Another Blog Bites the Dust

Just before the holidays, I decided to take a break from writing this blog. During the break, I had a chance to do some careful reflection about both my eating habits and the blog itself. What I realized is that, after nearly four years of weekly posts, the time has come to put Dairy-Free To Be You and Me to rest. Here’s why.

First, let me be honest: It’s been hard to find material. Although new dairy-free alternatives are showing up all the time, many of them are similar, and I’ve started to feel like a broken record. The last thing I want to do is “jump the shark,” like Fonzie did on those water skis. Better to admit I’ve run out of ideas.

Second, at the risk of being a cliché, I have embarked on a New Year’s resolution to eat more healthfully. For me, this means cutting back on carbohydrates and sugar. What I’ve noticed is that most dairy-free alternatives are paired with foods I shouldn’t be eating anyway — like pizza, grilled cheese, bagels, ice cream and other desserts. In my attempt to find material for the blog, I have actually brought more of these foods into my life.

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Some of the sugary gifts we received this Christmas.

Giving up the blog will free up more of my time for healthy pursuits. I remember hearing an interview with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he said that if people stopped watching cooking shows and spent that time actually cooking instead, they’d be eating a lot better. What will I do with the time I used to spend researching and writing this blog? Perhaps cooking that extra vegetable dish or prepping stuff for salads. Because the only thing keeping me from eating more salads is all that damn chopping.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite dairy-free items, the ones I have come back to again and again. Consider it a “greatest hits” list.

Daiya “Cutting Board Collection” Dairy-Free Cheese Shreds
Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
Magnum Non-Dairy Chocolate-Dipped Ice Cream Bars
Peet’s Almond Milk Latte
Nutella Latte at Republic of Pie
Lebanese Rose Milk Tea at Labobatory
Dole Whip

Thank you to all my faithful readers. I’ve enjoyed sharing this space with you, and I wish you the best of luck in your dairy-free adventures.

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Me as Freddie Mercury, singing “Another Blog Bites the Dust.”
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Oatly Dairy-Free Oat Milk

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Scanning the dairy shelves at Ralphs, I ask myself, “Do I really need to try another dairy-free milk?” I’ve already had soy, almond, coconut, almond-coconut, cashew, macadamia nut, hazelnut… How many more things can you make fake milk out of?

But oat milk is the big new player on the market, supposedly the most environmentally friendly milk there is. And the oat milk latte I had at Balconi Coffee Company was pretty good. So I give in and buy a carton of Oatly.

First of all, you’ve got to give them points for creative packaging. My favorite part of the carton is not the hippie font or the wacky artwork, but the part that says, “You are one of us now.” It sounds so sinister that it cracks me up. This is the kind of carton that will entertain you while you’re eating cereal.

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When I drank it straight up, it did actually taste like the milk at the bottom of a bowl of cereal. It’s slightly sweet, and the oat flavor is reminiscent of Cheerios.

But in coffee, Oatly loses its cereal-ness and has a smooth, inoffensive flavor. It’s thicker than almond milk, which is my usual go-to in coffee. I added it to iced coffee, and its lack of a distinctive flavor allowed the coffee to really shine.

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I also made a latte by foaming Oatly in a manual milk frother. Because of its thickness, this was far more successful than trying to get almond milk to foam. Coconut milk is even thicker, but it tastes like coconuts — not what everyone wants in a latte.

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My next mission is to make a dairy-free chocolate pudding using Oatly. Stay tuned!

Horchata… Dairy-Free, as It Should Be

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I always thought horchata was safe for a lactose-intolerant person like me, since it’s traditionally made with rice milk. But more and more often, when I encounter horchata in L.A. and ask to make sure it’s dairy-free, the answer is no. In many cases, it contains evaporated milk, making it more like a shake than an aqua fresca.

A few days ago I read an article in the Food section of the Los Angeles Times that explains why: Even though real horchata doesn’t have dairy, “it’s easier, cheaper and involves less labor to use cow milk because you get that creamy texture without all the work of soaking, blending, then straining out the rice.”

Having just made my own horchata using a recipe printed in the article, I can say that it’s not that much work. The hardest part is remembering to make it a day ahead so it has time to soak. Straining the horchata isn’t a big deal if you have a good mesh strainer and some cheesecloth handy.

I’m grateful to live in an area where I can find things like Morelos rice and canela (Mexican cinnamon) in the international section of my supermarket. But if you can’t, just use long-grain white rice and regular cinnamon.

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A popular variation in L.A. is the “dirty horchata,” a combination of horchata and espresso. I made my own version using half horchata and half Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, because that’s what I had on hand. It was delicious.

MORELOS RICE HORCHATA RECIPE (DAIRY-FREE)
Adapted from the Los Angeles Times

2 cups uncooked Morelos rice
1 stick canela (Mexican cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup dark brown sugar or honey
4 cups filtered water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée on high for 30 seconds to break up the rice. Turn off the blender and refrigerate the mixture in the blender overnight, or at least 8 hours.

