Posts Tagged “Mexican”

Margarita at Chevys Fresh Mex I recently paid the San Francisco Bay Area a long overdue visit, and as you might expect my primary activity while there was eating. In this next series of posts I’ll share with you some of the awesome stuff I got to try. There were so many new and as of yet undiscovered (to me) vegan options to enjoy since my last trip north, I could barely fit all the stuff I wanted to try into my few days there. Not easily deterred, my friend and I were determined to fit as many meals into five days as possible.

Barely off the plane in Oakland and into my host’s snazzy convertible, he quickly whisked me away for my first meal in town. Now, where we went was definitely not on my list of places to go, and frankly, is not the sort of place I’d usually think of or want to eat at. He assured me however that not only would I get a delicious meal where we were headed, but that I’d also really enjoy the scenic location. Ok, I’m good for whatever and I’ll trust a 20 year vegan to show me where to find yummy food while in his own hood. (yeah 20 years- he’s a superhero!)

Where did he take me? Chevys Fresh Mex. Chevys is part of a mega-franchise that also owns El Torito and Acapulco, some of the more popular “casual dining Mexican restaurants” across the country. Walking into Chevys is like walking into Disneyland meets a cantina meets a sports bar. At first I didn’t get where he was coming from telling me this place was scenic, but that all changed when we were taken to our seat on the outside deck, and suddenly I realized we were perched right above the water! I didn’t even know we were near the beach but here I was, magically transported to the water’s edge on a beautiful pier just before sunset. This location truly was lovely and I could see why my friend knew I would like it. This was the Emeryville location by the way, but you’ll find Chevys all over the country. The nearest one down here in L.A. is in Burbank, which for those of you who are geographically impaired, is not near any bodies of water- and therefore probably nowhere near as cool as this one.
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From what I can tell, Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe in Macarthur Park has been around since at least 2003. So why is it that I’ve never heard of it before now? How is it possible that a place so delightful, delicious and vegan-friendly has gone under the radar of not just me but everyone else I know? Have you all just been keeping this discovery to yourselves, squirreling it away like a well-guarded secret? Well it’s not a secret anymore because I’m blowing the lid off this thing, so put on your loose fitting pants Los Angelenos and get ready to eat! A bit of what this place is all about, from their website:

MamaMama’s Hot Tamales Café is an apprentice-operated business and job training restaurant that provides hands-on and classroom instruction designed to train low-and-moderate-income residents living within the central region of Los Angeles in the disciplines necessary to begin a career path toward success in the culinary world.

Under the watchful eye of Sandi “Mama” Romero, participants acquire the knowledge, abilities, and skills to pursue opportunities in the food service while working in Mama’s Hot Tamales Café. Featuring authentic presentations of regional dishes from throughout the Americas, this unique dining experience engages patrons as valuable participants in the education training process of our future food service professionals.”

Yeah all that, plus they make authentic made-from-scratch tamales and other foods in the traditional styles of various Latin American countries, including Guatemalan, Mexican, Columbian, Peruvian, Honduran and Salvadoran.

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s the tamales which give this place it’s street cred, and let me tell you, that cred has been rightfully earned. This was the most delicious tamale I personally have ever tasted. I claim no expertise on the matter, it was just by far my favorite of any tamale that I’ve had the pleasure of eating, vegan or otherwise. I really like the Corn Maiden farmers market tamales, but these at Mama’s are in a league of their own. I’ve always enjoyed tamales, but in comparision to all the other amazing foods on earth, tamales are not the sort of thing I’d normally be raving about… but I’m raving now… these are not your everyday, pull it out of freezer at Trader Joes sort of tamale.

Tamale at Mamas Hot Tamale Cafe

The tamales are individually wrapped in corn husks, banana leaves or avocado leaves depending on their recipes country of origin. Looks like banana leaves above, doesn’t it? Mama’s is not an all vegetarian restaurant, however they are very vegan friendly and aware, and even their menu (.pdf) is clearly marked with what all can be made vegan, which is nearly everything. The tamales themselves are not on the menu, I think because their selection varies daily.
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(Update: Both these specials are now over. Aren’t you sorry you missed ‘em?)

There are currently two great vegan meals on the “Specials” menu at Hugo’s Restaurant. I don’t want to wait any longer to share them with you because soon enough they’ll be gone. If you want to try these, and yes… you do want to try these… you’ll need to head on over to Hugo’s quick like a bunny.

'Red Lentil Veggie Patties at Hugo's Restaurant

This first interesting dish is the Red Lentil Veggie Patties: “an outstanding combination of organic red lentils, sweet potatoes, diced fresh summer vegetables, herbs and Indian spices. Served with mango chutney relish, black forbidden rice and sauteed leafy greens”. Outstanding was their adjective straight from the menu, but I heartily agree, these lentil patties were delicious. The Indian flavors were full and fragrant yet didn’t overpower the great flavors of the vegetables and lentils. The crispy outside and soft inside were just lovely, and the mango chutney kicked ass. It tasted slightly pickled, so it was both sweet and zingy at the same time.

