This unassuming corner spot in the brutally warm mid-Valley is billed as a "Vietnamese Vegan Restaurant & Tofu Factory", which is an important distinction as you will see. Kevin Tran invents, experiments, and triumphs, coming up with brilliant vegan food and sneaking new daily specials onto his Facebook profile.
The smells from the kitchen are highly attractive, apparently enough so that Kevin has locals coming in and out all day calling him by name; Kevin will often slouch over the counter chatting with regulars. The colorful wall of photos is a little bewildering, so grab a multi-paged menu. After you order, he will shrug and tell you to pay after.
On a recent 108-degree afternoon* my brain is braised enough to think that a nice hot bowl of soup is a fine idea.
The Curry Duck Soup smells superb, the broth nuanced with a sly coconut twang, pepper-flecked and oil-spotted. It is stunningly balanced, each spoonful of curry broth worthy of contemplation by itself.
And this, despite appearances, is not actually duck. Somehow Mr. Tran has matched the rich, elastic oiliness of duck skin, goosefleshed and chewy, wrapped around a more conventional grained "meat" of gluten, and there's quite a bit of it hiding in the broth. If you have issues with gluten, this shan't be your choice because it gets seriously heavy after a while, but it's so good.
Stiff, disinterested carrot slices and tofu (somewhere) is here, too, along with a clean pile of bean sprouts and your choice of rice or rice vermicelli, available to populate your soup. A few bottles of sriracha and hot red pepper paste line the wall, but you won't need them here.
A fine example of a glass noodle dish that isn't a congealed, chopstick-defeating mass, the Stir-Fried Mung Bean Noodle has clear white onion, violently verdant bell pepper, and mean little slices of serrano. It usually comes with "fish sticks," half-Isosceles triangles of breaded crunch, but I prefer this with "chicken", translucent strips sauce-soaked to a tea brown, completing the textural firmness of meat and egg. Zingy, bonito-like flakes dance atop.
Possibly the most head-clappingly revelatory dish, the Ginger Chicken is of course soy, firm and ungrained like dark meat chicken; collected by a stack of steamed brown rice, the chicken is pale and gleaming from the warm ginger sauce, sweet and unbelievably lovely to the point where you consider buying a ring and declaring your love for it. The dish is ringed by cucumber slices and shredded carrot, made lively with a vinaigrette.
They make stuff to go too, cut sushi rolls and buns and banana desserts, that you are tempted to snatch up from the counter and add to your bill. I won't stop you.
Vinh Loi is open from 9 to 9 daily.
* Mind you, this had cooled down to a hundred and eight. There was a spot on the 101 around Coldwater Canyon where the Mini Cooper was registering 113 that day.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Thai, The Valley )
Our ritual: after achieving tonsorial brilliance for Bianca at Static Salon (ask for Tony), we walk hand in hand along Melrose to grab brunch from Blu Jam. It's smack in the heart of Melrose's Shopping District, where an expensive footwear shop or a tattoo and piercing parlor is a stone's throw in any direction.
Named after the location's historical identity as a blues and jazz club--not a stylized fruit spread--Blu Jam emits a typically high-end coffee haus demeanor with an experienced kitchen. The claustrophobic sidewalk area is a jumble of umbrellas; the interior has a wall of brick, benches of blond wood, soaring log cabin ceiling beams, and inoffensive classic rock. You will invariably be seated by a pair of complainy white girls on your left and a trio of guffawing dudes on the right.
The Homemade Vegan Split Pea Soup is our current favorite comfort liquid, a pear-hued purée sweetened by the freshness of the peas. Herb-crusted croutons retain a deafeningly crunchy aspect. The Potato Leek soup is more earthy and very nearly as good. Note the newly color-conditioned and blown-out Bianca enjoying the last of her soup.
A Veggie Heaven Wrap, also vegan, sounds like a typically halfhearted attempt to cater to those with the audacity not to eat meat, but it's nicely constructed for such simplicity. Chopped veggies--carrot, zucchini, bean sprouts, lettuce, cherry tomato, avocado, mint--all play well together and share secrets with a drippy balsamic vinaigrette, in a grilled flour tortilla. Bink gets this with fruit on the side.
The Power House breakfast is not the desperate, expressionless, "sigh, at least it's low-carb, right?" health-minded breakfast typically available at other cafes (Eat Well, I'm looking at you). It's a brawny pair of firmly flame-broiled chicken breasts, heaped on six egg whites beaten into tofu-like density and striated with green, green spinach.
The best part of this is the sautéed cherry tomatoes and basil, which collapses nearly into a marinara faint. The tomato flavor is wonderfully dominating, and a couple of shakes of Cholula make my midmorning.
