Starbucks Toasted Coconut Cold Brew

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Doesn’t this photo look delicious? Just look at that creamy swirl and the beads of condensation on that mason jar. And that creamy swirl is actually dairy-free coconut milk! As a lactose-intolerant coffee drinker, I was super excited about the Toasted Coconut Cold Brew, a limited-edition offering from Starbucks.

But I’m here to warn you that Starbucks is the king of the bait-and-switch. They roll out new drinks constantly, advertising them with beautiful photos like this. If you’re like me, you get sucked into the fantasy and you order it. And then what you get is exactly like every other drink on their tired old menu: bitter, burnt-tasting coffee in a plastic cup.

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Now, of course, I knew my drink wasn’t coming out in a mason jar. There’s only one place I know of that serves to-go drinks in glass jars and that’s Bearology, a boba tea kiosk in the Westfield Santa Anita Mall. (They recycle the jars if you bring back the empties and give you a discount if you order another drink.)

But I’d be willing to overlook the sad plastic Starbucks cup if the drink lived up to its promise. When I read “Toasted Coconut,” I imagined a roasted flavor akin to the marshmallow in a s’more. But it had no such flavor. After I got home, I looked up the drink online to figure out what went wrong. Here’s how it’s described.

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The key word is “sweetened.” When I read the ingredients list, I realized that the purported toasted coconut flavor comes from “toasted coconut syrup,” which I did not have in my drink because I asked the barista to make mine unsweetened. She failed to mention that without the syrup it would just be a plain old iced coffee.

And Starbucks iced coffee (like all Starbucks coffee) tastes bitter, like it sat on the burner too long before they chilled it. It’s supposedly “cold brew,” meaning it was never brewed hot, but if that’s true I don’t see what the point of cold-brew is. It’s just as bad.

As for the “float of coconutmilk,” that is blatant false advertising. There was no “float.” As you can see from the photo above, the iced coffee just came out with coconut milk mixed in and nothing floating on top.  Plus, there was no coconut flavor whatsoever. Again, that might’ve been because the flavor comes from the syrup, but good coconut milk should taste like coconuts.

What really annoys me is that I wouldn’t have ordered this drink if I knew it would taste exactly like Starbucks regular iced coffee. I am a sucker for novelty and advertising. Well, you know what they say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.  Or as The Who put it, won’t get fooled again!

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More ridiculous Starbucks advertising. Not gonna do it!

MALK Almond Milk

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I already have a favorite almond milk, Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Almond Beverage, which I first bought because the box looked cute. Well, I fell for cool packaging again. Walking through the dairy section of Ralphs on my way to the eggs, I saw this futuristic-looking bottle of MALK Cold-Pressed Pure Almond Milk. It looked like a prop from a sci-fi movie. Can’t you just see Dave Bowman and Frank Poole sipping this stuff on board the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The ingredients list was also appealingly short and sounded healthy. I know, “Himalayan salt” is probably not much different from regular salt. It’s one of those marketing tools to get hippies like me to buy stuff. Guess what? It worked.

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When I brought my MALK home, I still had some Trader Joe’s almond milk in the fridge, so I did a head-to-head taste test. The difference: Trader Joe’s has a subtle nutty flavor, while MALK has a strong almond-extract flavor.

I happen to like that flavor in certain contexts. It’s a staple in many Taiwanese desserts, for instance. At BlackBall in San Gabriel (yeah, that’s really its name), I had a hot almond soup with mochi balls in it that was weird and pretty awesome.

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Dairy-free, despite its milky appearance.

But I digress. Back to MALK, almond milk of the future. After tasting its strong flavor, I decided the best use of MALK was in an almond milk tea. This is another Taiwanese classic you’ll see at most boba tea shops. It’s iced black tea with a non-dairy milk, almond-flavored syrup, and optional boba pearls. I usually find almond syrup to be overpowering and too sweet, but by using MALK, I achieved a more balanced almond-extract flavor without adding syrup.

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Homemade almond milk tea

My experiment turned out well, but for most of my almond milk needs, I still prefer a subtler flavor. So even though MALK has the best packaging, I’ll be sticking to Trader Joe’s Almond Beverage.

But I can’t bring myself to toss this bottle in the recycling bin. I’m saving it for my next space mission, where all food comes in tubes and all drinks come in cool bottles like this.

Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey

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When I saw this in the funny papers of The Los Angeles Times, I knew I had to include it in a review of Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey ice cream. And what better time to do so than the week of 4/20? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, never mind.)

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Let me preface this by saying I’ve never tried the regular version of Chunky Monkey, mostly because I’m not a big fan of walnuts. But I’m into bananas, fudge chunks, and vanilla ice cream, the other ingredients in Chunky Monkey. So I gave it a try.

I’m okay with walnuts in moderation. But there are a lot of walnuts in this stuff and they’re big, not little chopped bits. The other thing I don’t like about this ice cream is the banana flavor. It’s super-intense and almost sour. Doesn’t taste like real bananas.