The black forbidden rice was good, though I’m more inclined to the black sticky rice at Lotus Vegan, for which I as of yet have found no equal. The leafy greens were very tasty too, lots of garlic going on in there, just the way I like it. Overall an excellent meal.

'Very Green Enchiladas at Hugo's Restaurant

On a subsequent visit I was far too intrigued to pass on the Very Green Enchiladas: “green corn tortillas filled with wilted leafy greens and garlic. Covered with a roasted poblano chili sauce and toasted pumpkin seeds. Served with green spanish rice and green zucchini”. It would also usually come with Cotija cheese, which they state right on the menu they’ll do without to make it vegan.

These enchiladas were outstanding! I was concerned that 1.) this would be kind of boring without cheese, and 2.) that the garlic would be too overwhelming. These concerns quickly melted away as I eagerly shoveled in my first bite. So good! The poblano chili sauce was amazing, full bodied and not too spicy. The enchiladas themselves were excellent, the greens and garlic perfectly seasoned and surprisingly filling. Both the zucchini and the spanish rice made for great accompanists in this very green orchestra. If you only try one new dish in the next few days or weeks, consider making it this one.

Now, a minor word of warning. Two words really: green poo.

You read me right. Now I know this is food blog so the last thing you want to read about are bodily functions. The thing is, how are you to trust that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, unless I told you the entire story, from start to finish so to speak? In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to save you an awkward moment of surprise after you eat this meal: my morning constitutional one day after eating the Very Green Enchilada plate was Very Green Poo… bright green poo the likes of which I’ve never seen before, neither from a baby nor an elephant. A quick run down over the past 24 hours worth of food immediately led me right to the culprit: it was the green enchiladas, in the kitchen, with a fork. All I’m saying is, forewarned is forearmed. Don’t fear the green!

(Both of these are on the current specials at both Hugo’s locations, though all the stuff featured on this blog (so far) refers to the Hugo’s in Studio City -call if you’re going specifically for either of these items, because I don’t know how often the menu changes.)

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Hugo’s Tacos in Studio City is a wonderful little oasis of taco stand goodness right in the middle of the valley, smack dab between a gas station and the 101 freeway, with a number of satisfying vegan options. You’ll find them across the street from Whole Foods Market and catty-corner to the Hugo’s main restaurant (yup, same owners).

Hugo’s Tacos offers a number of basic and classic Mexican dishes such as tacos of course, as well as burritos, taquitos, tostadas, tortas, salads and bowls… most of which also involve rice and beans in some form or another. You get your choice of filling which would be either one of the meat options or one of the two vegan options, which are either the soy chorizo/potato/zucchini mix, or the grilled veggie combo of corn, zucchini and string beans. Or if you wanna be extra piggy, get both (this works particularly well on the salad or in a bowl). You also get your choice of salsa, all of which they make there and are genuinely fantastic.

Soyrizo Mexican salad at Hugos Tacos

On a recent visit I got the Salad: “Romaine lettuce, green beans, corn, zucchini, pico de gallo, cotija cheese and vegan spicy caesar dressing.” I had them leave off the cheese and bring on the soy chorizo, which is vegan and made from Soyrizo. This stuff is so good… if crack were made from soy, this would be it. It’s very rich and meaty tasting, so if you don’t like mock meats I’d stay away from it. However if you do still enjoy all the flavor and feel of the stuff without the guilt, dig in. Their vegan caesar salad dressing is excellent too. As you can see the salad is huge and could easily feed two people.

Vegan Soy chorizo taquitos at Hugos Tacos

On another occasion of particularly reckless abandon, I opted to try the taquitos in all of their deep fried, vegan glory. These also involved the soy chorizo & potato filling and they come served with delicious (and you guessed it, vegan) organic white beans, lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo, tomatillo sauce and cotija cheese (which you’ll want to remember to ask them to leave off for full veganization optimization). These taquitos are perfectly crispy and frighteningly good… well worth the occasional naughty indulgence of greasy goodness. Just do it and don’t look back.

Soyrizo Mexican burrito at Hugos Tacos

Last but not least, yet another way to enjoy Hugo’s yummy soy chorizo… stuffed inside of a burrito. Flour tortilla with organic spanish rice, organic white beans, choice of filling (soyrizo please!), choice of salsa, onion & cilantro. Ok, so I asked for them to leave off the onions and give me the honey chipotle salsa and it’s like heaven has suddenly exploded in my mouth. If you no longer consume honey, obviously the honey chipotle isn’t for you, but if that is an ingredient you do still allow… oh mama, it’s to die for… sweet & spicy in all the right places. But as mentioned above, all of their salsa rock.

