SunCafé (Los Angeles,CA)

I rue the day I assumed SunCafé was a commonplace sandwich/salad/smoothie joint. It is so, so, so much more. The converted 1920’s ranch home (formally Zach’s Café) on Ventura Blvd extrudes warmth and comfort while the menu promotes whole food in comforting and familiar forms.

Chef Roy Elam—who shreds guitars along with carrots—heads the inventive menu of colossus salads, raw burgers, golden beet linguini and Reuben themed pizzas… but we had no room for those because we—Elana, Hanna, Alice and I—filled up just about everything else.

Sun Nachos—one of the most popular menu items—were the obvious starter. While debating whether to get the dish with baked blue corn chips or with raw thin-sliced jicama chips, the waitress chimed in “You can do a split order.” So that’s exactly what we did. Topped with “SunChorizo,” nacho cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeño, green onion and cashew sour cream this concoction makes the best vegan nachos I’ve had to date. Half of us loved the corn chips, the other half loved the jicama, so a split order is the perfect way to go! Me? I preferred the chips.

The Caesar Salad was not what we expected.  Crisp leaves of romaine lettuce and quartered cherry tomatoes are tossed in raw Caesar dressing with capers then lightly coated in garlic pecan crumble. Apparently there was also raw croutons in here… do you see them? I don’t. We asked the waitress and she swore they crushed up in there. Still, the subtly dressed salad refreshed the pallet; although I may eat my way through the rest of the salad menu before coming back around to the Ceasar.

Raw Cream of Mushroom Soup… I didn’t care for this one. The taste is subtle and refined, but the thick and frothy texture is not for me.

I had nearly given up on all vegan mac & cheese. From the ashes of the sloppy glue or watery plastic of most vegan versions rises the glory of SunCafé’s Mac & Cheese—and it’s gluten free to boot! Slender tubes of quinoa pasta are tossed with tiny diced tomatoes and then broiled in the smoothest-richest-most-perfect-ever cashew cheese sauce. Browned tips of pasta periscope up from the bubbling bath as chewy charred bits stick to the sides was we scrape it from the cast iron dish.

The Farmer’s Market Pizza was an unexpected pleasure. While the gluten free rice flour crust is mearly passable, the toppings sing. Market fresh figs sit atop white sauce (a blend of cashews, garlic, shallots, and nutritional yeast), with smokey tempeh bacon, peppery arugula, meyer lemon vin and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.

Owner Ron Russell approached our table as we debated who got the last slice. A tall (or so I think… we were sitting down) man with a beaming smile who accepted our raving compliments on the pizza but deflected them into the kitchen. “The kitchen suggested this combination… I wasn’t too sure about it. I mean figs? On a pizza…?” We all laughed. This moment of commodity distracted everyone as I stole the last slice.

I would have been happy to end the meal here, but most people love dessert. My friends are no exception. The loose, mouth-coating texture of cheesecake is one of my least favorite desserts ever; but cheesecake is the star of the menu here. I quickly learned why. The Cookie Dough Cheesecake is firm and dense—perfect for me—not too sweet and plenty for four hungry girls. The base is a mixture of cashews, coconut oil, and cacao nibs with other stuff (I’m not sure what) on top. It made a fan out of me; I still haven’t shut up about loving this cheesecake!

10820 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604
(818) 308-7420

Basil Thai (Paso Robles, CA)

Driving the 500 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles I planned to take my vegan boyfriend to my favorite veggie friendly spot in central California: Thomas Hill Organic in Paso Robles. Unfortunately a private event derailed our plans. Scrolling through Yelp we saw the v-word pop up for Basil Thai and headed that way.

It’s a traditional plastic gilded interior on the Paso Robles square. The staff is friendly and thankfully knowledgeable:  Our waitress let us know that EVERYTHING is made with fish sauce. Releasing exacerbated sighs, the kind that only come after hours of highway driving, the waitress leaded in and whispered that there were two things we could order.

The first dish out were little bites of Meaing Kum ($7). Fresh leaves of spinach leaves are stuffed with roasted coconut, ginger, onion, lime and roasted peanuts. The traditional Miang Kham sauce is made with fish sauce, so the waitress replaced it with a sweet chili sauce. Unsure of what to do, we placed bits of everything into the leaves and shoved it into our mouths. Mixed together, these elements normally used as garnish make a sweet-tart-crunchy starter. I loved it!

Made with sweet soy sauce, the Pad See Eaw Noodles ($15) is the only vegan noodle option. The price is excessive considering the portion, but the wide rice noodles with tofu, carrots and broccoli were fresh and filling. The charred crunchy bits of the chewy noodles noodles were the best part of the dish. We quickly devoured the carrots and broccoli then hopped back on the 101.

I’m incredibly grateful that Basil Thai accommodated us on the long drive home.

