Tocaya Organica: Update

In the summer, I reviewed the health-conscious Mexican restaurant Tocaya Organica and promised I’d be back to try their one dessert: a vegan waffle ice cream sandwich. Well, I finally had it, and although it looked delicious, it paled in comparison with other vegan desserts I’ve had and with Tocaya’s savory offerings.

The name “ice cream sandwich” is a little misleading, since I doubt anyone eats this thing with their hands. You’d be a mess. But the ice cream is indeed sandwiched between two churro waffles. These waffles have the cinnamon-y flavor and sugary dusting of a churro (a Spanish or Mexican fried-dough pastry). But they lack both the light fluffiness of a good churro and the crispiness of a good waffle.

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As for the vegan vanilla ice cream, it’s made by Craig’s, a restaurant in West Hollywood that is known more for its “scene” and celebrity sightings than its food. Nevertheless, they make their own vegan ice cream and apparently provide it to other eateries. I was not a fan. It had icy chunks in it, which suggests it was sitting in the freezer for too long.

So Tocaya’s dessert was a bust. But their burritos and bowls continue to impress me with their fresh taste and healthy preparations. I recently went to the Tocaya in Venice Beach and had a breakfast burrito made with a tomato-infused tortilla and a non-dairy horchata made with almond milk.

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Enjoying Tocaya in my “Lucy from the Peanuts” costume.

Horchatas are usually dairy-free since they’re traditionally made with rice milk, so I’m not sure why Tocaya felt the need to make theirs with almond milk. But it was tasty. If you like almond milk and cinnamon, you’ll enjoy it.

One thing I love about Tocaya is that their leftovers make great next-day meals. Here’s a leftover half of a fajita burrito that I reheated in a skillet and topped with salsa, Cholula, and minced cilantro.

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If you love Mexican food but don’t love the cheesy, dairy-laden, gut-bombing kind, give Tocaya a try and don’t save room for dessert.

TOCAYA ORGANICA, 1715 Pacific Ave., Venice, CA 90291

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Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Cinnamon Buns

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It’s hard for some people to understand why I don’t like cinnamon buns. The short answer is: They’re too sweet. That thick, sugary glaze on top is just too much for me. How people eat those things for breakfast is mind-boggling.

So I didn’t expect to like Ben & Jerry’s Cinnamon Buns Non-Dairy Ice Cream. But when I received a pint of it as part of a birthday gift, I had to try it, and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t overly sweet.

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Like all of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice creams, this one is made with almond milk, but there isn’t an overwhelming almond-y flavor to it. It’s a pretty good vanilla base. The bits of cinnamon bun dough are not as prominent as the cinnamon streusel swirl, which has a crunchy texture and reminds me of the topping on a coffee cake. In fact, the overall flavor of this ice cream says “coffee cake” more than “cinnamon bun.”

As a stand-alone ice cream, Cinnamon Buns is good, although not as flashy or complex as, say, P.B. & Cookies. But as an accompaniment to another dessert — such as a slice of coffee cake, apple pie, or a Belgian waffle — Cinnamon Buns could be an excellent non-dairy substitute for traditional vanilla ice cream when you’re going “à la mode.”

So if you’re like me and the only cinnamon buns you enjoy are the ones on Princess Leia’s head, don’t cross this ice cream off your list just yet. It may surprise you.

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The Best Dairy-Free Birthday Gift

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Did you know that you can order a gift pack of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be delivered right to the doorstep of your loved ones? I didn’t, until a FedEx guy showed up at our house a few days ago carrying a big cardboard box with this label on it:

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Turned out my awesome friend Jill, whom I mentioned in an earlier blog post, sent me this delightful birthday gift. Inside the box was a styrofoam cooler containing five pints of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice creams, which were kept frozen solid during transit with bags of dry ice.

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And if that weren’t enough to make my day, the gift pack came with a pint cozy and Euphori-Lock, which, their website explains, are intended “to keep hands comfy while digging in and hands off when you’re not!”

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I doubt I’ll have to lock up my pints, since my husband would rather eat real ice cream than dairy-free (although he has already made a dent in the Non-Dairy Cherry Garcia).

