Monthly Archives: July 2010

Memories of Phoenix Vegan Food Gone By: Saigon Healthy Cuisine

I fractured my foot last week, so my ability to get out and try great Phoenix-area vegan food has slowed down considerably. Instead, I’ll present you with a pain in my broken heart that matches the pain in my broken foot.

There once was a place on Mill and University in Tempe called Saigon Healthy Cuisine. While not a vegetarian/vegan restaurant, it offered the finest casual Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, in particular) food in town with plenty of vegan options. I remember in particular going there at times when I wasn’t feeling very well – most likely from Phoenix’s dreadful allergy season – and they would give me a bowl of hot soup and a cup of tea that would knock whatever ailed me right out.

Although the restaurant was at best “ram-shackled” (oh the many times we put sugar packets under the table legs to balance them out), the service was impeccable and the quality of the food couldn’t be matched in town. It had a charm all of its own.

We recently found a Saigon Healthy menu I had been carrying around in the back of my car all these years (click to enlarge).

Saigon Healthy Cuisine Menu

Saigon Healthy Cuisine menu

It was the kind of place where I liked every vegetarian dish on the menu, so I always had a hard time deciding what to order. There were plenty of vegan appetizers to choose from – Spring Roll Vegetarian, Crisped Wafers, Spicy Garden Salad with Tofu, and Steamed Bun. For entrées, Spicy Lemongrass Vegetarian Delight usually made the top of the list, but Sautéed Tofu with Tomatoes also screamed for attention. Every entrée was loaded with vegetables. The garlic was always the most awe inspiring – thin slices of entire cloves covering your dish as if to say “I will make you healthy whether you want to be or not!” Your heat options were 1 – 10. I don’t think I ever went past 8 (and even that may have been a mistake in judgment).

Unfortunately I think the value of the land that Saigon Healthy was on was greater than the income of the restaurant, so like many other great Phoenix locations, it’s gone. Now it’s a parking lot for CVS. I’ve kept an eye out to see if the owners have opened up a new place somewhere else in town, but haven’t heard of anything so far. Please let me know if you have found a place like Saigon in town!

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Spices Mediterranean Kitchen: Best of Phoenix

Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants are typically safe bets for vegans. When in doubt, you can usually get some hummus. Unfortunately, really good casual dining Mediterranean food is hard to come by. Only two or three places rank as “awesome” to me in Phoenix. At the top of the list is Spices Mediterranean Kitchen in Chandler, Ariz. They were voted Best Mediterranean Restaurant in the “Best of Phoenix 2009New Times reader’s poll, and named “best falafel” so it’s not just me that thinks they’ve got it nailed.

Spices Mediterranean Kitchen

We don’t live or work anywhere close to Chandler, so we’re always happy when an errand or event takes us to the Ray Rd. / 101 area around meal time. Spices’ menu is pretty straight forward in terms of the vegan options: hummus, falafel, salad, fries, etc. What propels Spices past the rest is the consistent quality and freshness of their food. I’ve never had a bad meal there.

I think just about everything at Spices is fresh-made. No freezer-burned falafels here! Spices’ falafel balls are perfectly crispy on the outside without being too greasy, and soft and green on the inside. They are my hands-down favorite falafels in town. You can get “spice” added to a falafel sandwich (a jalapeno mix) which reminded me of the falafels I had in Munich once where the toppings were the main feature. The salad that complements the falafels in a sandwich is a good mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olive oil, lemon juice and salt.

Spices vegan falafel sandwich

The hummus at Spices is just to my liking – freshly-made, not too bitter, a little heavy on the tahini and pureed so that it’s smooth. It’s served with a pool of decent quality olive oil, a few pine nuts and a dash of paprika. The serving sizes are decent (half a sandwich shown above). I usually run out of pita bread for the hummus though – so you might want to order an extra pita.

One of our guilty vegan pleasures at most Mediterranean places is to sample their French fries. For some reason, fries are usually great at any casual Mediterranean place. At Spices, “usually great” doesn’t even come close to describing their fries. They are actually made of fresh cut potatoes and taste like real food – not processed pieces of styrofoam! Unlike most fresh-cut fries that are wedges or thick slices, Spices’ fries are cut thin and fried perfectly.

The only thing at Spices that I don’t rave about is the pita. There’s nothing wrong with it at all — it’s just average.

Beyond the great food at Spices, another reason to go is the service. Regardless of who is behind the register, they are always friendly and engaging in a sincere way. They usually prepare the food pretty quickly, but I’ve never been there when they’ve been slammed. It’s a counter serve, delivery to the table type of place (very casual), but they do serve beer and wine.

