Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vegan trEATS

My dad's favorite bumper sticker is "Eat a Vegetarian". We're no down-home Texan cattle ranchin' carnivores, but as close to it as you can be coming from a suburb of Washington, D.C. Not only is my dad a total grill master with all things meat, he has christened his cherished barbeque as MOAB (Mother Of All Barbeques). I'm considered the black sheep of the family, with my wacky hair styles and art school degree, and horror of all horrors- vegetarian and vegan friends! At one point I had two roommates, one of each gastronomical persuasion. Throughout the years, I have learned, enjoyed and branched out to all sorts of culinary substitutions for animal product, and I like to think in my case it is simply an even further extension of my diet. I don't care to restrict myself in any way other than obvious healthiness, but I completely understand the vegan/vegetarian decision for purposes of animal cruelty. I could go into the reasons why being a vegan isn't necessarily "healthier" in my opinion, but that's a completely different argument.

Surprisingly, it was my sister who brought Eric McKenna to my attention with this article. A noted vegan baker in New York, her BabyCakes bakery explores the oft-snuffed world of vegan baking, which is a difficult art to flourish. in. Baking is incredibly dependent upon animal products, and while tofu and soy are often acceptable substitutes in the savory world, they just can't cut in in a cookie recipe. Her new BabyCakes cookbook is out now for every vegan with a sweet tooth to snap up in stores everywhere.

Even if you aren't a vegan or vegetarian, take a peek at some of the tasty treats she's made as simple as 1-2-3 for home baking. They're also perfect for those with sensitive food allergies, like the unfortunate gluten allergy. I have only one friend stricken with this debilitating allergy, and believe me I feel for her. Gluten-free options are becoming more common these days, but it's not a guarantee to find them at any given time. BabyCakes offers all kosher, sugar-free, gluten-free, wheat-free, soy-free, casein-free, and egg-free options, leaving only delicious flavor for us to enjoy.

Until you get your hands on her cookbook, get your tastebuds motivated with this recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies:

»1 cup coconut oil
» 6 tbsp homemade applesauce or store-bought unsweetened applesauce
» 1 tsp salt
» 2 tbsp pure vanilla extract
» 1 1/4 cups evaporated cane juice
» 2 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose baking flour
» 1/4 cup flax meal
» 1 tsp baking soda
» 1 1/2 tsp xanthan gum
» 1 cup vegan chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, mix oil, salt, applesauce, vanilla and cane juice. In another medium bowl, whisk together flour, flax meal, baking soda and xanthan gum.

Using a spatula, carefully add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture. Stir until a grainy dough forms. Gently fold in chocolate chips.

With a melon baller, scoop dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing portions 1 inch apart. Press each with the heel of your palm to help them spread.

Bake cookies on center rack for 15 minutes, rotating the sheets 180 degrees after nine minutes.

Let cookies stand on sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before covering. Makes 36.
(picture taken from

Monday, June 22, 2009


Ashton had been telling me what seemed to be a tall tale of a hot sauce store in the Kensington/Normal Heights area, but couldn't QUITE seem to remember where it was! Due to his lack of a specific location and inability to find it again, I doubted this fabled land until one day last week we were driving down Adams when lo and behold! My eye was caught by a large red sign proclaiming "HOT HOT HOT!" hot sauces! Slamming on the brakes and careening to a stop I wildly parked in a frenzy of excitement and then casually strolled in to cut down on the craziness factor. California-Antilles Trading is a small place on the cusp of Kensington, easily overlooked from the street, but cozy and pleasant inside. It's not a large store with a ton of items, but the man behind the counter was extraordinarily pleasant and knowledgeable about his spiced wares. A former professor of sociology (or anthropology or some ology) from SUNY, his studies brought him to the Caribbean on a regular basis, and with repeated requests from his colleagues to bring back tasty salsas and marinades, he thought, why not go into business for this? Now retired from teaching, he came to San Diego for the hell of it and opened up the place. Some life, huh?