But that pint cozy has my name all over it (actually, it has “B&J” all over it). The little wooden spoon it comes with is also adorable. They make sitting on the couch, eating ice cream straight from the carton — what I refer to as “Ally McBeal-ing it” — feel less pathetic because it’s so darn cute.

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My ice cream is wearing a sweater.

I confess that I just spent the evening Ally McBeal-ing some Non-Dairy Cinnamon Buns while watching Deep Blue Sea on Netflix, the popular “sharks gone wild” action movie from 1999. Big thumbs-up for any action movie starring Samuel L. Jackson.

You’ll have to tune back in next week for my review of Cinnamon Buns!

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Pumpkin-Shaped Nacho Cheese Ball

Halloween 2014

Halloween is coming up, and you know what that means: MORE PUMPKIN STUFF! At Halloween parties, no one can resist this spicy nacho-flavored cheese ball that is shaped like a pumpkin. I have a thing for food that looks like other food — cupcakes that look like spaghetti, for instance. Want to make something look like a pumpkin? Make it round and orange. Done.

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From the book Hello Cupcake.

I first found the cheese ball recipe in Food Network Magazine back in October 2012, and I made it using regular cheese. Every year it was a huge hit. But I’m lactose-intolerant, so I wanted to try making the cheese ball using lactose-free products. Guess what? It works!

I used Green Valley Lactose-Free Cream Cheese and Beemster Vlaskaas Cheese (which is naturally lactose-free). But you can use dairy-free, vegan cheeses if there are some you like.

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PUMPKIN-SHAPED NACHO CHEESE BALL RECIPE
Adapted from Food Network Magazine

16 ounces lactose-free cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups shredded lactose-free cheese (preferably cheddar)
3 tablespoons minced onion
3 tablespoons salsa
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-2 handfuls of spicy Doritos (e.g., Tapatío, Spicy Nacho, Poppin’ Jalapeño), crushed
1 bell pepper stem
blue corn tortilla chips

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to blend the cream cheese, cheddar, onion, salsa, and cumin. Don’t overmix or the cheese will become too soft.

Line a small bowl with plastic wrap and scoop the cheese mixture into it. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Lift the plastic-wrapped cheese mixture from the bowl and shape it into a 5-inch ball. Unwrap it, roll it in crushed Doritos, and press a bell pepper stem into the top. Serve with blue corn tortilla chips.

Daiya Pumpkin Spice Cheezecake

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This fall I’ve given in to the pumpkin spice craze that seems to have started when the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte became mega-popular. So far, I’m not impressed. I thought Peet’s Pumpkin Latte was okay, but not something I would order again. And now I’ve tried Daiya’s limited seasonal flavor, the dairy-free Pumpkin Spice Cheezecake.

Although I liked Daiya’s New York Cheezecake, this pumpkin-flavored one was not a winner. The cheesecake itself is smooth, creamy, and tangy, as a cheesecake should be. But the pumpkin spices give it an artificial taste that I did not enjoy. I kind of felt like I was eating a Yankee Candle.

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The graham cracker crust was disappointing. It, too, had an artificial flavor and its texture was pasty. I don’t know if this was a result of it sitting in the freezer too long at the store, but whatever it was, I have to give the crust a thumbs-down.

I was hoping that the Pumpkin Spice Cheezecake would be a viable alternative to pies and other dairy-laden desserts that are popular at this time of year. But this is one of those “free from” desserts that isn’t worth the calories.

Stay tuned for more reviews and recipes for fall-themed dairy-free goodies!

Amy’s Vegan Margherita Pizza

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I don’t often shop at Whole Foods, otherwise known as “Whole Paycheck,” because it’s so expensive. But whenever I do, I’m impressed by the array of options for people with dietary restrictions. Frankly, it’s a little overwhelming.

Take the frozen pizza section, for instance. They have a huge selection of vegetarian pizzas, gluten-free pizzas, no-cheese pizzas, and pizzas with vegan cheese. Most pizzas with dairy-free cheese also have a gluten-free crust, like BOLD, which I tried and hated. I don’t know why “dairy-free” and “gluten-free” are usually lumped together. These are two entirely different dietary concerns, in my opinion.