After my taste test, I went to the Ben & Jerry’s website to read the reviews. Looks like I’m not alone: Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey got 2.5 out of 5 stars. One reviewer said that only the Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey tastes sour — the regular version doesn’t. I wouldn’t know, but I’ll take her word for it.

Not everything about Non-Dairy Chunky Monkey is bad, though. The almond milk vanilla base, as I discussed in my review of Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy P.B. & Cookies, is smooth and delicious. You cannot tell it’s dairy-free. And the chocolate chunks are great, too.

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How adorable is this cup? Found it in the $1 bin at Target.

Last time I reviewed a Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy ice cream, there were only four flavors available. Since then, they’ve added three new flavors: Caramel Almond Brittle, Cherry Garcia, and Coconut Seven Layer Bar. The only one I’m interested in is Caramel Almond Brittle. You’ll be seeing my review of that one soon.

Meanwhile, still waiting for non-dairy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. C’mon, guys!

To read my review of Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chocolate Fudge Brownie, click here.

Sleepytime Extra Herbal Tea

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You’d think that as a dairy-free tea drinker I’d be into herbal teas because they’re never drunk with milk. But I confess: I’ve always hated herbal tea. I like black tea, green tea, oolong — you know, all the ones with caffeine. Unfortunately, I can’t have caffeine in the evening or I’ll be up all night.

I have tried tons of herbal teas and the only one I’ve managed to stick with is Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra. The original Sleepytime was the first chamomile tea blended and marketed specifically to counteract insomnia. Everyone knows chamomile has calming effects. The “extra” in Sleepytime Extra is valerian root, an herb that seems to act like a sedative on the brain and nervous system.

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Julianna Margulies asks for valerian tea on The Sopranos.

I remember an episode of The Sopranos where Christopher and his girlfriend (Julianna Margulies) are both recovering heroin addicts and they drink super-concentrated cups of valerian tea because they heard that in high doses it feels like valium. Believe it or not, this is what made me decide to try Sleepytime Extra. I thought, “That shit must work.”

Well, it does. I noticed the difference when I’d been drinking Sleepytime Extra every night before bed and then I ran out. I started waking up in the middle of the night and generally sleeping less soundly. Of course I stocked back up on Sleepytime Extra, pronto. You may notice that this tea is frequently sold out. That’s because the shit works.

It also tastes pretty decent. Pure chamomile can be bland. But Sleepytime’s trademark blend of herbs produces a caffeine-free tea that, although it can’t compare to a strong Earl Grey, is easy on the tastebuds.

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I tip my hat to the Blendmaster.

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Now I very much enjoy my nighttime ritual of sipping Sleepytime tea while I do my physical therapy exercises, watch Netflix, and cuddle our new dog, Sammy Bagel Jr. If only they made valerian root dog treats…

On second thought, I don’t think he needs any.

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Lee’s Sandwiches

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Last week I wrote about how happy I am when I find dairy-free sandwiches that taste good, and how nice it is to not have to say, “Hold the cheese.” Well, that’s why I was so excited about Lee’s Sandwiches, an Asian sandwich chain that specializes in bahn mi.

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Bahn mi is a Vietnamese sandwich filled with flavorful meats such as grilled pork, beef, or lemongrass chicken and vegetables like pickled carrots, daikon, cucumbers, jalapeños, and cilantro. Reflecting the French colonization of Vietnam, bahn mi is served on a baguette and sometimes contains paté and a mayo-based spread like aioli.

What bahn mi sandwiches never have is cheese!

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Sometimes I pick the seeds out of my jalapeños. Yep, I’m a pussy.

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I’ve been to the Lee’s in Van Nuys twice, since it’s near the pool where I go swimming. I have to say their bahn mi isn’t the best I’ve ever had — not even close. It’s more the idea of Lee’s that I’m in favor of. You walk in and there’s a whole section of the menu labeled “Asian Sandwiches” with almost as many choices as their “European Sandwiches” menu.

It’s like the Subway of bahn mi.

They also have boba tea, coffee drinks, smoothies, and even house-made Italian sodas. I had the lychee iced tea and I had to ask them to adjust my drink to make it less sweet. However, I found an actual lychee fruit in my cup, so that was cool. I wouldn’t recommend a special trip to Lee’s for boba tea, but I do like that I can get one when I order a bahn mi. One stop shopping is always a plus.

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Are there better places to get a bahn mi and boba tea? Absolutely. But in this section of Van Nuys, Lee’s is temptingly convenient and cheap takeout. Most of their 10-inch bahn mi sandwiches are only $4.49 — a steal compared to Nong La, my go-to Vietnamese place on Sawtelle, where an 8-inch pork bahn mi costs $7.

Know of a good bahn mi place in Van Nuys? Or in West LA? Let me know in the comments section!

