Vegan tacos make a stand in California…

Hugo's Tacos
Hugo's Tacos, Los Angeles, California

The best way to do Los Angeles is with locals.  Seriously.  No one knows of better places to eat than those who live somewhere and have ventured out of the usual food comfort zone.  In Los Angeles, it’s easy to step away from the fast food joints and chain restaurants.  New food experiences abound around every corner.  Every flavor.  Every culture.  It’s all there…somewhere…just waiting for you to step inside and give it a try.

When I ventured to Los Angeles, I let my friend Indy and her husband Evan take the reins and show me good places to eat.  We all know I’m a bit of a challenge when it comes to eating out.  But not in Los Angeles.  California is a different beast.

After arriving in Los Angeles, it was already time for lunch and I was famished.  We had tossed around ideas of where to eat prior to the trip, but that all went to the wayside.  Mexican was the overall feeling of the group, and since I ditched my Mexican restaurant plans in Vegas the night before, this was just what I craved.  Their suggestion: Hugo’s Tacos.

It was a short drive from their home in The Valley to this little taco stand.  It looked a bit shady from the outside, but that’s part of the thrill of these little eateries.  No indoor seating…it’s all done outside.  Perfect, because the weather that day was beautiful, sunny, and ideal for a meal on the deck.

It took me a moment to peruse the menu board, but I finally decided on my meal of choice.  Since this was a taco stand, I figured I would go with the tacos…which on the menu are labeled gluten-free.  Better yet…they can be done vegan-style.  Yeah…I was one happy diner.

I decided on two different types of tacos: a Mixed Veggies and Herbs with Jalapeño and Tomatillo Salsa and a Soy Chorizo, Potato and Zucchini with Jalapeno and Tomatillo Salsa.  I made it a combo, which included chips and salsa plus a drink.  Diet Coke for this girl, please!

I settled in with friends and waited for my order to come up.  When it did, I totally understood why they were so excited about taking me to this place.  Not only was it friendly to my food allergies…but it also catered to the vegetarian part of me.  How many places can do that successfully.  And, to top it all off, the food was amazing.

Chips & Salsa
Hugo's Tacos' side of Chips & Salsa

I tried the Soy Chorizo, Potato and Zucchini taco first.  The soy sausage had the right hint of spice, and the salsa was the perfect compliment to it.  I never would have thought of putting potato or zucchini in a taco, but these were the perfect match for the soy chorizo.  Honestly.  The cool texture of the sauteed vegetables meshed perfectly with the bite of the vegan sausage.  The Mixed Veggies and Herbs taco was next.  I loved this.  The veggies alone would have been bland, but mixed with the herbs, they took on a new flavor level.  The hint of heat from the salsa was the perfect pairing with this taco.  Again, not something I normally would have thought to put in a corn tortilla, but it worked.  It was a taco experience like no other.

The chips and salsa were the perfect compliment to this taco fiesta.  The cool pico de gallo mixed with the corn tortilla chips gave the right mix of salty and sweet.  Just what you would expect from proper chips and salsa.  Not what you would expect from a tiny taco stand in Los Angeles.  But they say the best things come in small packages.  I couldn’t agree more.

I left more than satisfied with my lunch that day.  It was the ideal place to eat in a city that never ceases to amaze me with it’s culinary culture.  I wish more places like this existed in the Midwest where I live.  I guess for now, I’ll just have to return to Los Angeles for more treats like this.

Good things really do come in small packages.  If you don’t believe me, get to Los Angeles and try this little taco stand out.  Hugo’s Tacos may be small, but they serve up big flavor in a big way!

VEGAN TACOS
Hugo's Tacos vegan tacos: (left) Mixed Veggies and Herbs taco and (right) Soy Chorizo, Potato & Zucchini taco

French bistro food a winning bet at Bouchon in Las Vegas

Bouchon
Bouchon, located inside The Venetian, Las Vegas, Nevada

Bouchon.  Very French, oui?  That’s the brilliant thing about Las Vegas…it literally has a little of everything.  And thanks to the extraordinary culinary mind of Thomas Keller, one of the most renowned chef’s in the world, Vegas has a touch of French class with delicious bistro food.

