I can definitely say this is my new Agoura obsession, and I can’t wait to visit again. Everything tasted fresh and somehow nostalgic despite being novel and ‘trendy’. Wholesome, yet slightly indulgent—sourdough and rye breads reminiscent of corner delis, spreads and sauces that have a home-made charm—all served in a delightful atmosphere by friendly staff. This café with a conscience sure knows how to cater to picky eaters and food lovers alike!
Rabbit Hole Café, Agoura Hills
Individual Food Reviews:
Chickpea Toona Melt
The description may not immediately win you over—chickpea and seaweed ‘toona’ with grilled tomatoes, vegan cheese, and chipotle mayo—but let me tell you, this may be the BEST vegan tuna sandwich I’ve ever had. Most vegan tunas are made from either soy or jackfruit, the latter of which typically is pretty tasty. But this chickpea version, which I imagine was mixed with veganaise, was instantly addictive. I literally wanted to fill a bathtub with this filling and just immerse myself in it (sorry if that grosses you out). I will say that I made an important substitution to the sandwich that I believe made a huge difference—I swiched the Daiya cheese for avocado, and I think it was the best food decision I could have made. Whichever way you choose however, I venture to say you will not be disappointed by this sandwich, what with the magical filling, complemented perfectly by the sourdough bread, tomatoes and vegan mayo. I am still dreaming about this sandwich days later!
Health: 3 out of 5 (chickpeas and seaweed equal good protein and nutrients, however the vegan mayo adds fat from oil and the bread is decent carbs, though sourdough is supposedly one of the healthiest bread options a person can choose).
Taste: 5 out of 5! Can I say 6 out of 5??
Grilled mushrooms and purple sauerkraut with homemade thousand island dressing and swiss Daiya cheese, all on toasted rye bread. It sounds great, and it was tasty, but I think calling it a Reuben created certain expectations that just couldn’t be met. Other vegan Reubens I’ve tasted tend to use seitan or tempeh as their protein choice, giving the sandwich a ‘meaty’ heartiness that this sandwich couldn’t mimic. The flavors were all decent, but all together it just fell a little flat compared to the toona melt. I think the issue was that I loved each of the ingredients individually—the grilled mushrooms were lovely and savory, the sauerkraut had an interesting sweetness, and the dressing was nice and tangy. But put all together, the flavors didn’t blend as well as you might expect. It probably didn’t help that it included Daiya cheese, which just isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t totally write off this menu item, but I suspect that you are better off trying one of the other delectable choices your first time off—unless you have a mushroom obsession, in which case you might be perfectly satisfied with this sandwich, which is loaded with them.
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (healthy mushrooms, but not much else besides the fake cheese and dressing; the rye bread is very light, probably some refined wheat)
Taste: 3 out of 5 (decent, but not my pick for this restaurant)
The Rabbit Hole Bowl
This is a meal in a bowl (which I love); a base of quinoa and brown rice, topped with grilled sweet potatoes, carmelized onions, crispy fried kale, and a peanut ginger lemon dressing. The combination of all these ingredients was a perfect blend that felt healthy, yet satiating and flavorful. The dressing was wonderful—slightly sweet and tangy but not overpowering. The sweet potatoes were of course a great flavor addition, and the fried kale is pretty addictive (the even offer an appetizer that is just the fried kale). It was a bit oily, but had a crispy, flaky texture that balanced the heaviness of the rice and potatoes. It definitely won my mom over, and she had been skeptical of kale up to this point. This is a simple yet completely satisfying dish, which would perhaps seem plain if it weren’t for the wonderful addition of the dressing.
Health: 4 out of 5 (as a meal out, this is probably one of the healthiest you can get other than a salad; the fried kale is on the oily side so brings down the rating a bit, but overall this is a good healthy choice).
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (a nice balance of flavors and textures, may not blow your mind but is a general crowd pleaser, and a great way to introduce first-time kale eaters to this versatile vegetable.
Karma Baker mini Carrot Cupcakes (vegan, GF)
These little cuties are both adorable AND delectable. They have a wonderful rich flavor and a nice, moist, slightly dense texture. The ingredients are minimally processed (which is especially pleasing since they are made with gluten-free flour) with few questionable ingredients. The frosting is made with soy and palm shortening, and though both of these are listed as organic, some people may have qualms with these ingredients for health or sustainability reasons. Nonetheless, these are a light, satisfying dessert or sweet snack with no processed sugar, and lots of healthy ingredients (flax, walnut, carrot, coconut, etc).
