Trader Joe’s Almond Nog (Dairy-Free Eggnog)

Now that Thanksgiving is over, Christmas has exploded all over the place. Even if you’ve been avoiding the Black Friday madness by steering clear of shopping malls, you still have to buy groceries. And even in supermarkets you’ll be hit in the face with a dizzying array of holiday products.

Like Trader Joe’s Almond Nog, an impossibly dairy-free version of eggnog — you know, that sweet, thick wintertime beverage that people either love or hate. I happen to love eggnog, but I haven’t had it since I gave up dairy years ago. Because the kind I liked was basically 80% heavy cream and 20% raw eggs. That’s a recipe for digestive distress if there ever was one.

So when I saw this almond-milk-based eggnog, free of cow’s milk and even eggs, I gave in to my curiosity. Once again, Trader Joe’s sucked me in with cute packaging. How could I resist an almond wearing a “Where’s Waldo” scarf?

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I was skeptical about its claim of being “rich and creamy.” Based on past experiences with non-dairy beverages, I expected it to have a thin, watery consistency and an artificial flavor.

But this eggnog is indeed thicker than I expected. Not as thick as one made with heavy cream, but that may be too thick for many people anyway. It’s definitely thick enough to coat your mouth for a good five seconds after you’ve swallowed it.

And it tastes fairly natural. There’s no obvious almond flavor. That’s remarkable considering its main ingredient is almonds.

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A dusting of nutmeg is a must.

But this eggnog is very sweet, which makes it more of a dessert than a drink you’d have with food. (Then again, there are people who suck down milkshakes while eating cheeseburgers, so I could be wrong.) To cut the sweetness level, I added a little non-dairy creamer and it worked like a charm.

Traditionally, eggnog is spiked with rum. So I tried the almond nog with a tablespoon of rum mixed in. Yum! The alcohol, like the creamer, tones down the sweetness. You can use a lighter rum like Bacardi, but I like this Koloa Kaua’i Dark Hawaiian Rum because it has a hint of vanilla flavor that goes well with desserts.

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So if you’re lamenting about having to “do without” this Christmas because every treat seems to be loaded with dairy, give this almond nog a try and let me know how you like it!

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Steampunk Coffeebar & Kitchen

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This gorgeous breakfast was from Steampunk Coffeebar & Kitchen in North Hollywood, a little café that’s easy to miss but hard to forget. When I lived in Burbank, I always had a hard time finding good breakfast joints. Now it seems like they’re popping up all over that part of the Valley.

Here’s what I love about Steampunk:

  • Delicious dairy-free options
  • Really good coffee
  • Three words: breakfast all day

I got the meal in the photo above at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. It’s their Egg In The Hole (a dish traditionally called “toad in the hole”), a slice of grilled sourdough bread with a fried egg cooked into a hole in the middle. It came with bacon and home fries on the side.

Everything about this dish was perfect. The egg was neither under- nor overcooked. The bread was hefty enough to support the egg and had just the right amount of sourness. The bacon was crispy, salty, and fatty — everything bacon should be. And the home fries were crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside; the bits of onion and bell pepper mixed in added a nice dimension.

And the almond milk latte I had was also excellent.

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Nowadays, I’m seeing almond milk as a dairy alternative at a lot more coffee shops. This is progress. But not all lattes are created equal. You have to start with good coffee, and Steampunk does.

What’s interesting about Steampunk is that they have plenty of vegetarian, vegan and dairy-free options, but they’re not strictly a “health food” restaurant. For instance, their house specialty, The Stack, consists of buttermilk fried chicken, bacon, sunny-side-up egg, and Belgian waffles drizzled with cayenne maple aioli. That’s not what you would call a healthy dish, although it is served with sautéed kale and onions on the side.

But on the same menu as the chicken and waffles, you can also find healthy stuff like granola, a beet-and-carrot veggie burger, and a vegan porcini mushroom cutlet. Plus, ethnic foods like puri, an Armenian bread. It’s this eclectic menu that makes Steampunk rise above most coffee and breakfast joints.

They also have a nice inviting vibe. Don’t be scared off by the “steampunk” name. This small space feels warm and lived-in. The walls are adorned by eclectic art by local artists, most of which is for sale.

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And they don’t care how long you linger at your table. It’s a great place to plug in your laptop and work, or hang out with friends and play a board game.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to play Smart Ass.

But I’d go back just for the Egg In The Hole and almond milk latte. For a lactose-intolerant breakfast enthusiast like myself, this place is a godsend.

STEAMPUNK COFFEEBAR & KITCHEN, 12526 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village, CA 91607

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

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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