I knew little about French food coming into this restaurant.  What captured my attention was the name attached.  Thomas Keller.  Foodie nerd…that’s me.  Pair that with an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” where he visited Las Vegas and ate at Bouchon, raving about the frites (fries)…and I knew…next time I was in Sin City, I had to try this place out.

Bread and nuts
Bouchon's homemade bread and toasted pistachios

My friend and I were seated immediately upon our arrival for our reservation.  Our table was beautiful.  Simple.  Understated.  But illuminated by the natural light of summer in Las Vegas.  Nothing was overdone.  And that was part of the beauty of it.  Our server came over and poured us water.  As he did so, he inquired if we would be interested in any wine.  Neither of us are wine drinkers, and while the experience would have been amazing, we passed.  He unfolded our menus for us (they are paper and guests are allowed to take them with them upon leaving) and told us of the specials that night.  It was then that we alerted him of my food allergies and dietary restrictions, and he assured me that I would have no problem finding something.  That being said, he pointed out that the soupe du jour that night was vegan – roasted potato leek soup with a black truffle oil.  The very description of the soup was enough to win me over, so both my friend and I unexpectedly ordered the soup as a starter.

The rest of our order was taken and we eagerly anticipated our first taste of food from one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.  The food nerd inside me was squeeing with delight.  As we waited, we were brought homemade bread and a small bowl of roasted pistachios to wet our appetites while we waited.  My friend threw herself on the bread, and I enjoyed the nuts.

Soupe du jour
Bouchon's Soupe du Jour: Potato & Leek Soup with Black Truffle Oil

And then…the soup arrived.  It look fantastic.  Most soups with any sort of potato base are heavy, but not this one.  It was light and the swirl of truffle oil added just the right about of flavor without overpowering the essence of the root vegetables in the soup itself.  In fact, the truffle oil made the soup the perfect trifecta of seasoning and taste.  One spoonful and Thomas Keller and his restaurant won my heart.  Each ingredient melted on my palate and I soon polished off the bowl.  My friend used the bread to mop up every last drop.  Yeah…it was that amazing.  And that was just our starter!

Since I am a vegetarian, there was only a few items that I could order on the menu.  Pair that with a gluten-intolerance, and quite a bit more got knocked out of the running.  Never fear though.  Restaurants normally have a salad that will work and that held true for Bouchon.  My entree of choice that night was the Salade Maraîchère au Chèvre Chaud, which consisted mixed greens with red wine vinaigrette, warm goat cheese and herbes de Provence.  I ordered it with a side of the much raved about Pommes Frites…because whenever Anthony Bourdain says the fries are better than the ones from his restaurant, Les Halles, you know they have to be amazing.  I certainly wasn’t going to miss out on trying them.  My friend, following Bourdain’s lead, ordered the Steak Frites, which she has henceforth deemed one of the best medium-well steaks ever made for her (it was still juicy, while being cooked to an actual medium-well) and topped with a shallot-butter that she wants to baptize her children in.   Apparently, it was mind-blowing.

Salade Maraîchère au Chèvre Chaud
Bouchon's Salade Maraîchère au Chèvre Chaud

When the entree was brought out, I already knew that, despite being a salad, it was going to be a good one.  The thing with salad is, they don’t always have to taste alike.  Salads can be a mishmash of amazing flavors that tantalize and tease taste buds.  Or they can be bland.  While this salad was minimal as far as ingredients go, the flavors were WOW!  The goat cheese practically melted in my mouth.  The herbes de Provence provided a bit of flair to what would have otherwise been a rather bland pile of mixed greens.  And the red wine vinaigrette was the right hint of tart to marry the flavors together.  Salads can be boring, or they can take “rabbit food” to the next level.  Bouchon takes it to the next tier.