Like a plate of chilaquiles on a motorbike to Hell, the Migas has a sassy kick but not as tempestuous as the menu suggests. Bell peppers, eggs, disappearing bits of beef chorizo sausage, and the ever-present cherry tomato halves are clustered with tortilla chips. The effect is totally ungreasy, although I wouldn't have minded if it was.
With this mess is a jumble of crispy Red Potatoes, diced and rendered until crunchy french-frian ends are infused with the potatoness.
Blu Jam is known for their Brioche French Toast, the Crunchy version of which is rolled in cornflakes and maybe blessed by a priest before serving. It's not quite the crunchfest of Jinky's Cafe, nor the padded comfort of Fred 62's Bearded Mr. Frenchy, but it's cushy inside and fulfilling.
They're mostly a breakfast/brunch/late lunch affair until the early evening, and each server is sweeter and friendlier than the next. The coffee is good, real good, with artful baristan touches when foam is present.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Vegetarian/Vegan, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
Ah, there's that Papyrus typeface again. I think we're going to be seeing that for a long time, anywhere an eatery gets remotely healthy and modern.
Despite the high turnover rate of businesses along this tiny triangle between Sunset and Griffith Park Blvd., Cru has managed to survive here for a few years after the previous raw restaurant went away. Past the black awning the interior is relaxed modernism, amber teardrop lamps hanging from a brown ceiling. I also like sitting at one of the two small tables outside, listening to the confused traffic and the loud conversations from MorningsNights next door.
Chef Rachel Carr has carefully considered the intricacies of vegan, organic and raw food, and compiled an ever-changing menu of both raw and cooked dishes (considerately separated on the menu so you don't gulp nervously when presented with crunchy things you'd think to bribe a parrot with). Everything here is gluten-free, organic, and vegetarian (except for an occasional use of honey).
This bowl is filled with stuff I thought I'd never willingly place in front of me: kale, celery, zucchini, squash. Yet it's all puréed together with onion and other things into a mossy military olive color, and is warm and fulfilling.
A measure of what looks like vinegar is poured atop, which turns out to be Australian pumpkin seed oil*. It adds an oily nuttiness to what would be understandably vegetal, and it also swirls into neat Kanji characters while eating. This kale soup is savory.
The Gluten-Free Blueberry Buckwheat Pancakes are exactly that, a pair of griddle-darkened, heat-retaining moonscapes with a dense, gluey texture. They smell good, and taste better, especially when drizzled with agave syrup, that high-fructose, ruinous rockstar of the sweet world. (You can get honey instead if you like.) Cinnamon is dusted around the edges of the plate for additional noms.
Each is half again the size of the buckwheat pancakes at Flore, so these are good for taking home.
On to the raw experience. I hesitate to call it a pizza any more than tomatoes and garlic on a crisp slice of brioche is a pizza, but the Raw Marinated Vegetable Pizza is pretty tasty. The crust is sunflower flatbread, somewhere between a tortilla chip and a pie crust in texture, and really rather good, not shattery or birdseedy.
The toppings are cool like a ceviche. Peppers and onions are sautéed and layered with shiitake mushrooms, over a spicy, zesty, squash-colored paste which turns out to be a pepper jack cheese made from cashews. I think it's the foundation of this dish.
Looming over this is a leafy salad wetted by a thick, creamy dressing that is reminiscent of pesto, cilantro, and which I'm told has ground-up pumpkin seeds.
During the day I like the honey-sweetened Ginger Limeade, clean and not too saccharine, with serious chunks of ginger prepared to shoot up your straw and set fire to your mouth.
Cru is slightly on the expensive side for lunch, but not for Silver Lake; an entree with soup or a special drink will often run past fifteen dollars. Parking is metered until you get up into the hills, and the parking enforcement cars are energetic around these parts.
* I can lie and say that I deduced it with my uncanny senses of taste and smell, but actually I asked what it was.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Healthy/Organic, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park )
The interior of the Santa Monica Hugo's is typically modern, calmly lit by a field of dimpled white shades. The vibe is close but efficient and friendly; however, we like the side patio, amber glass candle holders glowing on each table.
I always peruse the beverages menu for something interesting, and I settle on the Yogi Smoothie: mango, apple, toasted almonds, soy milk, cooperating in an even-handed way until the aftertaste suddenly jumps out shouting in ginger. It's a little rude, but I'd order it again.
