Din Tai Fung’s Chocolate Dumplings

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It’s Halloween and I should probably be writing about candy, but I’m not much of a candy eater. Chocolate, however, is a different story. My exploration of the San Gabriel Valley continues with a new dessert that I tried at Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese dumpling franchise that now has many branches in the U.S. This dessert, which our waiter described as “mochi,” is so new it’s not even listed on the menu.

The signature dish of Din Tai Fung is their thin-skinned pork dumplings. When you walk in, you can watch the chefs in the glass-enclosed kitchen expertly rolling out the dough for the wrappers and placing dollops of pork filling in them before sealing them up. The dough wrappers are so thin they’re translucent. This, along with the freshness of the ingredients, makes for an exceptional dumpling.

The dessert dumplings are exactly the same as the pork dumplings, except that instead of meat, they’re filled with rich, gooey chocolate. They even come out piping hot in the same type of bamboo steamer. I never would’ve expected to enjoy this odd pairing of savory and sweet, but I have to say… it works. Sort of like a chocolate croissant. Pretty much any time you melt dark chocolate, you’ve got my attention.

And by the way, everything on Din Tai Fung’s menu is dairy-free and fabulous. Technically, the chocolate contains a little dairy, so if you’re allergic, you may be out of luck. But I’m lactose-intolerant and I was able to digest the chocolate just fine.

Another thing I love about Din Tai Fung: You sign in and they’ll text you when your table is ready. Meanwhile, you’re free to shop at the Nordstrom next door or anywhere else in the enormous Santa Anita mall. Retail therapy + dumplings + chocolate = bliss.

DIN TAI FUNG, Westfield Santa Anita, 400 S. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91007

Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza

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Red sauce, vegan cheese, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, red onion, roasted garlic cloves, sea salt, oregano, and fresh basil on original crust

My search for a great dairy-free pizza stalled after the last few pizzas from Slicetruck turned out to be disappointing. But on our way to visit my mom in the hospital, we passed a Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza next to the West Covina Mall. Blaze is a national chain with tons of locations in SoCal. My husband once tried Blaze in Culver City and raved about their customized pizzas. A quick look-up of their online menu showed that they offer vegan cheese, so I was game.

I usually think of “personal pizzas” as overpriced and unbalanced (too much crust, not enough everything else). But at Blaze, every pizza is a personal pizza — I mean, you can share it if you like, but why bother? A whole “build your own” pizza is $8.65, and this includes as many toppings as you want. This is truly a bargain, since it’s a decent size. Unless you’re ravenous, you probably won’t finish it in one sitting.

When we took my dad there, he asked, “What happens if I ask for the works?” My husband replied, “Well, it’ll still be $8.65, but it might be a little weird to have olives and pineapple on the same pizza.”

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A small portion of their vast menu

Ordering a pizza at Blaze is like standing in a cafeteria line; as you move down the line, the employees ask you what kind of crust you want, then what sauce, cheese, meats, veggies, etc. The line may be long, but it moves fast. When I asked for vegan cheese, my pizza-maker asked me if I needed her to change her gloves — so if have food allergies, they’re sensitive to that. And by the way, they use Daiya vegan mozzarella, the same stuff that Slicetruck uses — but Blaze’s pizza is way better.

First of all, the customization is fantastic. What a variety! If you’re the kind of person who stresses out about making decisions, this could be anxiety-producing, but they do have “signature pizzas” with classic topping combinations if you can’t make up your mind.

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Second, the crust is fresh and delicious. The regular crust is thin, but not so thin that it collapses under the weight of the toppings. They also have a gluten-free crust and a “high-rise” (thick) crust, which I haven’t tried yet but my husband loves.

Third, the toppings are also top-notch. Whether it’s homemade sausage, crispy bacon, salami, fresh basil, zucchini, or spinach (and trust me, they are many more choices), everything tastes fresh and flavorful. One of my favorite toppings is the fresh arugula sprinkled on my pizza after it comes out of the oven. It’s like having a salad on my pizza, and feels so Italian.

Fourth, it’s fun to watch your pizza cooking in a wood-fired oven. Fire good.

The only downside to Blaze is the hectic atmosphere. You can certainly sit down at a table and enjoy a leisurely meal, but because of the busy cafeteria line and quick customer turnover, I wouldn’t say the place has a mellow vibe. But this is a small price to pay for such an excellent dairy-free pizza experience. If you love pizza and you can’t have dairy, this is a must-try.