Basil Thai 
828 11th St
Paso Robles, CA 93446
(805) 238-9945

Dominick’s (Los Angeles, CA)

When people describe a restaurant as “Classic Italian,” I’m often confused. Do they mean dried boxed pasta drowning in red sauce or hand rolled al dente noodles bathing in olive oil. I always hope they mean the lather and I always hope it’s just like Dominick’s.

The thought of eating dried pasta at a restaurant haunts me. If it’s not made in house, I’d rather eat at home. But, since fresh pastas of usually made with egg, it hinders my growing interest in vegan dining…er… which this menu is not an obvious example of. I spoke with the manger about their vegan options, and she informed that their fresh pasts is made with flour and water only! Although we didn’t order any during this meal, you can count on me returning for a vegan feats!

The deep fried, risotto wrapped, molten mozzarella Rice Ball ($4 on the The Five O’Clock Meeting menu!) is my all time favorite. Cracking into the rice ball, a  puddle of cheese oozes fourth, tangling in my fork’s tines as I stab at the crisp shell. Powdery Parmesan and minced parsley cling to the molten cheese it’s scooped into my mouth. This is the very best dish on the menu. Always.

The petite bowl of Spiced Marcona Almonds & Parmesan Cheese Chunks ($8) is loaded with flavor. The generous chunks of Parmesan and oil slicked almond are heavy—slowing me down, savoring each bite. Though small, it’s far too much for one person. It’s a great dinner accent and something to nibble on between a meal’s courses.

The Grilled Artichoke ($12) is a simple dish. The nearly unadulterated vegetable arrives with charred edges and a burnt lemon. It’s absolutely delicious but a overpriced to anyone who knows have to prepare an artichokes.

The light Bibb Lettuce with Lemon, Creme Fraiche & Crispy Leeks ($10) is the subtle sleeper of the of the menu. A translucent film of cream clings to the buttery bibb lettuce. Shoestring leeks are crisped in a delicate tempura-like batter and carry a faint saltiness. The flavor of this dish is fleeting, drawing you back to the pale leaves for more and more and more…

As long as late summer figs are still dangling from the trees, I hope the special Fig Salad clings to the menu. Stuffed with a cube of mozzarella, the sauteed fruit is served on a vinegar wilted bed of mixed greens.

Though we didn’t order a vegan pasta, we did order was the Housemade Ricotta Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce, Basil, Pecorino ($16). Smooth cylinders of tender gnocchi drenched in a light tomato sauce that tastes of nothing else. It’s exactly what you would expect from this dish. No more, no less.

I forgot to mention our waitress! My friend instantly spotted her as a favorite instructor at Pop Physique. It was with her permission that we indulged in the Warm Skillet Cookie ($8). The cast iron pan of chocolate chunk cookie is littered with salted almonds and topped with Rocky Road Gelato. It’s a rich with a satisfying warmth that leaves you craving a cardio workout.

As rich and indulgent as chocolate is, the Oven Roasted Peach Shortcake ($8) was my favorite dessert. A polenta shortcake encased in a crystal sugar shell atop housemade peach jam and whipped mascarpone. Served with a side of lightly oven roasted peaches and scattering of rosemary, it the perfect ending to any dinner.

8715 Beverly Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90048

Tomatomania at Loteria Grill (Los Angeles, CA)

For most of my life I’ve hated tomatoes. I would eat tomatoes only in their most cooked down and pureed state—aka pizza sauce. It wasn’t until the summer of 2012 when I visited Central California for the Bianco Di Napoli tomato harvest that I dared to eat an unadulterated raw tomato. Standing there in organic fields of Cliff Fong’s Farm, with the summer sun still pulsating through the red flesh, I became a tomato fan.

This past year I’ve pursued tomatoes in their best forms, learning to love this formally forbidden nightshade. I remain picky, you’ll often find the dull slabs of artificially ripened tomatoes lingering in the bottom of my salads bowls. But when a organically grown, vine ripened tomato is presented, I’m all over it!

So when I got an invite to Loteria Grill’s Tomatomania, Five Tomato Dinner, I was thrilled! The menu wasn’t published (and I have a feeling wasn’t decided) until a few days before the event, but I crossed my fingers that it would be vegetarian friendly. The 5 course dinner was curated by a slew of fabulous Los Angeles chefs: Jimmy Shaw, Evan Kleiman, Kris Morningstar, Giselle Wellman, Neal Fraser and Duff Goldman.

The final menu proved not to be vegetarian friendly. The two main courses turned out to be mostly meat with very little namesake tomato. The dishes contained such meager amounts of tomato, there wasn’t a point in plating them without the flesh. So two vegetarian items from the regular menu were substituted. But I was told that my vegetarian request provoked a poignant conversation in the kitchen. In the heat and excitement of planning, little forethought went into the vegetarian options (an important consideration since I was not the only one requesting vegetarian options). I was honored to hear I made the chefs reconsidered their offering. It’s the entire point of my blog: To enjoy existing vegetarian option, celebrate the chefs who take the time to craft delicious plant based meals and encourage others to follow suite.