With Father's Day only a few days away, I figured, what do all dads (especially mine) love? Hot sauce! My dad is the king of BBQ and hot sauces, so this was a great find for picking him up a little something. With the guidance of the owner, I picked out a great local roasted chipotle/garlic sauce, a medium flavored habanero sauce, and as a gag the "Ass Reaper" (with a hooded bottle complete with skull face). However, based on the selection I wanted a little treat for myself! He had a few samples of salsa out, but this one stood out head and shoulders over the rest:

This was a fantastic, smoky flavored mild salsa that had the perfect texture and exploded with flavor. He recommended it as a great chip dip, or even to spread over poultry, fish, or fruit to add a fantastic flavor without burning tastebuds. I love hot stuff, but this flavor just knocked my socks off. Normally I avoid the mild section, turning my nose up and not even considering anything less than medium and 90% of the time hot, but this lingering smokiness with a full-bodied pepper flavor was absolutely spectacular. A perfect choice for a community munch-fest with wimps attending who still love flavor.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How to spend a weekend in San Diego

Ashton's mom came into town for her first San Diego visit on Thursday night, so of course we had a multitude of fun, awesome, and DELICIOUS things for us to do. Let me just tell you that 75% of what we had planned was where to eat! Thursday night she got in late, so the only edibles she encountered were the cookies upon check-in at the Doubletree. We more than made up for it over the course of the weekend. I missed the first part of the festivities on Friday as they experienced Hodad's in Ocean Beach, which I am incredibly envious of. I'd previously blogged about it here, and will someday fulfill my life goal of eating there. Until then, I will rely on their assurances that it was superb. Luckily, we had a great dinner planned at Ranchos on 30th, blogged about here. One of the reasons I love this place is the great salsa they have, and they had actually switched it up a bit this go. We got a more orange-y dollop which was interesting and a tiny bit sweeter than the original. A pleasant and unexpected change! It didn't seem to be permanent since our 2nd bowl was the darker red original, so who knows what is going on there. I got the fish taco combination which was absolutely stellar.

Saturday morning we got seated pretty quickly at The Mission in North Park, where we assured her that her first weekend brunch would be fantastic. Of course it was (like this time). I got an okay chai and a fabulous soy chorizo scramble, with their unbelievable rosemary toast instead of tortillas. A fortuitous decision, because their bread is the best rosemary bread I've had to date. Marylou opted for the Roast Beef Hash at our suggestion, and loved every bite. It was a 100% success. After waddling away from The Mission, we headed up the 101 to show her the north county sites like Swami's, the garden at the Self-Realization Center, a bit of Encinitas, Carlsbad, Leucadia, and the more picture-esque, quintessential California beach towns. After seeing the sites and stopping by the Hotel Del Coronado for a few drinks at their Sun Deck bar, we were ready to eat again, this time at our favorite Thai place to date- Amarin on Richmond Street in Hillcrest. It's hard for me to get something that's not a noodle dish, so I got my standby of Drunken Noodles with Squid and it was of course spectacular. Ashton got HIS standby of Green Curry, and it is just always first rate.

After all this food, I don't know how we managed drinks, but we made it all the way next door to Alibi for a few beers. Where it fit in our bellies, I'll never know. Fast approaching never-before experienced food coma levels, we called it a night, only to awake the next day starving as though we've never eaten before. We had made the strategic decision to make Sunday brunch at Urban Solace (again) to take advantage of the bluegrass band on Sunday mornings. The wait was a little longer than usual, so we seized the opportunity to run to Henry's to snag a few essentials for the dinner we had planned that evening. Our first choice was the Hillcrest Farmer's Market, but it was so woefully packed that we couldn't find a parking space within 500 miles and with a tight schedule had to make a quick stop elsewhere. However, brunch was definitely worth the wait, and my Portabello Mushroom Benedict was as the waiter promised, fantastic. I had been deciding between that or the Steak Benedict, and at his suggestion got the mushroom option because it supposedly sopped up more of the flavor. Well, he was right. Marylou and I went halfsies on one of each, and I thoroughly enjoyed the portabellos much more than the steak. Sadly, the bloody marys were pretty bad, and after having enjoyed an unbeatable one at the Sun Deck at the Hotel Del only the day before, I would have to pass on Urban Solace being a hot spot for them.

