Urban Garden (Los Angeles, CA)

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I am not creature of habit. But after nearly 5 years working in NYC’s Murray Hill there were two things you could count on:

  1. Finding me at the Patrick Kavanagh Pub after work
  2. Eating mujadara from Kalustyan’s at least once a week

When I moved to Los Angeles, the crisp onion and smashed lentils of Mujadara exited my life. But two years later, thanks to an invite to try a new vegetarian/vegan friendly menu at Urban Garden, it’s back in my common rotation! But, while UG’s mujadara is decent, what sends me over the edge here the Garlic Sauce!

The garlic sauce doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t–just olive oil, garlic and salt–but I refused to believe it was vegan until it was confirmed by the chef. Whipped into a creamy white paste, the olive oil radiates with an obscene amount of sharp garlic. It tastes great on absolutely everything… including my bare finger.

Since the initial tasting, I now eat here all the time. The Fried Cauliflower is a favorite. Despite the occasionally over cooked batch, when the tender white flesh is seared with blacked caramelized tips, it’s perfect in a wrap or on with a platter—dipped in garlic sauce of course. The heavy smokiness of the Baba Ganoush is spot on, though it proved too much for one of my blander friends, this is by far my favorite of their dips options.

When I’m not in the mood to risk it with cauliflower, the organic chickpea and red quinoa Falafel has never failed. It always arrives with a thick, but not oily, shell holding moist innards… which again go perfectly with the garlic sauce. The Vegetable Kibbeh is a special indulgence. Kibbeh, a torpedo-shaped bulger dumpling, is normally filled with goat or beef or lamb or whatnot. At Urban Garden (and The Little Door) it’s not only vegetarian, but vegan friendly! A little sweet, full of flavor—and pine nuts—it’s a must try for any veg since it’s so hard to come by.

The Spicy Cilantro and Garlic Potatoes are not as spicy as they sound. The subtle sauce can get lost against the bold flavors of other choices, like the Kale, Quinoa & Beet Salad. Yes, I just called a salad bold. Dressed in a deliciously super tart dressing, this salad benefits from being paired with the subtle nature of the potatoes. At least until I douse those potatoes in the dreamy garlic sauce.

The only thing that drives me a crazy at Urban Garden is that platters max out at 3 choices. It’s more than enough food, but with so many options, I have the darnedest time limiting myself to just three.

Urban Garden
446 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
eaturbangarden.com

Mustard Seed Café (Los Angeles, CA)

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My ideal sandwich!

It was meant as an insult. A pastrami pocketing New Yorker once told me that I like “salad between bread” not “sandwiches.” I dissagree. I mean hello, I love bánh mì, grilled cheese, the ‘Shroom Burger from Shake Shack and so on. Still, I do love a “salad between bread!”

Getting a wad of vegetables balanced between bread—in terms of flavor and stackability—is a challenge many restaurant refuse to acknowledge. The key is thin slices carefully arranged, plus the use to vegetable cradling alfalfa sprouts, to prevent a vegetable sandwich from collapsing into the proverbial salad. One of the best examples I’ve found is at Los Feliz’s Mustard Seed Café. The Veggie Sandwich ($9.95) is served on toasted olive bread with tomato pesto, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, swiss cheese, red onions, and avocado. It’s carefully constructed, guaranteeing every veggie in every bite. The tomato pesto—instead of humdrum mayo—adds a tangy undercurrent to the briny bread, plus makes it easy to turn this sandwich vegan (just order sans cheese)!

The lightly dressed Red Cabbage Slaw is my side of choice. Crisp cabbage tossed with a barely-there oil and vinegar blend finish off a perfect lunch. Light on the belly, easy on the wallet… very, very, sort of similar, but not at all, exactly like a salad!

A lesser construction, but still a damn good sandwich!

Mustard Seed Café
1948 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 660-0670

Tartine (San Francisco, CA)

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Gougere

The cavern of Gougere… or an empty brain…

When I began writing pizza reviews (two years ago this month!), I had no idea how complex the world of bread with stuff on top was. Easily distilled down for airport food courts, pizza is seen as a simple food. But it’s this  simplicity that makes ever element vital to a good pie. The most important of which is the crust. A perfect crust begins with baking, a circuitous world of science, art and deliciousness.

This is a world I know little about.

But pizzerias do! Any pizzaiolo worth speaking to will name Tartine Bakery as a source of inspiration (or at lest admiration). Case in point: The Gougere. A light choux pastry–made savory with Gruyère, black pepper and thyme–with a massive hole structure that recalls a cross section of pizza. Just imagine hitting that at the end of a slice of pizza (um, why hasn’t anyone done this yet?!).

Chocolate Croissant

The Chocolate Croissant, soft and buttery–more moist than flaky–hides two thick veins of chocolate. It deserves a trip through a toaster oven, but is still delectable at room temperature.

Morning Roll

Though my heart belong to the Morning Bun at Olive’s in NYC; the sugar crusted, orange zest infused doughy roll from Tartine ranks pretty high in my esteem… especially when enjoyed in nearby Dolores Park.

So Good!

Bisect that sucker…

The Croque Monsieur is where I get nerdy. Playing with the same components of pizza, the savory toppings sit on tart wheat fleck toast. The crust is baked to near-black and the is body sliced into finger thick planks. The bread balances hole density and gluten perfectly–no huge bubbles, no doughy spots will be found in a Tartine slice. The open face sandwich is covered with béchamel, Gruyere, shitaki mushrooms, asparagus, thyme and black pepper and served with a lone pickled carrot. Knife and fork are required tools. A butter knife is not sufficient… trust me.

