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!
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!)
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!)