Bragg’s Factory Diner (Phoenix, AZ)

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During an absolutely horrible job interview, my potential boss mentioned that he was vegan. I smiled and said “Oh yeah! I’m vegetarian…”

“That’s not the same thing at all” he stated dryly. Ouch.

Well, for reasons besides my eating inclinations, I didn’t get the job. But I did get jolted into thinking about the stark differences between vegetarians and vegans. I guess I always believed we were part of the same team—and we are teammates in a lot of ways! But as I attempt to delve deeper into the vegan lifestyle I’ve discovered difficulties with something I’ve always taken for granted: Breakfast.

For vegetarians, breakfast/brunch is a smorgasbord of benedict, pancakes, waffles, quiches, parfaits… and so on. It’s a egg and dairy farmer’s delight. But I’ve quickly learned that finding vegan friendly breakfasts, especially on a road trip, is shockingly difficult. Before heading to Phoenix, I was sooo thankful to stumble upon Bragg’s Factory Diner on Instagram!

As an architecture nut, the Frank Lloyd Bite ($10) beckoned me. It comes with 2 pancakes, hash browns, eggplant bacon and a biscuit smothered in gravy.The pancakes were stunning—the real vegan at the table gleefully devoured them. They are thin, with a crisp buttery shell, reminiscent of everything wonderful about the McDonald’s breakfast menu.  The hash browns, a fried tangle of noodle-like potato threads, is light in texture and taste. A heavy pour of hot sauce quickly remedied the situation. The eggplant “bacon” was the riskiest element on the plate. As is visually obviously, it is not attempting to mimic pork. The soft slabs of smoky eggplant offer a bacony flavor, but none of the pungent fat or chewy texture. I found them quite addicting. Overall, the deliciousness of the Frank Lloyd Bite was marred only by it’s monochromatic appearance.

I found the biscuit, drenched in mushroom and corn gravy, too gummy for my tastes. But considering how rare it is to find vegan biscuits and gravy, I must applaud the effort.

To balance out the beige, we ordered the King Kale Salad ($8). Topped with medallions of grilled zucchini and a sprinkling of quinoa and walnuts, it’s all tossed in a creamy lemon dressing. I found the size of the kale leaves difficult to eat, so I attacked it with fork and knife. It seems silly and simple, but the barely dressed grilled zucchini slices were the best part of this salad. It’s a lot of roughage to eat, but all that kale was the perfect counterbalance to the carb-fest of potatoes and pancakes!

Overall, the food is neither groundbreaking or outstanding. It’s well executed, explorative and made with heart. It’s the ideal stop for any road tripping or local vegan crossing through the desert of breakfast-ville.

Bragg’s Factory Diner
1301 NW Grand Ave
Phoenix, AZ 85007
braggsdiner.com

Ba Restaurant (Los Angeles, CA)

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Anyone who has read a book authored by Julia Child or M. F. K. Fisher knows the compelling and historical context of French cuisine. Much of western cooking is driven by the pâté laden, coq au vin covered, lorrained or moules frited plates of this lovely tradition… but none of it persuades my vegetarian interests. So when I stumble upon a French restaurant with tantalizing vegetarian options, it’s a cause for celebration.

And that is exactly what I found at Ba Restaurant in Los Angeles’ Highland Park. The stand out dish is the Mushroom Brûlée ($11), a shallow ramekin of roasted wild mushrooms smother in buttery brie. Flamed licked, the charred edges of cream and rind deliver a faint bitter note, offsetting the earthiness of the dish. A mellow and magnificent starter, far too rich to eat alone.

The menu rotates through various—obliviously market driven—vegetarian dishes. I caught the kitchen on an evening filled with goat cheese dotted roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted fingerling potatoes with endive and a summer salad. The plate was topped with a glistening ruby red tomato slab. All arranged over fresh tomato sauce, it may not pack the flavor punch of duck confit or grilled pork chop, but it’s s delicate and filling entree that leave plenty of room for dessert—which was so good I forgot to photograph it.

One of the most striking element of Ba is the interior. Not so much it’s visual impact (although it is quite lovely inside) but the care the designer (who happens to the chef’s wife) took to ensure an acoustically sound meal. Large heavy curtains drape over the dinning room’s entrance, muffling the noise of service and guests. The upholstered walls and slatted ceiling finish the job, making this one the the most hushed and cozy dinner I’ve experienced in a long time.

Ba Restaurant
5100 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042
restaurantba.com

Cook’s Cuisine (Needles, CA)

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“Before we sit down, I’ll be sure to clarify if they can prepare vegan food,” I reassured myself and Co as we entered. A spunky woman eyed us from the register. With my (always) friendly smile I asked “Can you make vegan Thai food? You know, like no fish sauce…”

She stared at me blankly.

“Ummm… no meat…” I continued.