Fries of YUM!
Bouchon's Pommes Frites

As for those much-raved about frites, Anthony Bourdain was right on the money.  Thomas Keller trained his chefs at Bouchon right.  Because fries are fries…in most cases.  They can either be really good…or really bad.  Most of the time it has to do with the cut and the how they are cooked, or how long for that matter.  I do not like mushy fries.  Steak fries are not my favorite cut.  Neither are curly, nor crinkle-cut.  Shoestring fries are generally my favorite because they come out with a crisp crust on them that lends bite to the potato.  At Bouchon, the Pommes Frites were above and beyond any other fries I have ever eaten in my life.  And I LOVE my fries.  Bourdain is one of my culinary heroes for a reason.  He has good tastes in deep-fried potato-y goodness.  Bouchon doesn’t just serve up a sizable portion of frites on the side, they do a damn good job of cooking them to perfection.  The waiter thought there was way too many frites on the table between my friend and I, but we polished them all off.  Not one went to waste.  Normally, I don’t finish my fries because there are so many of them…but that wasn’t the case here.  I almost wished I had more.  You think you’ve had fries…then you eat at Bouchon and you realize they set the bar for french fry standards and those waffle fries from Chick-Fil-A will never equal what you just consumed.  Considering the paragraph on the Pommes Frites is now longer than that on the soup and the salad…just believe me.  Try it for yourself and no other restaurant fries will ever compare.  Nowhere.  No way.  No how!  It isn’t a pompous French thing to call them Pommes Frites and serve up average fries.  No…these have every right to be pompous and French.  They earned it.

Dark chocolate mousse with burnt orange cream
Bouchon's Marquise au Chocolat

Despite being full, dessert was a must.  The dessert menu was presented to us and after a bit of discussion, my friend and I decided that we would split Marquise au Chocolat, a dark chocolate mousse with burnt orange cream.  The dessert won my heart with dark chocolate.  The orange cream was an added bonus.  And when it arrived, we couldn’t have been happier with our decision.  It looked like a slice of cake, laid out and surrounded by dollops of  edible-orange goodness.  Picture-perfect.  And the taste…manna from heaven.  Everything paired perfectly.  The citric bitterness of the orange cream paired with the smooth dark chocolate and the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the mousse.  It was fantastic.  Down to the last bite, which was smeared through the last of the burnt orange cream so that nothing went to waste.  I finished off the evening with an after-dinner cup of tea that just polished off the perfect meal.

Hot tea
Bouchon's hot tea

There is French bistro food and then there is Bouchon.  Thomas Keller set out to do something amazing in Vegas, and he succeeded.  Bouchon, tucked away in the Venezia Tower of The Venetian in Las Vegas, is one of those must-go places.  When I return to Vegas, I will be making another reservation for a dinner there.  Despite all of the culinary treats that are hidden away in Vegas, I can’t help but think of what new treats might be served up on the menu here.  And I can’t wait to sink my teeth into those Pommes Frites once again.  Make a reservation.  Dress up.  Dine.  It’s a feast so pleasing to the any palate that there is literally something for everyone.  Even this gluten-free vegetarian.  Amazing food outweighs the celebrity name and the Michelin stars any day.  From the moment you step into Bouchon, you feast upon great ambiance, great service, and great food.  How can it get better than that?

It can’t.

Take it from this vegetarian foodie.

Bouchon...amazing food!
This Vegetarian Foodie ♥'s Bouchon

No gambling with the food and service at Mr. Lucky’s 24-7!

Mr. Lucky's 24-7
Mr. Lucky's 24-7, inside the Hard Rock Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada

While on vacation, I always like to fortify myself for a busy day with a hearty breakfast.  Sometimes a lunch isn’t guaranteed so something filling and delicious is what I seek out.  Not wanting to wander all the way down to the strip before eating, I took the elevator from my hotel room in the Hard Rock Hotel down to Mr. Lucky’s 24-7, a 24-hour diner-style restaurant that has been recognized as one of Vegas’ “Best Late Night Snack Stops” since 2003 in the Las Vegas Weekly Reader’s Choice Poll.

Okay…so it’s good enough for the drunk…but so is Taco Bell.  But, how does Mr. Lucky’s 24-7 measure up for the most sober person in Vegas…bright and early (6 a.m. early – I was still on Eastern Time Zone time, I swear!) on a Wednesday?