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of healthy ingredients but still going to have sugar and fat; but per each mini cupcake, I’d say these are pretty high on the healthy dessert wagon!
Taste: 4 out of 5
Karma Baker Chocolate-Coconut Cream Tart (vegan, GF)
This was a melt-in-your mouth velvety chocolate experience that rocked my world. I could have eaten the whole thing, even though it was incredibly rich and dense—so I forced myself to share it. The tart is a sweet little size, big enough to share among 2-3 people, but definitely small enough to scarf down yourself without feeling too guilty (although you might feel a bit overwhelmed at the last bite). I cannot begin to rave enough about this amazing chocolate bit of heaven—the top half is a mousse-like consistency, while the bottom is a chocolate crust that gives sturdiness and a nice crumble to balance out the smooth creamy topping. If you love chocolate, or even like it just a little bit, do yourself a favor and try this tart!
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (almost all the ingredients are organic which is great, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar and coconut oil/cream in this dessert, as well as soy)
Taste: 5+ out of 5!
It’s a common plight among vegans—where do you take your non-vegan family members to eat when they come into town for a visit? Unless they are remarkably easy going or adventurous, taking a meat eater to a vegan restaurant can be overwhelming for them (or underwhelming, as the case may be).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we are very lucky here in Los Angeles in regards to the shear number of food options available to us. Because of this, there are a number of restaurants I enjoy introducing to friends and family because they cater to vegans and non-vegans alike, as well as a wide variety of palettes and preferences.
One of my go-to favorites for any meal is Hugo’s (whether its with family or not!), which has locations in West Hollywood, Studio City, and most recently Agoura Hills. There are also a number of Hugo’s Tacos locations, where you find a condensed menu of Hugo’s Mexican inspired items, both vegan and non. I tend to frequent the Agoura Hills location, part of the re-vamped Whizin’s plaza where you’ll also find some hidden frou-frou shops, yoga studio, zen living shop, and a cozy little bookshop upstairs run by an adorable retired, aging man with a million and one stories to tell.
If you know the history of Hugo’s, you’d think it an unlikely vegan hot spot. The restaurant got its start as a butcher shop, and slowly added other deli fare, including a specialty bakery. Eventually the deli morphed into a full-blown restaurant most revered for its seductive breakfast options (brunch, in fact, is my favorite meal at Hugo’s—but that’s a blog for another day).
These days, Hugo’s offers unique fusion food (their tamales are amazing!) as well as a variety of healthy meal options like kale tacos and hemp seed salad. They also offer build-your-own plate option where you can select items ranging from quinoa and mung beans to fried plantains, sweet potatoes, and turmeric infused basmati rice to make your own combination meal. Whew!
For the more traditional eaters, there are chicken sandwiches, burgers, shepherd’s pie, and classic pastas. Many options can be made vegan (they have a bomb veggie burger) and gluten free. Hugo’s also serves tantalizing juices, seasonal cocktails, and a lengthy tea menu with green, white, black, pu-erh and herbal teas. The food menu clearly labels for each entry with it is vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or contains nuts.
I’ve been to Hugo’s enough times now to get a good sense of their vegan style. They tend to emphasize Indian and Mexican flavors in these dishes, both of which I love. But some of the items can end up tasting similar as a result (i.e. a similar filling will be used in the burritos and casseroles). Some of their healthier items include the very green casserole, kelp noodle salad, collard green wrap, vegetable noodle pasta, and seasonal specials like the current ‘kapha plate’, an Ayurvedic-inspired mix of vegetables and tofu in a tiki-masala sauce.
When I’m not stuffing myself with their awe-inspiring vegan pancakes (served until 4pm), or vegging out on a salad, I tend to go for one of the vegan casseroles or burritos (individual food reviews below). Most of the ingredients used in Hugo’s meals are not labeled organic (with some exceptions), so I don’t give them top health ratings. But most things I’ve tried have wonderful fresh flavor.