BLAZE FAST-FIRE’D PIZZA, 120 S. California Ave., West Covina, CA 91790

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BYOB Boba Company

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Last week my mom had a stroke and has been in the hospital. The last thing I feel like doing right now is writing a blog post. But I know that writing is therapeutic for me, and sharing what’s going on in my life always feels better than pretending like everything is “normal.”

The hospital is in West Covina, and while visiting my mom there, I discovered a boba shop in a nearby strip mall. (I’ll admit that during times of stress, I sometimes reach for sugar, caffeine, and carbs. I’m not perfect — sue me.) What drew me in to BYOB Boba Company is the fact that they offer five different kinds of milk, three of which are non-dairy (soy, almond, and non-dairy creamer). Most boba shops I’ve been to don’t even give you a choice.

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Hokkaido is a powdered milk that does contain dairy.

On my first visit, I ordered an oolong tea with almond milk, almond flavoring, and boba. It was pretty good, although too sweet — and I ordered it with 1/4 the sugar. The second visit, I ordered an OGMT (the barista explained this is the traditional tea used in boba tea) with almond milk, red rose flavoring, and boba. This time I forgot to ask for less sugar, and upon first sip I almost went into a diabetic coma and had to check into my mom’s hospital. But the staff was nice enough to re-make the drink for me, free of charge. It was still too sweet, but drinkable.

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Bottom line: The drinks here are good, but way too sweet. They are also enormous; a small is the size of a cereal bowl. Fitting, since they even have a drink that contains Fruity Pebbles. If you’re into weird flavor combinations and drinks that are more like desserts, this place is for you.

Is this boba shop the best? No. But it provided comfort to me over the past few days. It’s always important to cherish the simple pleasures in life, especially at times like this.

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BYOB BOBA COMPANY, 963 S. Glendora Ave., West Covina, CA 91790

Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chocolate Fudge Brownie

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I finally got around to trying another of Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream flavors: Chocolate Fudge Brownie. Like the first one I reviewed, P.B. & Cookies, this one is also made from almond milk. It’s dark chocolate ice cream infused with chunks of vegan brownies from Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY. This bakery has a mission to provide jobs and training to low-income city residents. They have a policy to hire whoever walks through the front door asking for a job. How cool is that?

Once again, Ben & Jerry’s has hit the mark. Chocolate Fudge Brownie rocks. (I’m starting to think that the reason I never liked chocolate ice cream as a kid was that I only had bad chocolate ice cream.) The chocolate base is super rich and doesn’t taste like almonds at all. The texture? Smooth as silk. Even the brownie chunks are nice and creamy, not dry or crumbly like some brownies can be.

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Oreo Cookie not included.

It’s dangerous to eat this stuff Ally McBeal-style because you really can end up demolishing the whole pint in one sitting. It’s that tasty.

Now, I still prefer P.B. & Cookies because (a) it has a vanilla base and I’m more of a vanilla ice cream person, and (b) it has a more complex mix of flavors. The flavor of the Chocolate Fudge Brownie is one-note: all chocolate. But sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

As far as I know, Ben & Jerry’s has never made a bad ice cream. I’m hoping they continue to expand their non-dairy repertoire. The next one I’m going to try is non-dairy Chunky Monkey. Stay tuned!

Brian’s Shave Ice

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This Dole Whip is the real thing!

I’ve lived in this West LA neighborhood for three years, and I just found out that I could get a real Dole Whip a mile from my house! To see why I’m so nuts about the Dole Whip, Disneyland’s legendary dairy-free pineapple soft serve, you can read my previous blog post here.

I never bothered to check out Brian’s Shave Ice — a small shop on the stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard known as Little Osaka — because quite frankly, I’m confused by shave ice. But on Friday night, my husband and I wandered in and saw that they had Dole Whips. I didn’t even bother to read the rest of the menu. I just ordered a Dole Whip straight away.

It came in a sad Styrofoam cup, but the portion was larger than what you get at Disneyland. The single was big enough for both of us to share. And it tasted exactly like the ones at Disneyland. This makes Brian’s Shave Ice one of the Happiest Places on Earth.

Their Hawaiian-themed decor is super-cute: fake leis, palapa fringe, old-fashioned Pan Am Hawaii posters. Best of all is the sign that says “Keep Calm and Have a Dole Whip” with the icon of Cinderella’s castle above it.

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This so needs to be on a T-shirt.

And by the way, they also have Dole Whip floats, and you can use Dole Whip as the base for your shave ice. No doubt I will be visiting Brian’s Shave Ice way too often from now on.

BRIAN’S SHAVE ICE, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd. Suite 103, Los Angeles, CA 90064