Spices is open for lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday, closed on Sundays. They’re at 4040 W. Ray Rd. (NW corner) in Chandler in the Albertson’s plaza.

<!–[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4  <!–[endif]–>Best Mediterranean Restaurant in the  Best of Phoenix 2009  New Times readers poll so it’s not just me that thinks they’ve got it nailed.

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Don’t forget: Vegan bake sale in Tempe on Saturday

Vegan Bake Sale

What: Charity Vegan Bake Sale
When: Saturday, July 10th from 11am-4pm
Where: Loveland Boutique
107 E Baseline Rd. A-3
SE Mill & Baseline, Tempe
Why
: All proceeds will go to Raven House, an unofficial rescue in Southeastern Arizona dedicated to taking in animals in need and giving them the best care possible the rest of their days.

Props to Chicos and Beans and Strawberry Hedgehog for making me aware of it! I’ve promised to try Kenike’s vegan carrot cake, but I hope there are some strawberry cupcakes available too!

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Treehouse Bakery: Party-pleasing Vegan Cupcakes

Phoenix got a little bit sweeter for vegans this year, with the launch of Treehouse Bakery. Treehouse offers vegan cookies, muffins and of course cupcakes, in a wide variety of flavors.

I recently ordered a dozen and a half vegan cupcakes for my husband’s birthday celebration. As with most well-made vegan desserts, I don’t think anyone at the party would have known that they were vegan cupcakes if we hadn’t told them in advance. They went so fast I was almost afraid I hadn’t bought enough! They were every bit as addictive as Sprinkles’ vegan cupcakes, but we had lots more flavor options to pick from!

Treehouse vegan cupcakes

We tried the vanilla with chocolate frosting, mocha and strawberry with vanilla frosting. The vanilla cupcakes seemed to be the crowd favorite, but I was partial to the strawberry cupcakes.

Unfortunately, trying these delicious cupcakes requires a bit of pre-planning, as they aren’t available in stores or restaurants yet. They are in the process of  being approved for sale at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, but last I checked they weren’t stocked yet.

In the meantime, you can email treehousebakery@gmail.com or call 480.560.5233 to place an order for pick-up, or order via Esty. The pick-up location is at a sandwich shop called All Wrapped Up, at 503 W. Thomas Rd., near downtown Phoenix.

I hope they get a storefront location soon, so that more people can start to understand how wonderful vegan desserts can be!

Treehouse is also on Twitter and Facebook.

Treehouse Bakery

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Vegan Vacation: Portland, Oregon (part 3 of 3)

The third part of this series on our vegan vacation to Portland, OR (aka PDX) is about the places we didn’t like as much, plus a general overview of our trip including a great We Like Cats record release party. Click back to part one (on Portland food carts) and part two (on 100% vegan restaurants and vegan treats) for more info about Portland vegan food.

Portland Vegan Dining Lowlights

We did have a few less-than-stellar meals in Portland. These three in particular left me feeling like I wasted a dining opportunity.

Pok Pok (barely vegan friendly)

Our friends had heard a lot about Pok Pok, in particular about how authentic their Thai food was. We took a quick glance at the menu online before going to see if there were vegan options, but should have looked closer.

While our friends delighted in the non-vegan options, there were only five “available vegetarian” items on the menu, with half being mushroom dependent (and I’m anti-mushroom). We ordered two of them: Papaya Pok Pok and Khao Soi Kai. The Papaya Pok Pok was a generic papaya salad that wasn’t too different from what we can get at various places in Phoenix. The Khao Soi Kai was a tasty coconut curry noodle soup that reminded me of something I get at Wagamama – yasai itame. It wasn’t too spicy but they provided chili paste on the side so that you could heat it up to taste. I would have liked more veggies in it beyond the few uncooked shallots and mustard greens you could add-in.

I’m not sure what was in their “secret curry paste” but whatever it was messed with my stomach something awful, and I was out of sorts starting from the drive back to the hotel and lasting for more than 24 hours. Truth be told, I’m still not in great digestive shape since that meal! In short, I’d much rather go to our favorite Thai restaurant near our house in Phoenix.

Papa G’s Deli (vegan, 100% organic)

It probably isn’t fair to call Papa G’s a lowlight. I just ordered wrong. Papa G’s offers a traditional/stereotypical “healthy living through vegetarian food” dining experience. They have a rotating daily menu of three or four main hot bar items that can be served as a bowl or plate, plus a few sandwiches, sides and a soup and salad bar. You can try anything before buying, which is what I should have done before ordering their vegetable curry bowl with rice.