When ready to serve, re-blend the mixture. Pour it through a fine mesh strainer, then pour it through a layer of cheesecloth to remove any remaining sediment. Taste and add more sugar, if you like. Serve the horchata over ice and sprinkle with ground cinnamon to garnish. Makes 4 servings.

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Homemade dirty horchata

Nutella Latte at Republic of Pie

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It’s been three days since I had a Nutella latte at Republic of Pie, and I’m still thinking about it. My obsession may be related to the fact that I am attempting to cut down on caffeine, making afternoon coffee a forbidden fruit. But I’m also obsessed because this latte rocks.

Republic of Pie is a popular coffeehouse in the arts district of North Hollywood. The place was packed on a late Friday afternoon, hipsters as far as the eye could see. But the real test was the dairy-free lattes. As a faithful drinker of Peet’s, I was prepared to do my usual comparison and be disappointed.

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My new fave, the Nutella latte

But something caught my eye on the Republic of Pie menu: the Nutella latte. It does not actually contain Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread; it’s just espresso and steamed chocolate hazelnut milk. This sounded more interesting than my usual almond milk latte. So I asked the barista my two standard questions:

  1. Is it dairy-free?
  2. Is it sweet?

Luckily, the answer to the first was yes, and to the second, “Just a tiny bit.” He told me the only sweetness came from the chocolate hazelnut milk itself; there was no added sugar.

Believe it or not, I had never tried hazelnut milk before. These days, more and more dairy-free milks are popping up, many of them made from nuts. I happen to be in the minority of Americans who like hazelnuts, so hazelnut milk seemed like a natural fit.

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Many dairy-free milks at Republic of Pie

The Nutella latte blew my mind. It was chocolatey, nutty, and as promised, just a hint sweet — not enough to be cloying. The coffee itself was bold but not bitter. And it was so smooth and velvety! It’s like a subtle version of a mocha.

It is now officially my favorite coffee drink.

Though I’m still committed to cutting down on caffeine, I’ll indulge in a Nutella latte as a “sometimes treat” when in the neighborhood. I encourage all dairy-free latte lovers to give it a try and see what I’m talking about. Brave the hipsters and the bad parking. It’s worth it. The pies are also pretty amazing.

REPUBLIC OF PIE, 11118 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601

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Strawberry rhubarb pie… a slice of heaven.

Milkadamia Non-Dairy Creamer

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After enjoying a pretty good dairy-free latte made with macadamia nut milk at G&B Coffee, I had high hopes for Milkadamia, a creamer that has a great name and an even better slogan (“Moo Is Moot”), made from a blend of macadamia nuts and coconut cream.

It has a slightly nutty flavor, not too heavy on the coconuts. The problem was with the consistency. I thought coconut cream, as opposed to coconut milk, would make this stuff nice and thick. Unfortunately, no. It was disappointingly thin.

The real deal breaker, though, was the little white flecks that made it look like it had curdled. These little bits are natural in coconut milk/cream. But they’re just not appetizing. Who wants to drink this?

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I tried Milkadamia in coffee, tea, iced tea — hoping in vain that it would fare better in a different beverage. But in all of them, it was thin and filled with bits.

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So, despite the funny name and hip packaging, Milkadamia is not the magic non-dairy creamer I’ve been dreaming of. Perhaps their macadamia products that don’t contain coconut are better, but after my experience with this creamer, I doubt I’ll try them.

Oat Milk Latte at Balconi Coffee Company

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Years ago I walked into Balconi Coffee Company in West L.A. and asked if they had any non-dairy milk. By this point, almost every coffee shop offered soy, almond, or coconut milk. But Balconi didn’t have anything but cow’s milk. I walked out and never went back.

Until last week, when a friend of mine urged me to try Oatly Oat Milk and I found out, using Oatly’s “computerized oat milk locator,” that Balconi is one of its purveyors. I’d heard that Balconi’s coffee was the bomb, and my friend told me that Oatly was so good that “people drink it because they want to, not because they have to.” So naturally, I had to check it out.

Indeed, Balconi now offers one kind of non-dairy milk: Oatly. I ordered an oat milk latte and waited while the baristas painstakingly prepared coffee drinks for the patrons ahead of me. This place is not about getting your coffee fast. It’s for people who like to chat with their baristas about what they did over their Christmas vacation and how many miles they’ve been biking. The regulars here clearly love being regulars. And they love to watch their coffee made with seriousness.

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Balconi specializes in the Siphon Method — see the science lab-like photo above — and they serve a rotating selection of brewed-to-order coffee. After they grind your coffee, they even let you sniff it before they start brewing it. This is part of the ritual.

But I didn’t get any of this treatment because I ordered a latte rather than one of their fancy roasts. I waited for at least ten minutes for my coffee, which is a long time for a former New Yorker like me, but the ambience at Balconi is cozy enough that I didn’t really mind.