Tartine Bakery
600 Guerrero St
San Francisco, CA 94110
tartinebakery.com

Spitz (Los Angeles, CA)

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A muddling of tasty colors… like a eatable Monet painting

I’ve grown weary of falafels. I don’t dislike them, but will restaurants please think of some more original ‘vegetarian options.’ That said, if I am going to eat a falafel, it better be damn good.

Is Spitz’s damn good? Er…  not exactly. But all the junk they pile on top/inside/around the falafel is!

Spitz’s take on the quintessential vegetarian option is Zesty Feta Doner ($8) with falafel. A once crisp falafel is wrapped in lavash and stuffed with lettuce, red onion, green pepper, cucumber, tomato, feta, olives, hummus, tzatziki and chili sauce. It’s a hefty! It’s really good! Flavor forward—with a sharp briny presence—the mediocre falafel add bland balance against the assault of toppings.

The sauce is more spiced than spicy

With hallmarks like Burger King selling Sweet Potato Fries, these sweet fried sticks have lost much of their allure. But this is where the topping save the day. Alone, the sweet potato fries (small $3.05/regular $5.05)—served with a spicy looking but not at all spicy aioli—are unremarkable. But with a slight modification they become the most awesome fries ever…

Mediterranean poutine!

The Street Cart Fries ($7.35)! Loaded with tons of garlic aioli, feta, onion, green peppers, tomatoes, kalamata olives, pepperoncinis and chili sauce, these are the star of the menu. Ask for the basket to be 50/50 regular and sweet potato and you’ll be in french fry flavor country!

Spitz
2506 Colorado Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041
(323) 257-5600
eatatspitz.com

Del Popolo (San Francisco, CA)

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From the very beginning, the food truck moment has seemed silly to me. Chasing meals-on-wheels which never seem to be anywhere close when you crave them. We mutually burn fuel in a roundabout run that rarely leaves my belly or either of our wallets satisfied. And nothing is as frustrating as trolling through twitter and poorly kept Facebook pages just to find out the truck was on your corner… yesterday. I avoid them all together, except in an exceptional case.

Del Popolo is an exceptional case.

The Death Star of the Food Truck World!

The heft and fuel needed to get this beast on the road is completely impractical. Almost immoral. But for a pizza this refined, with depth and complex flavors from minimal ingredients, I can get over myself.  Soft, with a tart funky sourdough crust, and topped with a blend of imported San Marzano and Biano DiNapoli tomatoes. This far exceeds any food truck food I’ve ever devoured.

They ran out of basil so topped my Margareta with Rabe

Innards

A “tortilla” bottom that doesn’t taste under cooked at all!

This really isn’t a food truck at all. It’s more akin to a pop up restaurant: no finite location, limited overhead, as fleeting as the San Francisco fog. But she’ll always roll back in, carrying uncompromisingly great pizza in her 28,000 pound belly.

Del Popola
DelPopoloSF.com

Eating at Home 7/16/12

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I love dining out, but sometimes you gotta eat at home. Living without my own kitchen for two years has been odd, but tonight I proved to myself that I can still wield a spatula!

Red Leaf Lettuce, Carrot, Red Pepper, Alfalfa and Radish Sprouts with Lemon and Black Pepper

Steamed Kale with the other half of the Lemon and Sea Salt

Fusilli Col Buco with Tomato Cream Sauce (for a lovely reason, I made it vegan)

Cielo Verde at Playa (Los Angeles, CA)

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Roof gardens evokes idyllic imagery of secret  and lemonade sipping parties. But this utilitarian paradise on the top of Playa isn’t for playing. Not open to the public, I was lucky enough to sneak a peek around this organic hydroponic garden supplementing the already enthralling menu (food and cocktails!).

This visit also taught me that, like a cat, I can climb up a ladder but not down. Fortunately the General Manager, Brian, spotted me wavering on the roof and helped me back to the bar.

Seedlings

 

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Susan Feniger’s STREET (Los Angeles, CA)

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I was totally digging those colorful girls in the front!

It began years ago. Aloft in New York, I’d fly down to Los Angeles for family and friends… but not for the restaurants. STREET almost changed my mind. I’ve checked in periodically over the years, the menu in a constant flux of evolving blends of modern and traditional street foods. But it has finally come to a beautiful fruition the newest menu revision. Focused on small dishes and with a heavy nod to vegetarians and vegans, STREET is now totally worth a cross country flight… but now in my case, a 20 minute drive.

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Forage (Los Angeles, CA)

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What to eat, what to eat…

When it comes to vegetarian eating in Los Angeles, I’m sorry to say, omnivore restaurants reign supreme. Incredibly fresh, resourceful and delicious, I’m smitten with Forage in Silver Lake’s vegetable dishes.  A generous plate of three sides runs $11.50. When making choices, let your eyes guide you. The elegantly displayed selections speak for themselves. But if you want a some assistance, here’s a guide to my favorite plate:

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Chego (Los Angeles, CA)

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As you eat them they truly become ooey and gooey

When I moved to LA in 2010 the very first thing I asked people was: “Where should I eat?” Their very first response was normally: “Kogi BBQ!” But whenever my schedule opened up, Kogi BBQ was in the depth of the OC and I’m not about to waste 60 miles of gas for tofu tacos. Fortunately, Chef Roy Choi had also opened Chego in Culver City. Still, the long dinner queue usually shooed me away to less hyped restaurants.

When I finally tried Chego, it offered exactly what I expected: A mediocre vegetarian option.

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