These are fantastic. Rice Paper Lentil Rolls. Organic lentils are mixed fine with caramelized onion, surprisingly subdued celery, green pepper shaking hands with green apple, scallions, and a vegenaise. They are good by themselves, a delicate experience, but brought to a sophisticated level by a dip in the avocado/pepita dressing. The entire affair has the confident balance of a monk.
It's a salad, Dave. That's, um, great. Please tell me how this is innovative.
Glad to. This is Hugo's Mexican Salad. What's Mexican about it? Not entirely sure, although there are black beans and avocado, and a pico de gallo involved. This is not important. What is important is that along with the above ingredients they've somehow taken romaine, black olives, parmesan and nicely grilled, skin-on chicken breast, piled it into a grand hillock, and made it into one of the best salads I've tasted all year.
The caesar dressing isn't even that strong, but creamy and polite. The salad is as strongly tasty as if there were bacon and bleu cheese to boss everyone around (there isn't). The chicken is chopped into inch-wide cubes and hidden everywhere your fork penetrates. The avocado is fresh and influential, the black olives seem freshly sliced.
Another dish that refused to take a good photo, this is Very Slowly Roasted Portabello [sic] Stew, and the fact that they painstakingly point this out in the title is prominent in its presentation. Portobello mushrooms are so often rubbery and elusive, and not worth their impressive-sounding name, but this is, apparently, very slowly roasted, and therefore soft and meaty in texture, and darned good, and other things that make me run my sentences on.
Also in this is carrots, squash, zucchini, all the things that make my inner grade schooler say "yuck", plus garlic and french green lentils, which don't. It's assembled with a tomato and red wine sauce that is hard to describe, but almost sweet. Bianca likes the vegan mashed potatoes with this, which are not as whip-creamy as they can be since there is only soy milk to deal with, but combining a bit of that with a bit of stew makes every bite ridiculous.
The Grilled Mushroom Enchiladas are a grand repast, strips of sautéed mushrooms and onions wrapped in thick corn tortillas. The three amigos are then coated with a roasted tomatillo-jalapeño sauce, which is chunky and green and fairly sparkling with spice and flavor. Occasional heat darts toward your throat to stick it with a rapier.
On the left is long grain Spanish rice. Such texture! Tiny bits of corn and carrot add to a pan-roasted feel, although the rice loses its heat quickly. To the right are white beans, stirred in a red Guajillo-chili sauce, gentle and rich. The entire dish is an illustration in contrast: gritty fluff of the rice, red blanket of beans, layered nobility of the enchilada trio.
All this is gluten-free, by the way, something with which I've been concerning myself, and the parts that aren't vegan can be made vegan when requested. Each menu item considerately details whether it's vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and whether it can be made so.
We did not take a photo of the desserts, but there is something you need to try, and that is Chef Nabor's Chocolate Mousse.
In my longtime, lantern-lit search for an honest mousse, mousse usually falls to either of two waysides: it is an airy, tasteless sponge, or it is a dense clay. This is neither. The chocolate is Cordillera, with a soft-spoken, rich finish that brings smiles and hits itself out of the park. And, oh yeah: gluten-free.
Bianca: I'm having one of those "I'm young and and I'm licking my spoon" moments.
The location on Coldwater is a distant country cousin that has its own lot. Santa Monica is next to a public parking structure with a nice four-dollar flat rate for the evening.
Oh, and related to Hugo's Tacos? Yes.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), West Side/West Hollywood, Vegetarian/Vegan, Healthy/Organic, American, Burbank/North Hollywood )
This is the first review where my notes were taken at home, and the first review where we're busting out the larger photos. Because you need to see this pizza.
Because of its casual, kewl-dude-in-a-woodie logo, you do not suspect Cruzer of offering the first all-vegan pizza. Learning about it, and finally trying this "why hasn't anyone done this before?" fare, made us shriek and dance like we'd received a basket of puppies.
We start with having the Quarrygirl.com Pizza delivered. Olive oil, garlic and softly dense strips of portobello and button mushrooms make us forget that there's no red sauce on this pie. The sausage is that rare vegan entity that tastes closer to the real thing than it looks, instead of the other way around; it's zippy and spicy as real sausage, and I could totally go through a bag of it like a road trip jerky snack.
A thick paste of Daiya cheese is melted over everything, white and grainy with little yellowed oven marks. It feels more like ricotta or goat cheese in texture and tang, and once you make that mental transition, it's all good. Daiya will save us all. Beneath all of it is a just-plain-good dough, bready and bubbled and just this side of sweet.