We were seated immediately, beside a huge mural of Jim Morrison.  Already the ambiance was to my taste.  The menu was classic diner-style with a little of everything.  Breakfast foods ranging from egg dishes to pancakes to baked goods (muffins, bagels, toast).  They also have salads, soups, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, pastas, fajitas, nachos, a variety of appetizers and even some desserts.  The menu had a little of everything and a little of something…for anyone…or a group to share.  Whatever you preferred.

With my food allergies, eggs are usually a safe gamble for me.  So I stuck with that plan and ordered off the breakfast menu.  I opted for Veggie Omelet done with egg whites.  Since I couldn’t have the toast or English muffin that came with it, the server gladly substituted watermelon for me.  I was thrilled because I LOVE my fruit.  And…since my roommate is my acting food deputy, she inquired as to whether the hash browns that come with it were gluten-free.  Since the server was unsure, he hurried back to the chef to inquire.  He returned shortly after with the ingredients to the butter the hash browns were cooked in…the one ingredient in question when it came to the hash browns.  Both my roommate and I inspected them and it passed.  So, I was totally getting my hash browns!  And this made me stupidly happy because I love my breakfast potatoes like no one else!

The food arrived in short order and I wasted no time diving into it.  Even after the delicious food the night before, I was ready for some food.  The melon was absolutely ripe and delicious!  So happy to have a server suggest that as a substitute without me even having to inquire.  I can’t do that around where I live.  No one understands a gluten intolerance.  Out West…they get it and they work with you!  The omelet was AWESOME!!  The vegetables were perfectly done.  Nothing too wilty.  Nothing runny.  Delicious…especially when topped off with some hot sauce.  Nothing goes better with eggs than hot sauce.  I swear…it’s one of my favorite things!  And the hashbrowns were perfect.  Brown and crispy…yet still soft inside.  The perfect hash brown.

The portions were HUGE…and not over-priced.  So you really get a good deal here.  And yes…I ate it all.  Like I said, lunch wasn’t guaranteed…and in fact, we didn’t actually have lunch that day.  So the big breakfast was just what we needed to get us going and energized for another full day on the Vegas strip.

Not only was this restaurant very careful with my food and mindful of my allergies…they worked with me and even took the extra precaution of sending out the ingredients in something so I could make sure it was safe.  That’s not just awesome, that’s rockstar!  And once again, after eating here…we decided the following morning we’d return to try something else off the menu.

When it demands a return, then it’s gotta be good.  This diner-style restaurant did everything right with its food and service.  Yeah…there is a reason it continues to receive accolades in Reader’s polls.  It really is that delicious.  Even when sober…even when eating breakfast…the food was dine-in delicious!

Veggie Omelet, hash browns, watermelon
Mr. Lucky's 24-7 Veggie Omelet (made with egg whites), hash browns and watermelon

A culinary explosion of the palate at Nobu

Nobu
Nobu (at the Hard Rock Hotel), Las Vegas, Nevada

I just returned from an amazing culinary excursion of the West.  If there was good food to eat, I was going to find it.  And this trip proved my instincts to be right on par.

My culinary vacation began with a dinner at the world-renowned Nobu restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Located in the Hard Rock Hotel, this beautiful restaurant is tucked away in a quiet section and you immediately feel the difference upon entering.  My roommate and I had reservations for 7:00 pm.  We showed up about 15 minutes early, and were immediately seated.  The first thing the waiter did, after unsheathing our chopsticks was to ask what we knew about the restaurant.  Since we were Nobu-newbies, he went through the history of the restaurant briefly, then offered suggestions from the menu, including Nobu’s signature dish: Black Cod Miso.  We alerted him to my food allergies and he assured me the kitchen had gluten-free soy sauce should I need it, as well as any sushi dish could be done vegetable style.  He left us alone as he went to fill our drink order and we pondered the menu for a moment.

Mushroom Soup
Nobu's Mushroom Soup

Upon his return, we placed our orders.  My roommate went with one of the recommended dishes: the Miso Soup followed by the Rock Shrimp Tempura with a Creamy Spicy Sauce.  I was craving vegetarian sushi.  So I put in for the Mushroom Soup and a cut roll of the Vegetable Sushi and a cut roll of the Oshinko Sushi.

The soup arrived first.  And this was going to be it.  Our first taste of the much-raved over Nobu food.  I picked up my spoon, eyeing the floating bits of mushroom in the broth before taking my first sip.  And it was good.  Beyond good.  While most vegetable-based soups can run bland, this exploded with flavor, without being overpoweringly earthy.  It was fantastic.  My roommate gave it a try as well, although her favorite soup is still the Miso.  We finished our soups and had time to let it digest before our dinners arrived.

Green Tea
Nobu's green tea - proceeds from the sale of their tea went to help with Japan's earthquake relief

The cut rolls were absolutely stunning.  The Vegetable Sushi roll was cut in circular slices, stuffed with rice and a variety of vegetables.  The Oshinko Sushi roll (pickled vegetables) exploded with flavor.  This one was cut into smaller, square pieces and all displayed against a dark green banana leaf with ginger and wasabi on the side.  Their ginger, by the way, was awesome.  And I normally don’t like ginger.  I opted to try the vegetable one first and took one bite and immediately fell in love with it.  It was the best vegetarian sushi I had ever tasted.  Packed with flavor…not bland or dull.  But the real treat was the Oshinko.  The pickled vegetables packed a powerful punch that played well against the rice.  It was one of the most amazing things I have ever let cross my palate.  It alternated between the two throughout the meal and polished off each roll, savoring every bite.

Bento Box
Nobu's Bento Box dessert

With the appetizer and main course down, we decided that since we were on vacation we’d treat ourselves to dessert.  With my gluten intolerance, this can sometimes be a challenge.  But, not at Nobu.  We ordered the Bento Box, a flourless chocolate cake with a white chocolate sauce, shiso syrup and green tea ice cream.  Was that ever worth the splurge.  I have never, ever had a cake melt in my mouth before, but this did.  Like butter.  It was soft, creamy, dreamy, chocolate goodness paired with a green tea ice cream that paired so well with the gooey chocolate cake that it was an unbelievable party in my mouth.  My roommate commented upon finishing that if it wouldn’t go against all dining etiquette, that she would lick the box it was served in.  I also tried their green tea with my dessert and it was warm and delicious.  All proceeds from the tea sold went toward helping Japan.  A worthy cause…delicious tea.

Nobu was more than a splurge.  It was a dining experience.  No one should visit any city one of these restaurants are in without going.  The tastes, the food, the ambiance…it all plays into one of the most amazing dining experiences.  And the food…well, that’s a culinary vacation all its own.  And one so good, that my roommate and I cancelled our Thursday night dinner reservation to return.  But that is another blog…

Vegetable sushi
Nobu's Cut Roll Sushi: Vegetable (round) and Oshinko (square)

Praise of Celestial proportions!

Sleepytime Love
I love Celestial Seasonings!

It’s not every day that you run across a company that really, really cares about its clientele.  Seriously.  I’ve written letters to restaurants regarding their menus (lack of options for a vegetarian with a gluten intolerance…trust me!) and have received defensive letters in return or a form letter.

That was not the case with Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado.  I visited the plant back in April when I ventured away from a convention I was attending in Denver to go see the plant.  I am a tea fiend and Celestial Seasonings is my go-to tea…because it’s available EVERYWHERE!  Before taking the tour, I had dropped into the café for a small breakfast and fell in love with some gluten-free breads that they had for sale.

As mentioned in my previous blog about my visit to Celestial Seasonings, I had e-mailed them about possibly receiving the recipes for the bread, as buying anything gluten-free out in Indiana is not only expensive, it’s practically impossible.  (Seriously, grocery store sections are usually very small and most don’t even carry Udi’s bread!).

I received a message back from their Consumer Relations saying that they stumbled upon my blog and have been trying to locate the recipe for me, but currently haven’t been able to track it down.  And they apologized for the time it took to get back to me.  Needless to say, I was already impressed.  One weeks later, I received another e-mail back from a different person in Consumer Relations, this time telling me that the gluten-free breads are actually brought into the café and not made on site, so recipes are not available to them.  The fact that they spent all that time trying to track this down for me spoke volumes of the dedication they have to their customers.  If I was impressed before, I was now gobsmacked.