The rest of the day consisted of going to the Botanical Garden at Balboa Park, which is unmissable for anyone in San Diego. The indoor exhibit is lush, beautiful, and very well maintained and well planned out. Even someone not incredibly enthusiastic about flowers and plants will enjoy themselves. Next up was the obligatory downtown/Gaslamp excursion, with a stop at a curbside bar called Toscana with local beers on tap and $3 pints all day. There is nothing like a cold beer after a long weekend of entertaining to refresh one's palate! We'd had about enough of the exploration at that point, so we headed back to North Park to make dinner- not before stopping at the Greek Festival on Park Avenue to score some tasty additions to the meal!!! We got boxes of everything made by the hands of Greek women, so it was sure to be excellent. Dolmades, Moussaka, Spanikopita, it was a feast of epic proportions, and we hadn't even made the Tomato Pie yet.

Marylou has an amazing recipe for Tomato Pie which is possibly the most unhealthy and most delicious thing ever. I can't even blog about what goes into it here, because I need to recover for a year by dieting on lettuce and celery. Then, and only then, can I even begin to fathom it. Let's just say it was a hit with our friends who joined us for the home-cooked-plus-Greek dinner.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and this concluded our weekend. I think we hit all the highs that San Diego offers, and got to experience some of our favorites once again. This is a pretty good guide for what to do and where to eat, so the next time you have an out-of-towner stopping by, considering trying some or all of these places! You have my stamp of approval.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hash House a Go Go Hillcrest

Hash House a Go Go in Hillcrest has been recommended to us many times over by every brunch lover in San Diego. It seemed to be a staple, a can't-miss place where the wait spills onto the sidewalk and there are sun chairs set out for the hungry hopefuls. We've stopped by several weeks, and with waits of 2+ hours and our tummies rumblin', we've passed every time. Until now. Determined to take part in this fabled brunch, we got in gear by 10:30 Sunday morning and headed over there to wait it out. Happily, the wait was only 20 minutes so "early" in the morning, so we hunkered down and waited our turn.

We were not disappointed. Within a half hour we were escorted though a jam-packed crowd to the back covered patio area by a friendly and funky hostess to a corner table, and started pawing through the menu. What an absolutely stellar menu! Not only was it incredibly extensive, everything sounded absolutely first rate. I could tell a keen mind was at work in the kitchen, because even with a lot of repeats like goat cheese, salmon, mozzarella, artichokes, and sun dried tomato popping up repeatedly through the menu, everything had its own spin and custom well-thought out main flavor. It took me much longer than usual to make up my mind about what to eat.

What didn't take me long to decide was what to drink. Their coffee and cocktail menus were innovative, all-encompassing, and reasonably priced. I selected the iced pistachio mocha and was treated to a tower of chocolate dripping nutty dusted cream topped icy fountain of magic. It was THAT GOOD. They even offered cocktails of the day along with the brunch specials, one of which I ultimately selected for my main course. Ashton opted for the House Hash with mushroom, artichoke hearts, sundried tomato and fresh spinach with 2 eggs, potatoes, fruit, and biscuit. On the waitress' suggestion, he also added goat cheese because what is a scramble without cheese? Only sadness and emptiness of the soul. For myself, I got the Scramble O' the Day, which consisted of baby shrimp, tomato, goat cheese, basil pesto, potatoes, fruit, and biscuit. With a glint in her eye, the waitress took our orders enthusiastically and assured us we had chosen well. Duh.