The Vegan BBQ Chicken Pizza also has no red stuff, but the ruddy bbq sauce is like a sweet & sour glaze, rich with molasses and I daresay hickory; it complements the already-sweet tinge of the dough. You could serve this to friends and tell them it's BBQ Pork, even, and they'd nod with approval. The texture, the grain, the flavor, is all there, firm and cooked. It's not meat, I'm told, and I laugh it off. The daiya cheese is more settled and cooperative on this pizza.
Bianca, upon her first bite: Are you kidding me.
Cruzer has a Vegan Meat Pizza, which I am nervous about trying. I am of course a slave to meat pizzas when given the option, but I can't yet imagine how sausage, pepperoni, meatball, Canadian bacon, ham and salami could all be rendered convincingly and separately as vegan. I will just need to keep placing orders.
And: a vegan Chicken Cheese Steak? A vegan Chicken Parmigiana? I must know.
The pizzas are available in a whole wheat crust as well.
The Los Feliz location uses only 100% animal-free vegan ingredients, the first ever pizza joint in Los Angeles to do so, so much applause for them. They are also incredibly nice on the phone.
They're open until ten most days, eleven on Fridays and Saturdays.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Pizza )
On a stretch of Main which manages to juggle wholesale outlets, aging brick buildings pretending to be lofts, and high-end dog spas, populated by thin girls with expensive bags, people just trying to get by, and grumbling homeless, the Nickel Diner is becoming a shining beacon of downtown evolution.
It is down-to-earth, but chefly more than seedy. The decor is newish but has a retro honesty: new vinyl and chipped creamer jugs, shiny dark brown panels and battered tin signs.
For breakfast, before rolling up my sleeves and going to work on the docks*, the 5th & Main is a well-constructed source of fuel.
It's spicy BBQ pork hash, tender shreds of pork with rounded wedges of just-underdone potato. A pair of poached eggs adorn the top, smeary ovoids with yellow goodness waiting to add its soft opinion to the hash. It comes with a sweet red tomato chutney and a drizzle of spicy barbecue sauce.
For less carnivorous pursuits, the Vegan Ranchero delivers much yummunence (I just made that word up). Two cylindrical cakes of tofu, fried just enough to make their surfaces scratchy, are dressed with salsa. The golden exterior barely keeps their contents in check; breaking through with a fork yields a soft blossom of tofu.
Surrounding this is the heirloom house beans, rich and meaty, perfect chili-style beans if I had them in my kitchen. A sliced wedge of avocado rests nearby, and two corn tortillas are folded at either end, tasty but too sodden to perform any taco-creation duty. A few distracted strips of yellow soy cheese colors the dish nicely.
On to lunch. The BLTA is technically a bacon-lettuce-tomato-avocado affair, but more interesting due to its being suffused with a spicy aioli instead of mayonnaise. The bacon is thick and crisp but subdued, the tomato and avocado struggling to be present and adding a tasty cushioning factor. The arugula lettuce is highly successful here, necessary to stand up to the power of the aioli.
The sandwich is buried under a lattice of crispy, whitish shoestring fries that are just fine. However, you won't finish them, because the dessert tray will pass by you at some point, and your eyes will follow it, asking silent questions.
It's been written about already, so I'll let others pontificate on the devilishly crrayyy-zay charms of the Maple Bacon Donut. We have other goals.
For instance, Bianca is automatically in love with well-made red velvet cakes, and the version at the Nickel Diner is a lovely accident: a box of Valrhona chocolate balls had apparently fallen into the frosting, but they were stirred in anyway, and the effect is a properly moist, layered red velvet cake with crunchy ricey bits between frosty layers that are just sweet enough not to hurt anyone. It is insanely, eyes-fluttering-backward good. My only regret is a failed, blurry photo.
While I sputter in disbelief over the divinity of the red velvet cake, I also cannot help but acquire a homemade Ding-Dong. I mean, come on. Ding-Dongs. The king of snack cakes in my personal realm. And these are on. I crack through the chocolate armor to a gently moist, white-striped brown cake, my childhood screaming in envy from across the fence.
Co-owner Kristen Trattner came by to describe the delights, and nodded at my Ding-Dong-induced smile: "This made you wanna watch cartoons, didn't it?"
They make homemade pop tarts too, by the way...
The coffee here is quite good, hot or iced.
Nickel Diner is constantly reconsidering its menu and its hours, but is currently closed Mondays, open at 8 the rest of the week until 11pm, with a brief afternoon break. A large and gated parking structure lurches conveniently across the street.
* I'm slipping into some kind of turn-of-the-last-century industrialized humanity-as-commodity kind of mode here, don't mind me. I've been taking a lot of nineteenth-century literature classes.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, Vegetarian/Vegan, Diner, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )