Trader Joe’s Non-Dairy Thai Tea Mini Mochi Ice Cream

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Here’s the problem with Trader Joe’s: I go in there to get some eggs, I get distracted by all the new products in cute packaging, and I come out with fifteen items — none of which are eggs. Then after loading my car, I realize my mistake and I have to crawl back in there to get the eggs, making sure to go to a different cashier this time so that the first one doesn’t recognize me and say, “Weren’t you just here?”

This week, I was distracted by the pumpkin-flavored dog treats (so crunchy and autumnal!) and the newest offering in the frozen dessert aisle: Non-Dairy Thai Tea Mini Mochi. First of all, how can you resist this festive box? Pastels and polka dots? It’s so pretty you could give it to someone as a gift and not even bother to wrap it.

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The fact that these mochi are miniature makes them even more appealing. Bite-sized nuggets mean convenient snacking and less sugar with each serving. I love anything mini, like miniskirts, Mini Coopers, and Minnie Mouse.

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Minnie and me polka-dotting it up at Disneyland in 2013.

Like their Vegan Matcha Green Tea Mochi, Trader Joe’s Thai Tea Mini Mochi are made from coconut milk. Some ice cream alternatives made from coconut milk simply taste too much like coconuts, but this one doesn’t. It tastes like tea.

But “Thai tea” might be a bit of a stretch. Thai tea is traditionally a strong black tea, sometimes spiced, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and served over ice. It’s a lactose-intolerant person’s worst nightmare. I don’t understand how all these Asians are digesting condensed milk. It makes no sense.

Despite the name, the Trader Joe’s mochi taste just like black tea. There’s nothing Thai about it. In fact, the ice cream is not too sweet and that’s a good thing.

Just so you know, when you open the package, this is what you’ll see:

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All you need to do is pop those suckers out of their sad plastic tray, arrange them on a tea plate, and serve them with a cup of your favorite tea. Not too shabby and way more special than a box of Joe-Joe’s — although I wouldn’t kick those out of bed either.

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SusieCakes Cupcakes

fullsizeoutput_e5fI’ve had a cupcake fixation ever since my mom used to pick me up from preschool and take me to get a cupcake at the local bakery. I have to admit that although I gave up dairy years ago, I still eat the occasional cupcake, whether it’s the butter-laden kind or not.

My favorite cupcake shop in Los Angeles remains Big Sugar in Studio City, which does offer a very good vegan cupcake. But alas, for a Westsider, a trip to the Valley can be a daunting journey. So I have found my go-to substitute: SusieCakes.

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Don’t let the fact that SusieCakes is a chain turn you off. I’ve only been to the Brentwood location, but every time I’ve gotten a cupcake there, it has been unbelievably fresh and moist. Every time. To me, that’s extraordinary. Freshness is the most important factor in assessing a cupcake. As much as I love Big Sugar, I have gotten cupcakes there that were a teeny bit on the stale side. And forget Sprinkles — their cupcakes are stale at least half the time.

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A peek into the SusieCakes kitchen on a busy Saturday.

The frosting at SusieCakes is also beyond reproach: smooth, creamy, not too cloyingly sweet. My only criticism is that there’s too much of it. Many of their cupcakes are filled with frosting, so that when you bite into it, you come across a well of frosting in the middle. This is simply too much frosting, if you ask me.

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Please ignore the lipstick marks.

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My favorite flavors are the chocolate with vanilla frosting and the chocolate with peanut butter frosting. Holy moly, these are good. Unfortunately, they don’t have any vegan or dairy-free cupcakes. But unless you have a dairy allergy, I would encourage you to put aside your dairy-free diet to indulge in one of these delightful treats. It’s worth it.

SUSIECAKES, 11708 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049

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Sweet Rose Creamery

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Summer’s coming to a close, which means that I’m eating all the dairy-free ice cream I want and telling myself it’s okay because it’s the last huzzah. In actuality, summer in Southern California lasts until October or so, but we have to find some excuse for our vices, right?

There’s no dearth of artisanal ice cream shops in the Los Angeles area, and most of them offer some dairy-free options. This is how spoiled I am: If an ice cream shop has three or fewer dairy-free flavors, I don’t consider it special. And if it only has sorbets and no “creamy” flavors, I’m like, “What good are you?”

So when I stopped in at Sweet Rose Creamery in Studio City, I was pleased to find that they had five dairy-free/vegan flavors, and two of them were of the “creamy” variety.

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I sampled all five flavors from cute little metal spoons (they get bonus points for not using disposables), and they were all good, with the exception of the vanilla coconut which I didn’t like because it contained flakes of coconut. Coconut flakes have a waxy texture that I do not enjoy.

The fruit sorbets were all fresh and smooth. But the dark chocolate was the clear winner. Despite its creamy texture, it contains no milk or cream of any kind. It’s just chocolate and water — essentially a sorbet. But you’ll swear it has cream in it!

This dark chocolate ice cream was a lot like the chocolate sorbet from Il Gelato at Eataly, but the atmosphere at Sweet Rose Creamery is much more relaxing and interesting. It’s a tiny storefront on a pedestrian-friendly stretch of Tujunga Avenue, not far from the Italian restaurant where overdue pregnant women go to eat a salad that’s supposed to make you go into labor, and just a few blocks from that other Italian restaurant where Robert Blake (allegedly) killed his wife. How’s that for neighborhood character?

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In case you’re curious, here are the not dairy-free flavors offered at Sweet Rose Creamery on the day I visited. Pretty standard fare, other than the grape buttermilk sherbet (sounds weird but intriguing) and the blueberry muffin. The flavors change each month, so if you’re in the mood for something specific, you might want to call or check online first.

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And by the way, the cones are dee-licious. I usually get my ice cream in a cup because I hate it when melting ice cream drips down my hand, but this time I threw caution to the wind and got a mini cone and I’m so glad I did. There’s something about eating ice cream from a cone that brings you right back to childhood.

And having sticky hands gave me an excuse to visit the restroom out back. There’s an adorable little courtyard with ivy covered walls and picnic tables where you can eat your ice cream and watch movies on Wednesday nights. More bonus points for creating community activities!

I will definitely be stopping by the next time I’m in the neighborhood — or at one of their other locations — and hoping that they bring back the vegan horchata I read about on Yelp. Sí, por favor.

SWEET ROSE CREAMERY, 4377 Tujunga Ave., Los Angeles, CA 91604

Orange Creamsicle Smoothie

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I make a fresh smoothie every morning as part of my breakfast, and I just have to share one of my favorites with you: the orange creamsicle. It tastes a lot like that classic ice cream treat, but it’s much healthier — no dairy and no sugar, other than the natural sugar from the fruit. It’s the perfect guilt-free dessert on a hot day.

I love it because it’s ridiculously easy to make, especially if you keep sliced bananas in your freezer (a great way to salvage overripe bananas) and if you’re lucky enough to have an orange tree in your yard like us!

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ORANGE CREAMSICLE SMOOTHIE RECIPE

1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 orange, peeled and separated into sections
1 frozen sliced banana
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup unsweetened almond milk or coconut milk

Put all the ingredients into a blender. Blend until smooth.

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Dairy-Free Banana Split

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During the summer, I always get nostalgic for banana splits. They’re the ultimate in old-fashioned ice cream parlor fare: three scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate, strawberries, and pineapple, nestled in between two halves of a banana. Usually, it’s finished off with whipped cream, nuts, and a maraschino cherry. Who needs that much sugar? Nobody!

But I thought it would be fun to go crazy and make one of these monsters. Since I’m lactose-intolerant, I used Simple Truth Vanilla Bean Almond Dessert, a dairy-free ice cream made from almond milk. Simple Truth is the “healthy” line of the Kroger store brand.

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If you follow my blog, you know I’ve tried quite a few dairy-free ice creams, and very few of them taste as good as the real thing. Coconut-based ice creams tend to taste overwhelmingly like coconuts. The almond-based ones tend to taste like almonds. With a flavor like vanilla, it’s hard to mask the taste of the base.

Simple Truth’s vanilla is just okay. It doesn’t have as much of a vanilla-heavy flavor as I would like. You can definitely taste the almond milk in it, although it’s not as cloying as some almond milk products.

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But it did a decent job in the banana split. I topped it with fresh, chopped strawberries and pineapple instead of the usual processed syrups. Even so, the sweetness of the fruit, combined with the Hershey’s chocolate syrup and the ice cream, were enough to make me want to hurl after a few bites.

How did I ever manage to eat that much sugar when I was kid? Perhaps some memories don’t need to be relived.

“Nectar Sun” Herbal Iced Tea

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One of the most fun things about travel is bringing home something that reminds you of your trip. I don’t mean the kind of souvenir that you buy in a gift shop, because chances are that coffee mug or magnet is going to end up in the Goodwill box. I mean something that has a special significance for you.

On our latest vacation in Las Vegas, we stayed at the Nobu Hotel inside Caesars Palace, an offshoot of Nobu the sushi restaurant. (For my review of the hotel, click here.) In the serene, minimalist lobby, they offered free iced tea for hotel guests all day long. But this wasn’t just any old iced tea… it was a delectable herbal blend that I’d never tasted before. It was called “Nectar Sun.”

Now, I’ve always preferred black teas, the stronger the better. But the caffeine can mess with my sleep, and I can’t drink tea with milk because I’m lactose-intolerant. So I’m always looking for herbal teas that’ll hit the spot. Nectar Sun had a surprising depth to it, plus a hint of sweetness without being cloying. I realized there was no reason I couldn’t have some of that herbal magic back home.

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Dairy bombs: stuff I did NOT eat in Vegas.

The problem is that when I looked up Nectar Sun tea, I discovered that it’s only sold wholesale to hotels, restaurants, and spas, and not stocked in retail stores. You can order it directly from the manufacturer, Ikaati, but it costs a whopping $20 for a box of twelve tea sachets. That’s what my dad would call “highway robbery.”

So I decided to make my own version of Nectar Sun. The main ingredients are rooibos tea, marigold, hibiscus, and peach. After experimenting with a few different herbal teas, I came up with a blend that tastes almost exactly like Nectar Sun.

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It’s truly guilt-free because rooibos tea is good for you, and the peach tea gives it enough sweetness so that you don’t need to add any sugar. Did I mention that it’s dairy-free, too?

Every time I take a sip, it reminds me of our vacation. What are some foods you’ve made that were inspired by your summer travels? Let me know in the comments below!

“NECTAR SUN” HERBAL ICED TEA RECIPE

3 tea bags of Mighty Leaf Organic African Nectar
1 tea bag of Celestial Seasonings Country Peach Passion
1 quart filtered water

Place tea bags in a heat-proof pitcher. Bring water to a boil and pour over tea bags. Let them steep for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags with a slotted spoon. Let the tea cool, then refrigerate. Serve over ice.

Ode to Jonathan Gold, 1960-2018

On Saturday, July 21st, the beloved Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold passed away, and the whole city is mourning. Anyone who writes a food blog owes Jonathan Gold a debt of gratitude. He paved the way for an entirely new way of writing about food. He democratized it, proving that you didn’t have to be some sort of erudite elitist with a culinary degree to have valid opinions about food and express them.

Somehow, Gold managed to write about food in poetic language without sounding pretentious. He had a way of transporting the reader to the restaurant (or food truck) and making them feel like they were right there sharing a meal with him. I would often read his reviews in the L.A. Times while eating breakfast, and pretty soon my eggs and prunes would seem like the saddest meal ever, compared to his sensuous, evocative descriptions.

I didn’t always agree with Jonathan Gold’s opinions. For example, I have no idea why he liked Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts at the Original Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax. Their doughnuts are nothing special. In my opinion, the best doughnuts in L.A. are from the Doughnut Hut in Burbank.

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Chocolate old-fashioned, fresh out of the fryer at Doughnut Hut.

He also sang the praises of the LudoBites truck, run by celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre, and I thought their signature fried chicken was unmemorable at best.

And in his “Five Rules for Dining in Los Angeles,” he listed as one of the rules: “There is no shame in avocado toast.” I contend that there is shame in avocado toast if you’re paying upwards of eight dollars for it.

But Gold loved Asian food and he loved spicy food, and that’s where our tastes intersected. Upon his recommendation, my husband and I drove out to Van Nuys years ago to try the pad Thai at a strip mall restaurant (the kind Gold loved so much) called Krua Thai. Not the regular pad Thai, mind you — the “Pad Thai Krua Thai.” The dish was so good that every time we were anywhere near Van Nuys, we felt compelled to stop at Krua Thai. We even went there after I broke my toe at a nearby Costco. I needed to get that pad Thai even if I had to limp there!

Jonathan Gold also championed Szechuan cooking, and it was through his reviews that I found Mian, a noodle restaurant in San Gabriel (again, in a strip mall). San Gabriel is crawling with noodle joints, and even for an Asian person it can be overwhelming to navigate the choices. Mian lived up to Gold’s praise and has become one of my favorite spots to eat in the SGV. The spices will make your tongue go numb and your nose run, but that’s part of the fun.

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You can see how excited I am to tuck into these spicy noodles.

Whether or not you shared Jonathan Gold’s taste in food, you were probably influenced by him in some way. Do you read reviews on Yelp to decide where to eat? Most of the people who write those reviews — myself included — are doing it because Jonathan Gold made it okay for us to do it. He gave us all a voice.

He will be missed.