When the food finally came, the table literally sagged with the weight. Huge piles of delicious scramble towered before us, so impressive that a man walking to the table next to us stopped mid-stride and goggled at us like we were a pair of conquering kings sitting to a feast of epic proportions. It's always difficult to restrain ourselves to take a few pictures before diving in headfirst, but we managed to squeeze a few shots in. Everything completely lived up to our expectations. The goat cheese was some of the finest I've ever had. Creamy and fresh perfection. The eggs were scrambled beautifully, and there was no question of the freshness of the ingredients. The biscuits were light and fluffy, and my only qualm was they could have been warmer and a bit softer. The strawberry preserves left for us were a slop of gooey wonderfulness, and the potatoes were crispy and hot. Some of them were a little TOO crispy, but the flavor was excellent and hearty.

This isn't the kind of place that depends on condiments or sauces to make the dish stand on its own two feet. All of the food was lightly seasoned, and there wasn't a need to overseason to extract flavor. I confess, I did add some hot sauce, but that is only because hot sauce is delicious on everything. Anyway, I can't praise it enough. Even before ordering I knew that we were destined to return many times. It's worth the wait. So next time when you find yourself driving up 5th on a Sunday morning and you see a crowd gathered, stop. Park. Join them. You won't be disappointed.

Ashton is pleased with what we are about to consume.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gourmet India

For as much as I love to go to new restaurants and eat out, being a poor 24 year old college graduate doesn't always make it possible. Luckily, my dad steered me in the direction of where deals abound and eating out on the reg can be managed by even the pauperiest of paupers. All you have to do is search an area code, and it comes up with all of the participating restaurants and the deals that are offered! Going completely insane, I picked a variety of 5 that I think will be an excellent wide net of what San Diego has to offer. They offer $25 gift certificates for $10, $10 for $3, and it goes on! Even with minor small print (dinner only, gratuity included, etc etc) it's still an awesome way to find the perfect excuse to try the little restaurant that you always see but have just never made it to.

With Thai, Seafood, Afghan, Indian, and Comfort/Americana accounted for, Ashton and I decided to go to Gourmet India on 4th for our first coupon-using excursion. We've walked past Gourmet India many times while going to Horton Plaza, so I was glad to finally go inside! The decor is very warm and cozy, with red lighting and the whole back wall illuminated with a screen playing Bollywood movies. This was slightly upscale, white tablecloths and the whole bit, but it was extremely comfortable and surprisingly empty for a rockin' Tuesday night. I was immediately expectant of great things when A) I smelled something amazing from the kitchen, and B) there were only other Indians in there. ALWAYS a dead giveaway.

We started with the Vegetarian Pakora (Spinach, cauliflower, potatoes and fritters served with homemade sweet tomato chutney), which was exquisite. Lightly fried on the outside, with a great chutney that lingered sweetly on the tongue but ended with a pop of spice. A great way to whet our appetites. We opted for the garlic naan bread along with our regular naan to be served with our entrees, because garlic in copious, almost gross, amounts is always welcomed by both Ashton and myself. Since I couldn't decide on just one thing, I got the Tandoori Mixed Grill (An assortment of Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Chicken, Seekh Kebab, Lamb Boti Kebab and Tandoori Shrimp Served with Naan), and Ashton got the Vegetarian Lamb Curry (Vegetarian soy lamb curry, prepared with tomato, ginger, garlic and fresh ground spices). I had some doubts about the benefits of fake lamb over real lamb when real lamb is obviously the better choice, but hey. Let's stay open-minded.

My meal was absolutely top-notch. Every single meat was cooked to perfection with a great variety of methods and spices, leaving me with basically a meat platter and mint chutney to accent the herbs and clay-cooked deliciousness. Wrapped in a hot piece of garlic naan, the lamb was especially wonderful and flawlessly prepared. I can honestly say the Tandoori shrimp was some of the best shrimp I have ever had. There were only 2 pieces, but they were large and grilled with a rubdown of spices that brought out the juiciness of the shrimp without leaving any scorch taste. The basmati rice that came with our meals was okay, a little hard and kind of flavorless. I think jasmine would have been better, or maybe just a softer cooked rice. Ashton's meal was okay. There are some fake meats that are such close replicas that I could be happy with either option. However, lamb is such a unique flavor and texture that it was just a completely different experience than real lamb. However, the sauce was a glorious thing to experience. The red curry was sweet, spicy, and packed with flavor. A spoonfull of it over the rice worked wonders.

Besides the decor being comfortable and classy, and the food being cooked wonderfully and served quick, the service was impeccable. We were not overserved by any means, but the waiter was gracious, polite, invisible when he needed to be and at our side when we required him. The chef also came out and inquired as to our pleasure with the meal. I'm not sure if that was due to the fact that there weren't many people there, or if he was genuinely interested, but the gesture in itself was classy and made us feel very welcome. The high points definitely outweighed the low points, and I would gladly go back for their Thursday night Bollywood nights.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Eggplant Parmesan

Eggplant Parmesan is one of those dishes that looks as if someone already ate it but still tastes unbelievably dissimilar to vomit. Personally, I think the sloppiness adds to the deliciousness. Even though I think Joe's Inn has some of the best egg. parm. around, I wanted to give it a go at home to see if we couldn't beat Stella at her own game. Unfortunately, we didn't start as early as we should have to rub the eggplant slices with salt to enhance crispiness potential, so going into it we understood that there was to be an element of unavoidable sogginess. Not deterred, we forged ahead with some farmer's market Parmesan Reggiano, slices of red pepper, 1/4 sliced eggplant slices, and mushroom sauce with more parmesan, crushed red pepper, oregano, basil, and black pepper. Using 2 eggs and some bread crumbs, we fried the eggplant slices in oil before baking it all together in a square pan for 35 minutes at 350 degrees. What came out was hot, bubbling, spicier than expected, and friggin' delicious. I think Stella has us beat (for now) but another try at this and we'll put them out of business.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pizzeria Luigi

Ah, pizza. An American staple, which like so other many American staples we have just stolen and claimed as our own. There's no shortage of amazing pizza joints in San Diego, and something to tantalize the tastebuds of everyone, whether your dig be New York, Sicilian, Chicago, or whatever style you crave.

However, if your loyalties lie in the New York style pizza arena, then Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill is a sure bet. This cash-only joint on the corner of 25th and B offers some of the best pizza in the city. Not only do they have a solid menu with fresh ingredients, they also offer vegan and vegetarian options that can be made to order (like any of their pies) if they aren't already made. If pizza's not your bag... then you are no friend of mine, but they do also offer calzones, stromboli, pasta, and salads.

I was pleased to see that they make their strombolis the RIGHT way, which seems to be non-existent in the majority of pizza places nowadays! When I order a stromboli, I don't want the exact clone of a calzone, just with different cheese. I was a rolled, baked, and sliced crisp crust with the innards spilling out like a cannibalistic zombie cheese holocaust. Not that there's anything wrong with the doughy pocket of nuclear cheese from calzones, it's just NOT THE SAME THING, AND I COMMEND PIZZERIA LUIGI FOR KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE!

Our dining partners for the day were Mike and Mandie, a vegan and vegetarian who recommended it as a great place for vegans and carnivores alike. Since there weren't any of their vegan selections already prepared, they gladly offered to toss one up for him fresh, which is pretty awesome of them. Mandie seems pleased with her cheese slices.

For $5.50, you can get any 2 slices and a drink, which is a great deal for this caliber of pizza. They also deliver nearby and have outdoor dining, which is a super-duper plus for Southern California weather. Nothing is better than cracking open a cold beer (available here!) and chowing on some great pizza while enjoying the weather in a fantastic neighborhood. The crust was very crispy but not thin, and the atmosphere was casual but serious. All pizzas are made in front of you and there's a great variety of ingredients available- including artichokes, which I LOVE on pizza!

Here's a sampling of some of the treats we encountered on our quest.

Their case is constantly being rotated with fresh pies for individual slices, and whole pies to order. Fast service, good prices, booze available, great atmosphere, and most important- great food. Absolutely worth a repeat visit.

Mike demonstrating how full he is and also how angry he is that there is NO MORE PIZZA TODAY.