Papa G's vegan curry bowl

It was about as bland as it looks. The tofu was fresh and interesting, but overall it reminded me of the free vegetarian meals I used to get from the Hare Krishnas on the Plaza at the University of Florida. However, I had tried the lentil soup and it was great. I have no idea why I didn’t order it, other than a food-fried brain that was past the point of making good decisions.

My husband ordered the Reuben sandwich.

Papa G's vegan Reuben sandwich

It was about what you’d expect from a vegan Reuben – nothing special. At least Papa G’s didn’t leave me in pain like Pok Pok did!

Taqueria Los Gorditos (vegan friendly)

Taqueria Los Gorditos

We had been warned that Gorditos had “gone downhill” but since I live in Phoenix, I had to try Portland’s attempt at vegan Mexican food. The full vegan menu had me overly-excited. Unfortunately the quality of the food was a major let down.

We started with chips and salsa.

Chips and salsa at Los Gorditos in Portland, OR

The salsa was pleasant/fresh made, but the chips were fresh from a bag. Blah.

My husband ordered a vegan tamale and a Soyrizo taco.

Vegan tamale and Soyrizo taco at Los Gorditos

The tamale was stuffed with what seemed to be Green Giant spring mix frozen vegetables and a generic red sauce. The taco was a little better, but still barely worth eating.

Silly me ordered the three enchiladas platter.

Three vegan enchiladas platter at Los Gorditos

I selected one each of cheese, Soyrizo, and soycurls. The soycurls (which is apparently the most popular meat substitute aside from sausage in Portland) one was okay, the Soyrizo one was almost bitter tasting and fairly inedible, and the Follow Your Heart “cheese” one was absolute, unequivocal fail. The cheese didn’t even attempt to melt. It was like thin slices of cold plastic inside a lightly cooked soft corn tortilla. Portland… learn to use Daiya! The beans and rice were actually pretty good. I should have just stuck to a bean burrito like I usually do.

In Summary

We really enjoyed our vegan vacation in Portland. I know it’s hard to believe, but we didn’t spend every second of our visit eating. We went to the coast for a day, and went up the Columbia River Gorge historic highway and over to Mt. Hood. I wanted to make it to Mt. Saint Helens too, but it would have been too much driving for one trip. The rental car place ran out of the cheap compact car I reserved and gave us a VW Beetle instead, so we fit right in with the Portland crowd (and its size made street parking very easy!). My husband posted some random pictures from our explorations in and out of town if you’d like to check them out.

We even got extremely lucky in the music department. A day or two into the trip I connected a dot that one of my favorite experimental/avant-garde musicians lives in Portland – Adam Forkner (of too many bands to list but White Rainbow is the main one now I think). We looked him up and discovered he was having a record release part for yet another new musical venture called We Like Cats while we were in town. And one of my absolute favorite musicians, Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, K Records), came down from Olympia to spin dub discs at the party. It was a great scene, although we were too old to last much past midnight.

The first few days we were there were overcast and slightly rainy, but it eventually turned sunny – almost too sunny for me! From the way the locals reacted, I think it was the first sunny day all year. We did a lot of walking, so I took time out for a reflexology appointment for my bum ankle at The Dragontree day spa. I don’t think I would have made it through the rest of the trip without it!

On the food front, our assessment is that most of the food we tried is “for hipster kids” (street food, junk food, fun food) but it sure would be nice to have at least a third of what’s available for vegans in Portland here in Phoenix. Especially Sweetpea. I also would like to send sample packs of Daiya to every restaurant that wasn’t using it yet.

We didn’t get to try two of my favorite cuisines – Indian and Ethiopian food – mostly because I had to stay away from the heavy spice/gut bombs after Pok Pok. That’s a reason to go back sometime, right?

Ultimately, we didn’t find a true “gourmet” vegan experience of the level of Blossom or Candle Café in New York, Millennium in San Francisco or Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles, but I think Portobello and Blossoming Lotus are headed in the right direction.

Our list of restaurants to try was twice as long as what we were able to do in the time available. Let us know if we missed the best ones in case we make it back some day!

Much thanks goes to the Stumptown Vegans blog for helping us chart our path through Portland’s vegan dining experience.