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They have barstools covered in fake grass, and there’s interesting music playing at an innocuous volume, so you can still hear yourself think. The vibe there is pleasant. Unlike at chain coffee shops, you don’t feel like half the customers are having business meetings or working on their screenplays. There are paintings by local artists on the walls and cute little touches like tiny seagrass baskets filled with sugar packets.

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As for the oat milk latte, it was pretty good. Not mind-blowing but good. The oat milk gave it a slightly earthy flavor that reminded me of oatmeal. Would I prefer oat milk to almond milk? No. I find almond milk to be a little smoother, and I prefer the nutty undertone to the oaty one. Although I enjoyed my latte from Balconi, it didn’t top the almond milk latte at Peet’s. Peet’s espresso has a bolder flavor that I prefer.

But if you’re allergic to nuts and you don’t like the taste of coconuts, oat milk could be a godsend.

When I asked the barista about Oatly, he told me they were the best oat milk company, but they have a “supply chain problem.” So at the moment, Oatly can be hard to find. You can look up locations where it’s being sold using their locator. Try it and let me know what you think!

BALCONI COFFEE COMPANY, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 124, Los Angeles, CA 90064

G&B Coffee at Grand Central Market

I have a fear of Grand Central Market, a popular food emporium in Downtown Los Angeles, because I always assume it’ll be jam-packed with tourists and I’ll have to stand in line for hours. But if you’re in the neighborhood and you’re hungry, it’s kind of irresistible. There are tons of choices, both old-school and new.

One of the older vendors is G&B Coffee, which has been there since 2013. It’s hard to miss because it’s a large stand-alone coffee bar right at the Hill Street entrance. Because their vibe is so annoyingly hipster, I’ve never been interested in trying their coffee — until I saw that they had Almond Macadamia Lattes. I’ve had almond milk lattes, but almond mac nut? Sign me up!

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As you can see, the prices at G&B are high, even for L.A. It’s hard to justify putting a “market price” on a cup of tea; it’s not like a live lobster flown in from Maine. But you have to hand it to them, names like “Business & Pleasure” and “Fizzy Hoppy Tea” are bound to make people curious.

Mostly I was curious about the house-made almond macadamia nut milk. When I tried a sample straight up, I was pleased to find that it has a mild, natural taste. And it isn’t sweet, even though it contains dates. When frothed, it doesn’t create huge pillows of foam, but it was thick enough to give me a dairy-free milk mustache.

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The coffee itself is smooth, not at all bitter. I like my coffee more robust, but G&B’s expresso blend is sure to please a wide range of palates. The almond mac nut milk gives the latte a slightly nutty flavor that you’ll enjoy if you like hazelnut coffee.

My husband tried the Fizzy Hoppy Tea, which is a carbonated iced tea with a hint of hops. It tastes kind of like if you added a shot of beer and tea to a Dry Sparking Soda. Weird. If you’re craving an iced tea, this beverage won’t hit the spot.

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Overall, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to hit G&B Coffee. You can certainly get better coffee for less elsewhere. Plus, their ordering system is chaotic. There’s no line; you can order anywhere at the bar, which causes all sorts of confusion, and then they don’t call out your name, so you have to just hover anxiously as you wait.

But if that doesn’t deter you, by all means give it a shot. The almond mac nut milk is an unusual find for us dairy-free folks.

G&B COFFEE, Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway C19, Los Angeles, CA 90013

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

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!

Peet’s Pumpkin Latte

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It’s officially autumn, and that means PSL mania.

Last year I wrote a screed about Starbucks in which I swore I would never drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). I haven’t broken that vow… but curiosity did lead me to try a Pumpkin Latte at Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Most of the drinks I’ve had at Peet’s are far superior to their Starbucks counterparts, so I figured Peet’s was the way to go if I was going to give in to the PSL hype.

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For a limited time, Peet’s is now offering a bunch of spiced lattes, including pumpkin, that can be made with your choice of non-dairy milk. I went with almond milk, although in hindsight I wish I’d gone with coconut, which Peet’s now offers (there was a time when they didn’t). I think the coconut milk would’ve given the Pumpkin Latte a thickness and fluffiness that was noticeably lacking.

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Peet’s Pumpkin Latte was not bad. It was a perfectly fine drink, albeit light on the coffee flavor. But did it taste like a pumpkin pie? Sadly, no. It reminded me more of a chai latte: slightly spiced, a little savory. I drank the whole thing, but I wouldn’t order it again. It just didn’t pack the autumnal punch I was hoping for. And if you love the taste of coffee, you would be better off getting a plain old latte.

As a footnote, I’ll add that despite not being bowled over by their Pumpkin Latte, Peet’s continues to be my favorite coffee shop. Every so often I’ll get excited that some random coffee place offers dairy-free milks and I’ll order an almond milk latte, and I’m shocked at how often I end up with something that is so bad it’s undrinkable. Not all dairy-free coffee drinks are alike! Pick and choose carefully, and share with us the ones you love!