The best thing about Hugo’s is that they don’t associate ‘vegan’ with fake meat. You won’t find Gardein on this menu! Instead, you can choose from all sorts of healthy protein options, from mashed garbanzo beans (Hugo’s version of refried beans), to lentils, mung beans, or the more conventional tofu.
The only disappointment in my view is that Hugo’s uses Daiya as its vegan cheese brand. To me, Daiya tastes incredibly fake; not quite as bad as soy cheese, but definitely with a distinct taste that detracts from the other flavors of any dish its sprinkled on. My suggestion is skip the Daiya, and either go cheeseless, or if you are vegetarian stick with the regular cheese (mozzarella is the most likely to be true vegetarian cheese without animal rennet).
Luckily, Hugo’s makes up for the vegan cheese factor with some awesome vegan desserts–most notably their indulgent sticky buns and the Flan de Almendra (yep, vegan flan!). They also have vegan pumpkin pie and chocolate torte. I’m salivating just thinking about them…Save room!
Hugo’s let’s you mix and match and substitute to your heart’s content, so you are bound to come up with something that you will enjoy eating. The prices are average for Los Angeles, with an average $12-15 for a full meal. Not cheap, but not outrageous. Great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and also dessert!
Hugo’s Restaurant (WeHo, Studio City, Agoura Hills)
Selected individual item ratings (I’m sure I will be adding more in the future!):
Hugo’s burritos are fairly hefty, and this one packs a spicy flavor punch (almost too spicy for me, which means most people will have no trouble with it!). An organic spinach tortilla is stuffed with refried mashed garbanzos, guacamole, organic dark leafy kale, cooked cauliflower, onions, garlic, spices and tomatillo sauce. The tortilla is topped with mozzarella cheese (or vegan Daiya cheese), negra-nacho sauce and pico de gallo. I absolutely loved the flavor of this burrito—the filling was a perfect combination of beans, veggies, and spices (except the chili which was a bit much for me). The only thing I regretted was the Daiya cheese, which you can see from the picture didn’t even fully melt. Better to leave it off next time. Otherwise, this guy is a winner!
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of vegetables, some organic, but also probably decent amount of oil).
Taste: 4 out of 5 (so close! Just get rid of the Daiya and maybe add some vegan sour cream and more guacamole to balance the spice)
Mung Bean and Rice Burrito
This burrito uses a wheat tortilla stuffed with organic mung beans, basmati rice, and mixed slow-cooked vegetables and spices. The spices were mild (especially compared to the kale burrito) and I was under-whelmed by the flavor, which was actually rather bland. The filling tasted more like a samosa than a burrito—not that this is a bad thing, but I had different expectations. Additionally, the texture is the same throughout, a thick paste, with no fresh vegetables or sauces to make it more exciting. If you like mild Indian flavors in burrito form, this is for you. Otherwise, Meh.
Health: 3 out of 5 (mixed vegetables and mung beans are healthy, but there are no fresh vegetables and the filling is quite heavy).
Taste: 2.5 out of 5 (average; I’d say there are way more interesting things to try on the menu).
Vegan Mac and Cheese
Sometimes vegans need to indulge in some comfort food nostalgia too! I mainly tried the mac and cheese to review it, because I try to avoid heavy foods like this. However, if you want to convince your non-vegan friends that vegans really can have it all, this is a good dish to share as a starter. This version of mac-and-cheese has a bit of a twist—there is garlic, mushrooms, and peas mixed in, and the dish is topped with fried onions. The reason why I loved this item so much is because they do NOT use Daiya cheese for it—instead the cheese is made of cashews and sunflower seeds. If you have never tried a “nut cheese”, you are really missing out. Every single one I’ve tried has tasted amazing! This dish doesn’t disappoint (though it is not going to taste like Kraft, so if that’s what you are looking for, pass on this)—its like a more ‘adult’ version of a kid favorite. This dish can also be made gluten-free by substituting the type of pasta.
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (The cheese is actually made of healthy ingredients, but probably high in fat, as are the onions; also the pasta adds a lot of refined wheat).