She stared for another few seconds, then her eyes lit up, “Oh yes yes, I cook from many difference kind of people!” She then went on to explain that she was vegetarian for 4 years and that she didn’t use fish sauce in any of her food because it’s difficult to get in Needles and none of the locals care anyways. She handed us menus every though every single dish was meat based.

“You tell me what you like and I make it.”

“Well, I like summer rolls, anything in peanut sauce…”

“You like curry?” she interrupts.

“Sure…”

“You like yellow curry?”

“Sure…”

So we ended up with Yellow Curry and Vegetable Pad Thai. The curry is sweet, with a touch of spice. She kindly offered me a side of hot sauce since she made it on the milder side, worried that my non-Asian companion may not be spice friendly. The curry bowl was filled this cubes of soft tofu, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red pepper and cashews and served with individual bowls of rice. The fresh veggies were also featured in the not oily, but also not that flavorful, Pad Thai. This belly filling vegan meal came to a very fair $14.

For a vegan or vegetarians traveling on the I40, Cook’s Cuisine is a find. Surely the best Thai food for 100 miles… and it’s 100x times better grabbing dinner at Subway.

Cook’s Cuisine
1400 Needles Hwy
Needles, CA 92363
(760) 326-5081

The Vegetarian Option: Weddings 2013

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My 2011 post on vegetarian options at wedding remained one of my most viewed posts on this blog! In the past two years, wedding have become all the more vegetarian friendly… so for your brides, caterers or food porn lovers out there searching for silent/loud/delicious vegetarian options for your affairs, here are my favorites from the past two years:

Dani and Andrew (Los Angeles)

One half of this couple is vegetarian, so options abound. Catered by HerloomLA, this is by far my favorite of this post. You can view the tasting for this wedding here to contrast expectation verses reality.

The Cheese Course, set out before the ceremony even began!

Chives and wild mushroom ragu atop a crispy lemon polenta cake! These totally met the expectation of the tasting samples.

Twice-baked potato with crème fraiche. Not as pretty, but still delicious!

Various breads, pizzas, and fondues. The smoked mozzarella and pumpkin parmesan fondues held up well, but there were no forks out at this point of the service, making this a messy smack. The cheesy pizzas got soggy piled on atop each other in this presentation.

The Spring Pea Salad, full of fresh and crunchy vegetables, held up to its light dressing throughout the evening.

There were a million different kinds of cake in there, each layer was a different flavor. I don’t remember what I had, I was still stuffed from the cheese course!

Malibu Wedding

Over the summer I worked at a wedding at the gorgeous Villa Cascata in Malibu. Again, half the wedding party was vegetarian so there was plenty to gorge my vegetable loving belly on!

Simple Salad with Mango dressing, a flat of Mac’n cheese and a view of the Pacific Ocean! A stellar start to dinner.

The salad was actually not that simple with spinach, avocados, strawberries and pistachios.

Veggie Samosas!

Chewy Chapati. Delicious on its own, but even better with:

Herb and onion flecked Fried Tofu, little Falafel patties, vegetable laced Couscous and Grape Leaves!

The bride’s southern roots appeared in the baskets of Sweet Potato Fries and Cornbread Muffins!

Lunch (Culver City, CA)

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With the gross-out-gobble-up-the-greasy-world undercurrent to food culture, I’m amazed when people are weirded out by my food choices. I don’t mean weird food, but apparently weird combinations. So while people think 100×100 burgers, miles of pastrami and tuna melts are perfectly normal, nothing makes a cashier pause, do a double take and say “that’s the weirdest sandwich I’ve ever heard of” like ordering a design-your-own Veggie Burger slathered in peanut butter.

Do you think it’s weird? I don’t.

People seem stuck on the word “burger.” They assume a veggie burger must be dressed like a its beef namesake. But veggie “patties” are nothing like a beef burger; nor does the brown rice and oat based Gardenburger, served at Lunch, want to be. So why treat it as such?

I approach my Veggie Burger like a salad and  the Americanized Thai Salad is one of my favorites. Crisp vegetables smothered in sweet peanut sauce. That is what’s on my mind when I order a Veggie Burger at Lunch. Topped with some combo of avocado, sprouts, carrots and/or cucumbers and Swiss cheese (although the cheese is rather superfluous), dressed in a slathering of peanut butter and fig jam ($9.95). I know fig jam is just as odd (and also cause side eye from the kitchen) but I sweat it’s a sweetly fresh and crunchy meal.

Each sandwich comes with a side, all of which are ‘meh’ except for the Apple Vinegar Slaw. Crisp and tart, this lightly dressed side is also delicious inside your sandwich!

If you hate sandwiches, are scared of carbs, or like predicable things… they make a perfectly decent Beet It! Goat Cheese and Beet Salad ($9.50).

Lunch
3829 Main St
Culver City, CA 90232
eatatlunch.com

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

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