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Vegan Vacation: Portland, Oregon (part 2 of 3)

The second part of this series of posts on vegan dining in Portland, Oregon is about 100% vegan restaurants, plus vegan treats. Part one was about Portland’s food carts, if you missed it.

Full Vegan Restaurant Dining

When it comes to 100% vegan sit-down restaurants, Portland delivers as well. The three below were the highlights:

The Bye and Bye (vegan)

Although this is predominantly a bar (note: no minors allowed after 8 p.m.), all the food is vegan. I had the BBQ tofu platter and was completely delighted. Sorry, I had already eaten half of it before I remembered to take a picture.

The Bye and Bye BBQ tofu platter

It was the best BBQ sauce I’ve had in ages. It was slightly spicy, didn’t have too much vinegar and I think it had a hint of peanut butter. The greens weren’t worth the effort, but the baked beans were great.

My husband had the BBQ tofu sandwich, which included avocado, red onions and jalapeño slices. He ate it before I remembered to take a picture. He also kept picking at my tofu so I think mine was probably better. If we had more time, I would have gone back to further explore the menu and the drink options!

Blossoming Lotus (vegan)

Blossoming Lotus was probably the closest to a Millennium-style vegan dining establishment in Portland. It’s located in the “historic Irvington District” at 1713 NE 15th Ave. We were a little grubby going in, having traveled through the Columbia River Gorge and over to Mt. Hood all day, so the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of Blossoming Lotus was appreciated!

The menu was a mixture of raw/live items and cooked entrees.

We started with the creamy pesto & white bean dip.

Blossoming Lotus creamy pesto & white bean dip

The bean dip was drizzled with pesto, which used an excellent light olive oil and lots of fresh basil. It was a great combo of flavors.

I also had the soup of the day, which was a tomato basil soup.

Blossoming Lotus tomato soup

It was slightly creamy and not too acidic, as some tomato soups can be.

My husband ordered a side salad with his entree, which gave him his serving of beets for the day.

Blossoming Lotus salad

It came with a light creamy ginger dressing.

For the main entrée, I ordered the four cheese lasagna.

Blossoming Lotus vegan four cheese lasagna

Similar to other Portland vegan creations, the homemade cheese-like products struck me a bit as “why bother when there’s Daiya?” The herb tofu ricotta was actually very good, but the lemon-basil cashew cream was oppressive. It was too much of a distraction from the well seasoned pasta sauce and just ended up being scraped to the side of the plate so I could get to the “good stuff.”

My husband was on a BBQ binge, so he went with the BBQ tempeh platter.

Blossoming Lotus vegan BBQ tempeh platter

It was not so much a BBQ tempeh as it was tempeh cooked in a vinegar, tomato, red onion reduction sauce. The chili was of less interest since the tempeh was delicious, so it was barely touched. The corn bread was a great complement – slightly sweet and served with Earth Balance margarine on request.

The deserts didn’t hold much interest for us, mainly because we had Voodoo Doughnuts waiting for us in the hotel room, but they had an interesting raw key lime pie that I would have tried if the waiter hadn’t told me it was made of puréed avocado (see previous posts about the wrongness of vegetables as desert).

Portobello (vegan)

Portobello logo

The place I was most interested in trying was Portobello due to the solid-looking Italian menu. We seriously lack decent vegan Italian food in Phoenix so I was looking forward to a nice experience. We went with friends, which meant we could try a wide variety of the menu (which is rarity for us). I didn’t take any pictures because the wait was long and we were starving by the time the food came. My “must eat now” instincts overwrote my “take blog photo” instincts.

We went with four courses for the meal: starters, pizza, pasta and desert. I now firmly believe every meal should come with a pizza course.

For starters we had the beet tartare with carrot aioli and cashew cheese; the olive plate and the arugula salad with chao cheese, beets, walnuts, apples & moscatel vinaigrette. Out of these three the only one I tried was the salad. The “chao cheese” was great – like a light ricotta. Everyone else at the table loved the beet tartare but I think I had hit my limit with cashew cheese at that point in the trip.

The pizza course reunited me with my addiction for Daiya cheese, so “hooray” all around for that! We had a basic Daiya, red sauce, basil pizza while our friends tried the mushrooms, herbed black olives, sundried tomatoes, capers, and Daiya cheese pizza. They were impressed with the cheese (and one of our friends used to work at Millennium, so she’s hard to impress with vegan food!). I think the Pyro food card pizza was probably a bit better (less rushed) but it was still a quality pie that I would gladly have again.