LEE’S SANDWICHES, 16900 Sherman Way, Lake Balboa, CA 91406

The Loose Teas Café and Gifts

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One day, looking for a boba place in Monrovia, I came across The Loose Teas Café and Gifts in a strip mall on Huntington Drive. This is not your typical boba place. It’s more of a traditional tea shop, specializing in a large selection of fine loose teas. I ordered my usual — lychee iced tea — and had to send it back because it was too sweet (this happens a lot with me). But the barista adjusted it until I was happy. And I was thrilled by the boba: super fresh with just the right amount of chewiness.

Since then, I have become a big fan of The Loose Teas Café. They make tea the right way: by brewing each cup fresh to order. And for those of us who don’t eat dairy, they offer soy and almond milk, rather than the non-dairy creamer that most boba shops use (yuck).

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Last week I ordered an unsweetened iced tea latte made with rose black tea and almond milk.  It was totally on point. Most boba shops that make rose iced tea use rose-flavored syrup that tastes artificial and sickly sweet, instead of tea that’s flavored naturally with rose petals. This makes a huge difference.

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Iced tea latte with rose black tea and almond milk

Most boba shops have snacks like popcorn chicken, Taiwanese sausage, and spicy fried fish balls. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some spicy fried fish balls, but they’re a sometimes treat. The Loose Teas Café makes super fresh, healthy sandwiches. They have a turkey sandwich called the “Flaming Bird” that doesn’t come with cheese and yet still tastes great, thanks to their seasoned mayo and house-made hot garlic chili flakes.

I don’t know about you, but I love not having to say, “Hold the cheese.”

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Look at those chili flakes! Sprouts, cukes, avocado… heaven!

THE LOOSE TEAS CAFE AND GIFTS, 666 W. Huntington Dr., Monrovia, CA 91016

Homemade Dairy-Free Smoothies

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I’ll admit that when I first heard about the NutriBullet blender, I thought it was one of those cheesy “As Seen On TV” fads. I couldn’t imagine this gadget was any better than our old-fashioned blender. But oh, it is!

Let me back up. Back in my dairy-eating days, I used to make smoothies all the time using yogurt and milk as the base. After giving up dairy, I stopped making smoothies. I never thought of using a liquid like coconut water. Not only is this possible, it’s way healthier. Coconut water, often called “nature’s sports drink,” has lots of nutrients and electrolytes. The flavor can be hard to get used to when you drink it straight up, but in a smoothie you can barely taste it.

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One of the reasons I have a love-hate relationship with Costco.

So, back to the NutriBullet. This thing has some key advantages over a traditional blender:

  • It’s more powerful and can blend ingredients faster and more thoroughly.
  • It’s smaller and easier to store.
  • The plastic cup that you blend the ingredients in can also be used to drink from, saving you extra dishes to wash.
  • The cup comes with a to-go lid that snaps open and closed easily.
  • Every part of the NutriBullet is easy to clean, including the blade attachment. (Our traditional blender is a heavy beast that we despise washing.)

I could go on and on giving the NutriBullet free advertising, but suffice to say that since my husband and I got one, we’ve been drinking at least one smoothie every day. And because the NutriBullet app lists tons of recipes, I haven’t gotten bored yet.

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Not a single smoothie I’ve made contained dairy products. So, what can you use instead of milk? In addition to coconut water, I’ve also used almond milk and coconut milk. And some recipes, like one of my favorites, the “Super Beauty Blast” (pictured below), uses chilled green tea as the base.

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You’ll notice there’s a fair amount of greenery in this smoothie, and that is the case for most of the smoothies I make now. Ever since we got the NutriBullet, we’ve doubled our consumption of green vegetables. The recipes are so tasty, you really can’t tell you’re drinking a handful of spinach or kale.

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Toxin Cleansing Blast, with boba straw for extra-fast slurping

Sometimes when I’m feeling creative, I’ll wing it and do an “Improv Blast.” The basic formula is you fill half the cup with greens (e.g., spinach, kale, chard, spring mix) and half with fruit (e.g., apple, orange, banana, pineapple, mango, berries).

I like to use some frozen fruit in every smoothie because (a) it’s convenient and (b) it makes the smoothie cold without having to add ice. (This is also a great use of overly ripe bananas, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make banana bread. Just peel, slice, and freeze the bananas in individual Ziploc bags for future use.)

After adding fruit, you can throw in a tablespoon of chia seeds or flax seeds for added protein and omega-3s. And finally, you pour in the liquid of your choice up to the MAX line on the cup. Blend for 30 seconds and you’re done.

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I like to think about how many fruits and veggies are in my smoothie and how long it would take to eat all of that if it weren’t blended up. A long-ass time, folks. If you’ve ever gotten tired of chewing a salad, you know what I mean.

So if you’re lazy and thinking it’s too much work to make a smoothie, especially first thing in the morning, just remember that smoothies are the ultimate boon for lazy people. It is far less work than chopping up a bunch of vegetables and stir-frying them — and then of course, the chewing. As my husband likes to say, “In the future, all food will be in tubes.” And that includes straws through which you drink your smoothies.