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (wonderful rich flavor enhanced by mushrooms and peas; a bit salty/heavy after eating a decent amount though)
Kale Tacos Casserole
Organic kale, mashed garbanzos, garlic, onion, and spices, layered between two GMO-free corn tortillas—one crispy, and one soft. The flavor of this casserole was similar to the Kale burrito, but I enjoyed this a little more because it was less spicy and the layered tacos were a great addition! I would say the Very Green Casserole would still be my go-to for flavor and health (it’s a mix of fresh cooked veggies, marinara and pesto sauces, Hugo’s own veggie patty, and melted cheese), but this was a very comforting, filling meal.
Health: 3 out of 5 (the crispy tortilla was probably fried in oil, but by and large the filling was dominated by the kale and other veggies)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (worth a try, great comfort-food feel, but not the most exciting thing on the menu)
Green tamales infused with spinach and topped with avocado-tomato-cilantro salsa and sour cream. These tamales are savory and sweet, with the most amazing flavor ever! One of my favorites at Hugo’s. They taste so fresh and are simple but impressive.
Health: 3 out of 5 (they don’t taste oily or salty, and use simple fresh ingredients, but won’t have as much nutrition as some of the other more vegetable-based meals)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (definitely a great item to try, at any time of day)
Kelp Noodle Salad
Haven’t heard of kelp noodles? If you are avoiding gluten, carbs, fat, calories, or all of the above, this is your new wonder food! I am absolutely NOT avoiding any of those things (at least not all the time), but I still love kelp noodles. They are light with a great firm but not tough texture, and can be substituted for wheat noodles in almost any dish. I ordered this salad for dinner one night when I was still full from a decadent brunch I’d eaten hours earlier. I was looking for something light, fresh, and healthy, and this salad hit the mark. This wouldn’t be the meal I’d recommend to someone who is trying Hugo’s for the first time and isn’t used to extreme L.A. healthy vegan fare. That said, the salad is reminiscent of a Chinese chicken salad, minus the chicken of course. The noodles are tossed in a light mango-tahini dressing and fresh julienne vegetables, sprouts, spring onions and grilled tofu. I enjoyed the added sea vegetables and ginger—two of my favorite things—that garnished the salad.
Health: 4.5 out of 5 (most of the vegetables probably weren’t organic, but otherwise this salad is almost as close as you can get to the epitome of ‘health’ at a typical L.A. restaurant)
Taste: 4 out 5 (very fresh, light, and balanced; not huge on flavor in terms of seasoning and spice, and would not be filling if you were starving)
Chocolate Brownie Torte
A vegan classic—chocolate brownie with pecans, a thin layer of frosting and fresh sliced strawberry on top. The menu description says this brownie is “so full of whole ingredients we consider them a more nutritious food source than any ordinary dessert”. That’s a rather ambiguous statement, but going by taste I can say that this is definitely not a ‘junky’ vegan brownie, nor is it a bland, cardboard-esque hippy brownie. The flavor is rich but not overly sweet, and I can definitely tell that the ingredients are healthier than typical brownies. Yet I venture to say that non-vegans will enjoy this dessert as well.
Health: 3 out of 5 (definitely not overly sweet, but there must be a certain amount of sugar and fat. These are gluten free though!)
Taste: 3.5 out of 5 (great, but not my favorite vegan dessert ever)
Flan de Almendra
This dessert is particularly amazing—flan is typically a dessert made almost entirely of cream and eggs, yet this is a vegan version (and also gluten-free). Yet the texture and flavor are remarkable. Light, melt-in-your mouth, yet decadent with coconut milk, almond, and mango puree for a tropical twist. The vegan whipped cream and cookie crumbles on top just make this an instant favorite.
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (sweet and creamy for sure, but if you share you shouldn’t feel too guilty)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (a fave!)
I bet you never thought goldfish could be the missing link to sustainable food production. Well, you better take a second look at these humble little guys, because if you’ve ever wanted to grow your own food—without a lot of space, soil, or chemical fertilizers—then a goldfish just might be your new best friend (along with several million bacterial ‘acquaintances’). This is the beauty of aquaponics.