For the main course, we ordered the smoked tomato sausage and cheese ravioli with tomato-basil sauce and cashew besciamela. Our friends ordered the fettuccine alfredo and the tempeh-walnut agnolotti with lemon & sage. Out of the three, the agnolotti got the biggest raves. They looked like over-stuffed pierogies and had a nice, delicate lemon sauce. I preferred the ravioli because I’m not a fan of walnuts. At one point I had to stop my husband from handing it over to our friends since it was “mine.” The alfredo got a thumbs down, but I wasn’t surprised by that. Out of the three I’d think that would be the hardest to vegan-ize.

Desert options were more limited than I expected. We were almost tempted by the raw chocolate tart but decided it might be too heavy after everything we had just consumed. We went with the apple tart with streusel topping and vanilla coconut bliss ice cream. It was good, but not stellar.

Overall I think the restaurant may be suffering growing pains after its recent expansion. We had a lovely time and were not in a rush, but they need to do some tweaking of service levels and food delivery timing as some of our items seemed to have sat for a bit before being served. And the food prep needs just a bit more TLC. For instance, there was no salt on the table. The reason we were offered for this was that the chef felt the food wouldn’t need salt. We all agreed that they aren’t quite ready for that affectation. They are ambitious, and will probably improve over time into a premier vegan dining experience.

Portland Eats Vegan Treats

Portland did not lack for fine vegan sweets to eat! I know we didn’t make it to all of the local vegan-friendly bakeries, but here’s what we tried:

Sweetpea Baking Company (vegan)

If I could take one Portland dining establishment, pick it up and drop it in Phoenix it would be Sweetpea Baking Company at 1205 SE Stark Street (and the two shops next door to it – Herbivore Clothing and Food Fight vegan grocery).

Sweetpea is the only restaurant that we visited twice. The first time was for Sunday all-you-can-eat brunch.

Sweetpea Baking Company vegan Sunday brunch

Brunch was set up as a buffet. We had vegan pancakes with fresh blueberry compote, tofu scramble, seitan with gravy, kale and potatoes. It was all well-prepared and a fun experience.

For desert, I had a toasted coconut cupcake, which was absolutely the best cupcake I’ve ever had in my life.

Sweetpea Baking Company vegan toasted coconut cupcake

Before we left town I had to have another cupcake, so we went back on our way to the airport. The 2nd cupcake was just as excellent as the first. We also had a nice cup of Stumptown coffee and a slice of chocolate cake.

Sweetpea Baking Company vegan chocolate cake

We grabbed a hummus sandwich for the flight home but I forgot to take a picture. The thick homemade bread kept the hummus in good shape for eating four hours later.

Voodoo Doughnut (vegan friendly)

No trip to Portland would be complete without standing in line for 45 minutes to get a fancy doughnut. I sent my husband off to Powell’s Books while I endured the fellow tourists and doughnut hecklers (yes, there were hecklers).

Line at Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, OR

I was a little worried when I saw a bacon doughnut go by that I might be wasting my time. However, once inside, their selection of vegan doughnuts was impressive!

Vegan doughnut options at Voodoo Doughnut

It was hard to choose! After a lengthy negotiation with my husband over the phone, I went with a cake chocolate, a raised chocolate, an old dirty bastard and a Portland cream (counterclockwise from top left in photo).

Vegan doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnut

I don’t think I would have gone wrong with any selection. I don’t remember the last time I had a raised doughnut, so it was a true treat! The raised doughnuts were light and not glazed. An added bonus was that the people working there were very nice – which was a big surprise given how intolerable it must be to have to put up with non-stop customers (who probably all complain about the wait).

Whole Foods Market (vegan friendly)

Of course it’s not unique to Portland, but we stopped at the Pearl District Whole Foods at 1210 Northwest Couch St. to do some essentials shopping (soy milk, coffee, hummus, etc.).

Whole Foods Market in Portland, OR (Pearl District)

I was beyond exhausted so I went straight to “The Mezz,” the coffee bar upstairs in the store. Humorously enough, it also had a real bar in it with beer and wine. I’ve always heard WFM is a great singles pick-up spot so Portland’s just taken it to the next level I guess! Even though I hadn’t had dinner yet, I eyed a piece of vegan chocolate cake and thought “what the heck.”

I forgot to take a picture, but take my word for it – it was awesome (and my husband’s favorite treat out of all we tried in Portland). The cake was moist and the frosting didn’t have that “fake” butter cream taste that sometimes comes with vegan treats (or even non-vegan treats).

Part three, on lowlights and our overall experience, is online now.

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