From their website: “Our Jalapeno Tomatillo salsa, for instance, is a descendant of a salsa served at a small taco stand in Tijuana. The Salsa Negra traces its lineage to Michoacan where dark red guajillo chilies are given a special roasting on open fires.”

Sounds good, right? What’s cool about Hugo’s Tacos too is that it’s another great spot to have in your arsenal for when you’re eating with folks who aren’t vegetarians… because all of the food here is delicious, so everyone in your group will leave very pleased… and very full.

And check out what I just learned: their rice pudding is vegan too! I’ve never ordered it because I always thought it was made with cows milk, but I just found this on their website: “Organic basmati rice, saigon cinnamon, tahitian vanilla, organic cane sugar, organic rice and soy milks. A sweet vegan option.” Fancy that!

Hugo's Tacos on Urbanspoon

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I had been hearing about the great vegetarian Mexican food being served at Cinnamon in Highland Park for a while now, so I figured it was high time to gather up some of my homegirls and go check it out for ourselves. I’d read some mixed reviews and none of us had been there before, so we really didn’t know what to expect. I’m so glad we took this adventure upon ourselves because the food was fantastic.

Vegetarian Mexican food at Cinnamon

For starters I had the “Jumping Shrimp Cocktail”, the shrimp of course was made of soy. Loved it. I’ve got a thing for the texture that this type of firm and chewy soy shrimp has, and there were both whole pieces and smaller chunks mixed in with the yummy cocktail sauce. It doesn’t taste fishy, or even really much like shrimp, but that’s probably a good thing. The sauce was both sweet & spicy, accented with lime & cilantro. You could tell it had just been made fresh.

You’ll notice in the background there that I also got a soymilk horchata, a traditional milk and cinnamon drink that one doesn’t often (ever?) find vegan. It was heavenly, and it took all I had to resist ordering another after finishing the first.

Vegetarian Mexican food at Cinnamon

For my main dish I had to try the vegetarian “Chicken Mole” as it’s one of their specialties. This came in the form of delicious little fake drumsticks that had been cooked in their incredible mole sauce. I must admit this was my first time ever tasting mole so I have nothing to compare it to, but I thought this was outstanding. The flavor was slightly smoky but also rather sweet and heavy on the cinnamon. My friends tried it and mentioned that the cinnamon and sweetness was a bit overpowering, but I really liked it just as it was. The dish came served with rice and beans, both of which were very good, and pleasantly lard free.

The food was delicious all around. Even the salsa that came with the corn chips to start us off was lovely. The place was clean, the food came fast and the service was friendly. The one issue we did have was that our waiter (who I think is one of the owners) didn’t understand the difference between vegetarian and vegan. The menu and website state that they are “vegan-friendly”, however the menu doesn’t specify whether the meat and cheese substitutes are vegan or only vegetarian, and no one working there seemed to know, or understand the question. It was frustrating for us to try to explain what the difference was to him between vegan and vegetarian, he was unfamiliar with the words casein and whey. I feel that if you’ve got the word “vegan” printed on your menu, everyone who works there should know what it means, and should know about the basic ingredients in the food being served. Imagine going to a kosher restaurant but neither the wait staff or the cook knows for sure if the food had been prepared kosher or not. That said, waiter/owner man was very sweet and attempted to be accommodating, but the whole vegan vs. vegetarian thing is a matter that they’re going to have to iron out if they want the strict vegans to embrace them en masse.

That said, if you’re a vegetarian who’s willing to turn a blind eye to a little bit of mystery surrounding the nature of your soylent green once in a while, allow me to recommend a visit to Highland Park for some fine, traditional Mexican food at Cinnamon. For that matter, bring your meat eating friends with you as the food here is so good that anyone should be able to find something they’ll enjoy regardless of their dietary inclinations. Other menu items include vegetarian steak fajitas, soy chorizo with potatoes, flautas, tamales, carnitas… and I count 8 salads on the menu (including exotic delicacies like cactus and hearts of palm), breakfast and fresh squeezed juices… something for everyone. Go hungry, leave full and happy!

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As mentioned, another visit to Follow Your Heart presented itself, so for once I opted to have something other than the vegetarian Reuben.

'Organic Tempeh Tacos

I had the “Organic Tempeh Tacos: Two organically grown, stone ground corn tortilla shells, filled with seasoned, grilled organic tempeh, jack and cheddar cheese (substituted with their excellent vegan cheese), tomatoes and fresh cilantro. Served with Spanish rice, black beans guacamole and lime wedges.” It was good, they managed to give the tempeh a texture that was very similar to ground taco meat. The sides were all tasty too, and this serving like everything else there, was huge.

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