But here is the epitome of customer appreciation.  Upon returning home from work yesterday, I went to get the mail from my box and noticed an envelope in there from Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado.  Upon opening it, I found a nice letter from a Jessica, a Consumer Relations Representative.  This was no form letter either.  It was typed out addressing not only their delay in getting back to me, but voicing their appreciation of my patience.  But here is the kicker, folks…also inside were not only coupons for Celestial Seasonings tea and Arrowhead Mills gluten-free baking mixes…they also put in some recipes for a variety of gluten-free breads, muffins, cakes, pancakes, waffles, cookies, etc.  This goes beyond customer service.  This is ensuring customer satisfaction!

I said it to our tour guide on the tour of Celestial Seasonings, I said it to everyone back at the convention center where I was in Denver, and I’ve said it to people here where I live.  I would work for this company!!  I would love to work for Celestial Seasonings…even more so now because I have now been given ultimate customer service.  When contacting companies these days over things, normally you don’t even know if you’re going to get a person on the other end.  Celestial Seasonings is definitely run by real people.  Real people who care and who take time to not only find an answer for you, but contact you back and make sure you are satisfied with the response they give.

I’m impressed.  I’m beyond impressed.  Boulder, Colorado is such a healthy area.  The fact that gluten-free products are so readily available make me want to pack up and head out west.  Maybe one day.  But for now, I’ll remain in Indiana…and give these kindly provided recipes a whirl.

Thank you, Hain Celestial Group, for making me a bigger believer, not just in your company, but in your dedication to your customers.  I raise a mug of Sleepytime Tea in your honor.  Cheers.

Enjoy Life and take a bite out of chocolate chip cookies again!

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Enjoy Life's Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Back in February, I was told that I have a gluten intolerance.  This was…heartbreaking.  I’m a girl in love with her carbs.  Bread, pasta, pancakes, pizza, pretzels, muffins, bagels, donuts…all delicious and, sadly, all very glutenous.  It has been a challenge taking on a gluten-free lifestyle.  Expensive too.  Sometimes I just can’t justify spending money to try out a product that I might not like.  Granted, gluten-free products have come a long way over the years, but sometimes the trial-and-error method doesn’t work into my budget.  And, not surprisingly, there are times all I crave are things that I can no longer easily have.  One such thing was cookies.

That was until I was entered into an online contest during May’s Celiac Awareness Month on Gluten Free Networks.  Just for being a member of the site, you were entered into drawings for gluten-free prizes all month.  It just so happened that I won.

My prize was a box of gluten-free cookies from Enjoy Life.  They had just rolled out their new line of crunchy cookies.  I was going to receive one of four flavors: chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, crisp sugar, or vanilla honey graham.

My box arrived in the mail not long after and I received a box of their crunchy chocolate chip cookies.

I knew what dessert was going to be that night so after eating dinner, I broke into my prize and pulled out the cookies.  On the box, despite being listed as crunchy, they still look very raised and soft.  The cookies are pretty flat when you see them.  But…sometimes cookies baked at home are like that.  Let’s let the taste buds do the talking.

Now, my roommate does not have to be gluten-free, but she does eat that way sometimes because I’m the chef in this apartment and I refuse to cook things two different ways.  So, I handed her a cookie and got my own.  I was nervous about the first bite, but after taking it, feeling the crisp cookie break away and dance across my tastebuds…I was sold.

Not only did these taste like homemade cookies, they were really delicious!  The crunch was just the right kind that I like with cookies (despite that I much prefer soft-bake…but Enjoy Life makes those too and might be worth a try).  The chocolate chips were perfectly sweet and paired with the sweetness of the cookie base.  I admit that I even reverted back to being five years old at one point and dunked the cookie into my glass of almond milk.  A pre-packaged product that tastes like a homemade cookie isn’t an easy find, but I found it in this box.  The rest were devoured throughout the week and I savored every bite.

If a grocery store out this way ever starts carrying these delicious treats from Enjoy Life…I’ll buy them up.  I’m now dying to try the other flavors.  Gluten-free tastes oh, so good again!