First things first: aquaponics is NOT hydroponics. Hydroponics, while very efficient at growing plants without soil, relies on a sterile environment and a lot of energy input and external regulation, especially in the form of synthetic chemical fertilizers that are usually made from petroleum. Therefore, most hydroponic endeavors, while innovative, are resource intensive and not sustainable. Aquaponics, on the other hand, mimics natural biological systems to create a thriving ecosystem that eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers, while still maximizing efficiency of plant growth. You don’t need any soil, and you need very little space. It all comes back to the fish and the bacteria. While backyard aquaponics systems typically use feeder fish like goldfish, commercial systems tend to use marketable fish like Tilapia, which they can harvest and sell along with their food crops, resulting in an even more lucrative, yet still sustainable, food production system.
The basics of an aquaponics system go like this: 1) the fish create waste that bacteria in the water consume, which releases valuable nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; 2) this nutrient rich water is ‘fed’ to plant roots to nourish the plants and help them grow; 3) by removing these nutrients from the water, the plants have ‘purified’ the water which is then re-circulated back to the fish. The water is naturally purified, and the plants are naturally fed, in this fairly closed system. The bacteria do the essential dirty work in between. The only input needed is fish food, which you typically have to buy. However, even this part of the system may soon become completely sustainable, because biologists Ken Nielson and Radu Popa of River Road Research are developing fish feed as one by-product of their black soldier fly project (discussed in my last post).
Grow Your Own
David Rosenstein of EVOFarm, based in Santa Monica, explained the biological processes behind aquaponics in a lecture as part of the Future of Food program I attended on Catalina Island this past week. David, an unimposing young entrepreneur with a passion for sustainable food, founded EVOFarm as a way to fight back against our current chemical laden, diesel powered, polluted and corrupt industrial-agricultural complex.
Through years of tinkering and tireless perfection, David and his team have created aquaponics systems that successfully provide abundant harvests at all scales, from small backyard units for families, to larger scale systems for schools and for commercial sale of crops. Using aquaponics, you can harvest crops (like lettuces, kale, tomatoes, chard, spring onions, etc.) up to ten times per year, and produce anywhere from six to thirty times the amount of food per acre that you could reasonably harvest from a soil based system. Revolutionary! David estimates that the dollar value of this food per acre is over 1 million dollars, which would be unheard of in a soil system.
The yields from aquaponics aren’t just remarkably higher, but they are created without the use of harmful synthetic fertilizers, are very water efficient (water is continually recycled in the system, with minimal evaporation), can exceed organic standards, taste amazing, and result in local food security. You could literally have an aquaponics system in every backyard, as well as larger community-run systems. This would help reduce the number of ‘food miles’ of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we eat, lowering our impact on climate change as well as our reliance on industrial agriculture. Plus, it’s a fun hobby!
Rome wasn’t built in a day…but this aquaponics system was!
It’s actually super easy to build your own aquaponics system—and that’s just what we did (well, I mainly watched the students build it while I tagged along to take pictures). David, along with USC graduate student Ryan Lesniewski, showed us that with a few basic materials and a small investment, you can have your system up and running in a day, and be ready to plant all the crazy heirloom seeds you want by the end of the week.
After you get water into the system, you add some compost tea (aka liquid worm poo) to help grow the beneficial bacteria, which sets the biological basis for the system. Then you can add your fish, place your plants on top, and watch nature take its course. You need to monitor the water level and quality fairly regularly, but other than that the system is very low maintenance day-to-day (though if you like tinkering, there are myriad variables you can mess around with, like nutrient sources, quantities, water flow rates, etc.).
In fact, Ryan has been experimenting with these types of variables as part of his PhD research, which is focused on the development of aquaponics. He has become a self-made expert in a novel field where there aren’t really any experts yet. By growing seedlings in his closet and building aquaponics test systems on his tiny downtown L.A. balcony, Ryan has already learned a lot about the ins and outs of growing plants sans soil, knowledge that he is applying to the larger-scale systems he experiments with out on Catalina.
Meanwhile, David has been designing eye-pleasing backyard vertical aquaponics systems for local distribution, perfectly sized for backyard patios and balconies. His real dream, though, is to establish large-scale aquaponics farms to grow food for commercial sale, and revolutionize (there’s that word again!) the agricultural industry.
If you have a passion for growing (or eating) healthy, fresh, mouth-wateringly good food, than you have a vested interest in the growth of aquaponics. I know that I’m a convert, and can’t wait to help out with future projects like these that engage people in growing their own food to save money and build food security—and hopefully have fun!
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.
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
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
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)
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
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
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!)
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!!