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

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

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

Front entrance to the 23rd Street Cafe

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

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

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

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

Interior of the 23rd Street Cafe

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

23rd Street Café, University Park

Individual food reviews:

Samosa Sandwich

 

Samosa Sandwich

Samosa Sandwich

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

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

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

 

Aloo Gobi Burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

Aloo gobi burrito

 

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

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

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

Good Karma Never Tasted So Good

Finding the trifecta of food perfection (vegan, organic, and most importantly TASTY) can be difficult, especially on a college campus where fast food is the go-to lunch fare. Even most of the salads and vegetarian options are not very healthy. Luckily, last semester one of my students introduced me to the Good Karma Café, a bastion for vegans and starving students alike.

The Good Karma Cafe serves up amazing vegetarian food and friendly smiles! Left: A volunteer serves up tasty dessert. Right: Chef Sarvatma Das serves up his pesto pasta.

The Good Karma Cafe serves up amazing vegetarian food and friendly smiles! Left: A volunteer serves up the tasty dessert. Right: Chef Sarvatma Das dishes generous portions of his pesto pasta.

The Good Karma Café is hosted by The Office of Religious Life and the United University Church, and run by chef and Hindu Monk Sarvatma Das. Das is often at the ‘front lines’ serving students and staff and initiating witty banter. A long-time monk, cook, world traveler, writer, and artist, Das never fails to hit me with a sidelong comment that starts an impromptu conversation—about the mystery novel he’s working on, for example.

The Good Karma Café is Das’s brainchild, but was initiated at USC thanks to the Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, who saw the need for better vegan and vegetarian options to accommodate the Hindu and Jain communities on campus, as well as vegetarians more generally. All of the food is consecrated according to Vaishya Hindu tradition. Yet you’ll find just as many meat-eaters at vegetarians lining up at the Café because the food is so fresh and flavorful—and the setting is so enticing.

Follow the sign down stone steps into a hidden courtyard to find the vegetarian pot of gold!

Follow the sign down stone steps into a hidden courtyard to find the vegetarian pot of gold!

The Café serves up organic, all-you-can-eat vegan meals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12-2pm in a pleasant sunken courtyard next to the Unity University Church on 34th Street. You can eat at one of the many community tables outside amongst soothing fountains, flowers, and vines, or inside the adjacent mess hall. On Tuesdays, Das serves classic Indian fare called kitcheree—a thick rice and bean ‘stew’ filled with vegetables and lovely mild spices. On Wednesdays you can get your Italian on with a hefty dose of pasta (Das rotates between marinara and homemade pesto sauces).

I can hardly wait for my plateful of pesto-ey goodness.

I can hardly wait for my plateful of pesto-ey goodness.

Both meals are served with organic mixed greens topped with a home-made almond dressing that has such a strong following that Das now sells bags of it on-site and online. You also get a big scoop of Halava with every meal—a sweet, semolina based dessert that melts in your mouth. The flavor of halava changes each day, ranging from walnut-chocolate chip to vanilla hazelnut, cardamom raisin, and more. All are De-Lish.

For those who like to burn their taste buds out of existence, the Good Karma Café always has a sufficient supply of hot sauce on hand (I’m a major self-proclaimed spice wuss, so alas I cannot comment on the hot sauce), as well as a cooling drink—the flavor of which rotates like the halava. Some of the flavors I’ve seen include lemon tamarind tea, pineapple passion fruit, and lemongrass fennel.

An entire meal, including main course, salad, dessert, and drink, costs $10. Ten bucks may not sound cheap for a student meal, but the servings are generous, and the best part is that you are welcome to seconds (and thirds if you really want, though I imagine you might explode by that point!). Better yet, the servers are happy to fill any Tupperware containers you bring so you can take extra food to go as well. I usually have enough left overs to last me for at least one, if not two, extra meals.

If you happen to find yourself in or around the USC campus on a Tuesday or Wednesday around lunchtime, especially if your stomach is growling, do yourself a favor and hit up the Good Karma Café. Your belly (and maybe your karma) will thank you!

Good Karma Cafe, University of Southern California

Individual food reviews:

A plate of Chef Das' famous vegetarian kitcheree, chock full of vegetables and Indian spices.

A plate of Chef Das’ famous vegetarian kitcheree, chock full of vegetables and Indian spices.

Kitcheree

This rice dish is quite rich and filling. Definitely chock full of wonderful spices, beans (e.g. lentils and mung beans) and mixed vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots). I am not sure how much oil or ghee (clarified butter) is used, but the Chef sources mainly organic ingredients and appears to take great care in making good quality, healthy meals. I usually can’t finish a full helping because the kitcheree is so hearty. Definitely satisfying, and tastes great mixed in with the salad served on the side. I imagine this is a gluten-free dish as well as rice is the only grain. If ghee is used, this dish is not fully vegan, only vegetarian.

Health: 4.5 out 5 stars (may have oil or ghee, but generally appears very healthy)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (the richness makes it hard to finish a whole serving)

Incredibly fresh, flavorful basil pesto served up every other Wednesday.

Incredibly fresh, flavorful basil pesto served up every other Wednesday.

 Pesto Pasta

I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of Chef Das’s marinara sauces yet, but the pesto is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Wholesome fresh basil and olive oil succulently coat organic pasta. The pasta was also cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness to firmness ratio–so delectable! Even though the pasta is filling, I could easily eat a whole serving because the pesto has such wonderful, tantalizing flavor. This is one of the best pesto sauces I have every tasted.

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (due to high oil content and high carb content of pasta)

Taste: 5 out of 5 (That’s right! This is a big flavor winner!)

Divya's almond dressing can be purchased for use at home. Just add oil and water.

Divya’s almond dressing can be purchased for use at home. Just add oil and water. A little goes a long way!

Divya’s Almond Dressing

This is a remarkably creamy vegan dressing that is used on all the side salads served with the main meal. A small amount packs a whole lot of flavor, and seems to go with EVERYTHING (even the halava!), not just salad. The ingredients are simple: almonds, nutritional yeast, amino acids (a vegan sort of soy sauce type mix), oil, and water. But the ratios must be perfect, because the result is divine. You could make something similar at home (in fact, I just recently tried), but something about this version just can’t be topped.

Health: 4 out of 5 (high fat content, but its good fats from nuts, plus some oil, not sure what kind they use; all natural, no fillers)

Taste: 5 out of 5

Halava with juicy bits of fruit (the chocolate is still my fave though!)

Halava with juicy bits of fruit (the chocolate is still my fave though!)

Halava

Assorted flavors. I am never disappointed with the halava, regardless of what flavor is being served. The walnut chocolate was one of the best ever, but I’m biased as a complete chocoholic. The dessert is sweet but not sickeningly so (as some Indian desserts can be), and makes a nice end to a wonderful meal. Not appropriate for gluten-intolerant folks because this dish is made with semolina, a type of wheat. Also may contain ghee, so not vegan (though Das sometimes has an alternative vegan option as well).

Health: 3 out of 5 (Das doesn’t use refined sweeteners, but you still are getting some sugar and wheat with this dish)

Taste: 4.5 out of 5