The meal opened with a Cucumber Margarita with a Tajin rim. I always prefer the gentle cucumbers over the acidic lime in my libations.

The Loteria Grill kitchen offered an appetizer, Molletes con Salsa Mexicana de Colores: sliced baguettes with black beans, heirloom pico de gallo and queso. The soft baguettes tasted distinctly non-homemade, as to be expected from a taqueria. This dish didn’t stand out among the similar ones I’ve had, still, I couldn’t stop popping these bread bites.

The first course was the easiest to vegetarianize, Tomato with Burrata served in a Potato Pancake (sans caviar) by Chef Giselle Wellman. The crisp potato cake, easier to see in the non-veggie version, was fried to a deep black brown, without a smidgen of burn, and paired perfectly with the summer sweet tomato.

My favorite dish of the night, mostly because it was the only as-is vegetarian offering, was the Squash Blossom and Huitlacoche Lasagna by Chef Evan Kleiman and Jimmy Shaw. Tender leaves of pasta curled around sautéed flowers and corn smut in a mild tomato sauce.  Soft and savory, this dish brought together the best of Chef Jimmy Shaw’s Mexican and Chef Evan Kleiman Italian influences.

Chef Kris Morningstar prepared a Swordfish a la Veracruzana with sungold tomatoes… but I had the Calabacitas Tostada topped with Zucchini and Roasted Corn Succotash, Salsa Verde Cruda, Onion, Cilantro and Queso Fresco instead. The massive pile proved to be filling but relatively bland.

Chef Neal Fraser prepared an Achiote-marinated Duck Breast… but I had the Champinones con Epazote Enchiladas with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce instead. Not normally a mushroom fan, the chewy texture of the filling played nicely with the overly soft corn tortilla and tart tomatillo sauce. The ample portion felt a bit ridiculous in a five course tasting dinner, but at least I was guaranteed to not go home hungry.

The final course was the Caprese Panna Cotta by Chef Duff Goldman. It featured the most innovative use of tomato, as a gelée beneath a panna cream finished with a balsamic reduction and a fist full of pine nuts. Made with gelatin, I tried only a few spoonfuls for flavor, but devoured ALL of the pine nuts.

The event was a lot of fun! The chefs made themselves available to the diners, breathing a sigh of relief after their course had been served. This is the first of what will be an annual event and a wonderful way to try the handiwork of our city’s favorite chefs. I hope next year’s dinner takes vegetarian guests into consideration. We love tomatoes too!

Tomatomania at Loteria Grill
6627 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028

Goldie’s (Los Angeles, CA)

An impromptu weekday lunch with my mom finally brought me to Goldie’s. The living wall beckoned us from the street but offer little shade for a midday meal. Fortunately, the interior proved to be lovely. Designed by the restaurateur Nick Mathers, it’s been described as Frank Lloyd Wright-meets-lumberyard which doesn’t make any sense to me at all. This is clearly a mid-century derived design accented with Moroccan tiles and knock-off Wegner Elbow chairs.

The smoky kitchen air wafted through the elegantly slit wall directly into the dining room. We figured if we are going to breathe all this smoke we might as well start off with the Grilled Flatbread ($8). Slathered with honey, rosemary and ricotta, the flatbread arrived unsliced on a wooden platter. With butter knives we dully sawed into the tough bread—neither crisp nor chewy—leaving deep groves in the gorgeously finished wooden plate. The ricotta was flavorless, topped with such a scant amount of rosemary and honey that the kitchen may as well have left it off. Flatbreads are no longer on the menu. I understand why.

The Kale Salad ($12) was a much better event. Tender leaves of mixed-age kale tossed in honey dressing with thin slices of granny smith apple and finished with toasted sesame and blushing pink pickled onions. Large and filling, this salad was woefully overdressed. It was so unfortunate considering the how well all the other elements worked together. I definitely would order this again, but with half the dressing.

The Grilled Baby Leeks ($14) were another head-scratcher.  The slender stocks of what looked more like scallions then baby leeks (we asked the waitress and she said they were scallions) were almost impossible to cut through. The pungent puddle taleggio fonduta balanced out the acidity of the pickled seeds. Finished off with a tangle of crispy onions, I found the onions more palatable then the tough leeks.

Finally, the Roasted Carrots ($12) arrived. The charred exteriors, filled with tender sweet flesh, are cooked perfectly. The buttermilk bath envelopes the crunch of the spiced pistachio. This was a phenomenal dish. Too bad the rest of the meal couldn’t match its quality.

8422 W 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Ba Restaurant (Los Angeles, CA)

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

Lunch (Culver City, CA)

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).

3829 Main St
Culver City, CA 90232

Urban Garden (Los Angeles, CA)

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

Mustard Seed Café (Los Angeles, CA)

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)


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