Pokez (San Diego, CA)

One thing I know to be true about San Diego vegans: You are either a Rancho’s person or a Pokez person (plus a few Liticker’s punks). Me, I give all my marbles to Pokez. One of the few quantifiable reasons I can understand people preferring Rancho’s is their vegan cheese. But a dusting of unmelted Daiya isn’t going to sway my heart—especially when I can bask in the warmth of Pokez’s Potato Flautas ($8.79).

What do potato flautas have to do with vegan cheese? Well, if you’ve ever been online you’ve probably seen a million links to vegan “potato cheese.” People swear by the gummy, oozing, texture of warm, zealously-whipped, hot potatoes—and when you take that concept and roll it up in a deep-fried flour tortilla and top it with guacamole, pico, and iceberg with a side of rice and beans, you get my favorite San Diego Chicano dish that is not a burrito stuffed with tofu, potato, and mushrooms.

The Tofu, Mushroom, Potato Burrito ($7.75) at is where my Pokez’ affection began. Charred chewy bits and pale hearts ngari-firmed San Diego Soy Dairy tofu clump together in creamy potatoes with chewy sauteed button mushrooms. Wrapped with crisp iceberg and pico, the heft is smothered in (an optional) gravy-like Rancho sauce. Served with a signature scoop of Pokez’ cabbage salad—a crisp collection and simple and mysterious ingredients that gain infamy to all who try it.

 

The Tofu Fajitas ($11.75) are another frequent visitor to my table. Yes, both these plates above make up the single dish. Smoke singles arise from the sizzling cast iron platter of seared tofu with tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions dripping with a glossy, almost teriyaki-style, sauce.  The second plate holds the “garnishes”: guacamole, salsa fresca, the infamous cabbage salad, yellow rice, refined beans and a roll of seamed corn or flour tortillas. There should definitely be leftovers when ordering this dish, if not, I think there maybe something wring with you because no human should be able to consume this much good food in one sitting.

 

Apparently Machaca ($7.25) is a classic thing people ate growing up, or growing out, and still get really excited about. The blend of sauteed onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and crushed tofu is more akin to a scramble in my eye—and as a vegetable laden scramble, it is quite successful.

Every so often I wild flame runs through body and I order something new to me Pokez. I’ve yet to be dissatisfied with any—ANY—choice made. Such as the time I ordered this Tofu Burrito ($7.50)—a girth of refried pinto beans, rice, San Diego Soy Dairy tofu, a cool swath of guacamole, salsa fresca, and lettuce.

One day I was feeling “healthy” and so ordered the Tostada Tofu Salad ($8.75) which I now think is the unhealthiest menu item. The deep fried flour tortilla bowl is layered with beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa fresca, and guacamole then topped with a fan of seasoned tofu. Despite feeling engorged before ordering it, I loved the quarter of the bowl that I managed to devour right after this photo was taken and the 3/4 of the bowl I ate for lunch the next day.

Intellectually I understand that there are people who don’t like Pokez–the vote tally on Vegan in San Diego’s Best of SD made the majority opinion all too clear. For those who don’t care for sticker laden bathrooms, kind but non-pandering service, and sharing a dining room with people putting Mitski and Misfits on the jukebox, it’s awesome that San Diego has other vegan friendly Mexican joints for you. But for those of you who value food that tastes good, I’ll see you in one of Pokez’ wooden booths soothing our hunger with cabbage salad and smothered our souls in Ranchera sauce.

Pokez
947 E St.
San Diego, CA 92101

pokezrestaurant.com

Project Taco (Los Angeles, CA)

Enthralled by an article on Beyond Meat ‘s CEO Ethan Brown, Project Taco founder Nick Fontova mentally earmarked the company for future collaboration. The very next day, Brown walked into the Hermosa Beach taco shop. The two quickly hit it off, both passionate about innovation and health, and entered into a conversation giving rise to a exceptionally vegan-friendly taco menu.

Project Taco has always offered the beach-friendly Heromsa Hummus ($4); a tortilla  slathered with hummus, with cool slivers of lightly pickled cucumbers, cherry peppers, diced tomato, corn and guacamole. But the Beyond Meat partnership gave birth to my new favorite taco: Miracle Meatless ($4)! An ample mound of ground “beef” heaped on a base of hummus and topped with cabbage, tomatoes, onions and a vegenaise based cilantro lime crema.

In addition to these two vegan-as-is options, Beyond Meat Chicken or Beef can be substituted into any taco AT NO EXTRA CHANGE! After reading that, my eyes immediately jumped to the Blueberry BBQ ($4). It had never occurred to me to mingle blueberries and BBQ spices, but these two belong together. I asked to substitute veggie beef for the pork, but then worried that the apple-kale coleslaw crowning this taco would be dairy based. Fontova gleefully informed me the slaw is made with vinegar. Score! The next taco begging to be veganize is the Thai Peanut Chicken ($4). Beyond Meat chicken soaked in a rich and spicy Thai peanut sauce is topped with carrots, cabbage, cucumber,  cilantro and chili garlic sauce. Be sure to ask for no honey. Vividly hued salsas are available on the side with chips ($3 for one, $6 for three). The Guacamole is exceptional. It is made not with onion but with lime soaked jicama.  The boldest and brightest turned out to be my favorite, the  Habanero Pineapple salsa. The Edamame, splattered in a house-made teriyaki sauce, is also vegan-as-is ($2.5 small, $5 large). The support that Project Taco gives the vegan community is thorough and sincere. In addition to the no cost vegan taco upgrade, every Monday all veggie tacos are $3… including non-vegan ones modified with Beyond Meat! Even Project Taco’s CEO Andrew Listermann says the Miracle Meatless taco is his favorite snack. Vegans have scored big with Project Taco thanks to a partnership that was simply meant to be.

Project Taco
6325 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048
323-424-7564
ProjectTaco.com

All food hosted.

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
loteriagrill.com/hollywood

Mario’s La Fiesta (Berkeley, CA)

The taco's look great, but I'd rather eat two burritos!

In 1999, I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, where I discovered the world of Mission-style burritos. At first I was dazzled by the baby blanket-sized tortillas stuffed with whole beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, pico, crema, guacamole… so big, so filling! But it wasn’t long before I grew weary of these overpriced behemoths pouring out of every taqueria in San Francisco (for a time, you could find me at Taqueria el Buen Sabor every weekend). That’s when I met Mario’s. Continue reading

Loading Dock (Brooklyn, NY)

Oh sweet fire, keep me warm these winter days

Although I detest these New York winters, nuzzling up in a fur-lined chair (let’s not debate over that, ok) next to the wood burning hearth at the Loading Dock is one of my few snowbound pleasures. This food cart, parked in an actual loading dock of a downtown live-work industrial loft, is flush with all the pomp of the hipster allusion (complete with an art gallery), but none of the dickery.

Makeshift greatness

The working loading dock elevator

My sensible friends let me select our downtown brunch location before embarking on the totally rad Atlantic Tunnel Tour. A perfect chance to show off my “what’s hot now” knowledge, I mean, what’s the point of obsessing over all those food blogs if I don’t get to dazzle people by dragging them to obscure industrial corners of our dismal downtown, secure in my promise of awesome Mexican breakfast!

Continue reading