I eat vegan cheese only because I’m lactose-intolerant, so I would be happy to eat a pizza with dairy-free cheese, meat toppings, and a traditional crust. So far I’ve only been able to have such a pizza at Slicetruck (a local West L.A. pizza joint which has permanently closed) and “build-your-own” pizza restaurants like Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza. I still haven’t found a frozen pizza that fits the bill.

But Whole Foods does carry a frozen pizza made by Amy’s that has vegan cheese and a regular (not gluten-free) crust. Unfortunately, it’s a margherita pizza, the most boring of all pizzas. But I was willing to try it just to see if the dairy-free cheese was decent.

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As you can see, the vegan cheese melted beautifully, even better than I expected from the photo on on the box. It had a fantastic texture and even stretched when I pulled the slices apart, like a good mozzarella. I honestly couldn’t tell it wasn’t real cheese.

The crust was also quite good. It wasn’t mind-blowing, but no frozen pizza crust is. This one had a bready, chewy texture, unlike the hard, heavy gluten-free crusts I’ve tried.

Amy’s pizza has a nice sauce too. There are actually juicy chunks of tomato in it.

Overall, I’d say this is a good base for a quick pizza snack. Next time I’ll throw toppings on it — maybe some crispy bacon, green peppers, and red onion — before heating it in the oven. That is, until Amy’s (or someone else) comes out with a dairy-free pizza that also has meat toppings.

The Best Boba Tea Shops in West L.A.

For months I was eagerly awaiting the opening of a bakery chain called 85°C Bakery Cafe at the Century City mall, and this weekend they were finally open for business. The main reason I was excited about it is that they serve boba tea. Since it’s a Taiwanese chain and Taiwan is where boba originated, I was hoping their boba drinks would rock my world.

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Unfortunately, they didn’t. This might be because the place just opened and they still need to work out the kinks. I’d be willing to give them another try in a few weeks.

Here were the two drinks my husband and I ordered, the king grapefruit green tea (“king” because it contains fresh fruit) and the rose milk tea. Both were dairy-free. 85°C uses non-dairy creamer in their milk teas.

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Both drinks were underwhelming. The grapefruit green tea was less flavorful than the one from Tea Bar in Azusa, which is still the gold standard in my book. The rose milk tea wasn’t horrible, but the rose flavor comes from syrup. So even though I ordered my drink unsweetened, it still came out too sweet for my liking. Labobatory in San Gabriel makes a far superior rose milk tea, flavored with rose water rather than syrup; their tea is also much stronger than the one from 85°C. I want to taste tea in my boba tea!

As a boba connoisseur, it’s clear to me that it’s much easier to find great boba tea in the San Gabriel Valley. I’ve only tried a handful of places out there, but most of them have been good to excellent. Some of my faves: Tea Bar (Azusa), Labobatory (San Gabriel), passion fruit green tea at Blackball Taiwanese Dessert (San Gabriel), and milk tea at Lady Bug Tea House (Alhambra).

But what about West L.A.? Well, believe it or not, my favorite boba milk tea comes from a place that’s in the Century City mall, just around the corner from the new 85°C. And it’s not even a boba shop, per se. It’s the dim sum restaurant Din Tai Fung.

Yes, the same Din Tai Fung that started in Taiwan and branched out to the U.S. with a couple locations in San Gabriel Valley. The one in Arcadia has been a longtime favorite of ours — and now we have one right in our own neighborhood!

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The famous juicy pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung.
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Din Tai Fung’s boba milk tea.

There are three things that make Din Tai Fung’s boba milk tea so good: (1) a strong tea flavor that tastes like it was brewed fresh, (2) crushed ice instead of chunks or cubes, (3) soft, chewy boba pearls.

My husband and I agreed that 85°C’s boba pearls were a little too hard. Even Volcano Tea House, which used to be my go-to boba shop on the Westside, has disappointed me enough times with hard boba that I’ve crossed them off my list.

So where can you get great boba tea on the Westside? Here’s my list, ranked in order of my preference. (Note that I judge them on the basis of their plain milk teas.)

  1. Din Tai Fung
  2. It’s Boba Time
  3. CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice

I would put Toastea on that list, but it’s in downtown L.A., too far for a Westsider to make casual drive-by. Toastea’s Earl Grey boba is definitely up there as one of my favorite boba drinks.

If you live in West L.A. and have a favorite boba shop that I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments below!