Category Archives: Obsessions

New menu at Green and Bragg’s Factory Diner coming soon!

In case any fans of Phoenix’s Green Vegetarian haven’t heard the news yet, proprietor Damon Brasch has made some changes to the menu to start the new year. Gone are the flatbread pizzas, the Green burger, the meatball-oriented items (po-boy and bowl) and maybe a few other things I didn’t order frequently.

However, the additions more than make up for the losses. To start, the Big Wac is on the menu! I was never a fan of the non-vegan version, but Green’s is out of this world. It will be very hard for me to not get the Big Wac every time we go to Green.

I resisted the urge today (having already gotten one earlier in the week), and instead tried the Artichoke Chicken Salad, along with the Mac n Cheez from the kids menu.

Green's vegan artichoke chicken salad and mac n cheez

The blackened mock chicken in the salad was crisp and lightly spiced. I’m not usually one for a creamy dressing, but the light lemon flavor sat well with me.

The Mac n Cheez had a good blend of Daiya and what I assume was a homemade cashew cheese, which made it nice and gooey. I was surprised that there was a touch of garlic in it though, given it was for kids.

My husband’s choice may be a challenger to the Big Wac’s priority status. The new BBBQ Bacon Burger was messy and fabulous.

Green's vegan BBBQ bacon burger

It was the same thin burger patty used in the Big Wac, but it was covered in tangy barbecue sauce, caramelized onions and tempeh bacon. It also comes with oodles of mushrooms. I’ll be opting out of those when I give it a try.

Next on the list for us to try is the Lemon Pesto bowl or maybe the Black Jack Pita. Other news of note is that the Wendy’s Pickle is now officially on the menu instead of being a whisper item. Also new is a Blonde Alfredo bowl, but I’ll have to be talked into that since alfredo sauce has never been a favorite of mine, even in pre-vegan days. (Although oddly enough, the Ritz Carlton made a vegan alfredo for me at an event I was at recently, and it was outstanding.) Additionally, the menu now features “kids” items, such as a nice basic burger, pita-quesadilla and chicken nuggs or digits. I was assured that immature adults can order from it too!

Get in there and have fun trying all the new items!

Thanks to a tweet from @WesleyTech, I also learned that a new vegetarian and vegan restaurant is opening up in the old Bragg’s pie factory on Grand Ave. south of Roosevelt, which will be called Bragg’s Factory Diner. They don’t seem to have a website or menu up yet, but they are actively monitoring their Facebook page and said they will probably open in March. And there will be pie! However, they are so close to my other favorite, Treehouse Bakery, that pie may be less of a priority than vegan Pop Tarts.

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We Want Wagamama!

I’ve been obsessed with Wagamama for well over a decade, when a friend said, “You’re going to London? You have to go to Wagamama.” If you’re from the U.S. you’re probably saying “Wagawhat?” But hopefully that will change someday soon!

Wagamama

Which do you think I went to?

Anyone who has traveled with me to the U.K. knows that as soon as I can, I make a beeline to the nearest Wagamama. It’s a chain restaurant, and they’ve multiplied like bunnies since first opening in 1992, with locations in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Lucky for me, on my last trip to glorious Britain I stayed in a hotel with a Wagamama in the basement (I didn’t plan it that way, I swear).

So far, Wagamama has only slightly penetrated The States, with three locations in the Boston area (we’re tied with New Zealand – yeay!). I think Wagamama must mean “good luck” because one of them is very near my company’s headquarters, which means I can usually get at least one visit in every year.

What’s so great about Wagamama, you ask? My answer: pretty much everything. It’s a “rice and noodle” casual dining Asian restaurant, with a blend of Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese items. And if you’re thinking that this is another Pei Wei, think again. Wagamama offers a wider variety of flavorful dishes, and has more to offer for vegans and vegetarians. It’s the kind of place where everyone can find something on the menu to like, and they make it very easy for vegans to get a great meal by providing a vegan menu online. It’s also a great choice for gluten-free diners.

I have a bad habit of getting the same one or two things every time I go because I usually only get one meal in during a trip. I at least try to vary the starters if I’m dining with a companion. On my last visit, I tried the Summer Rolls.

Wagamama vegan summer rolls

They were light and fresh, and were served with a sweet chili, garlic and cilantro dipping sauce. I’ve tried the edamame with chili and garlic salt before – which is just fine. The Yasai Gyoza (veggie pot stickers) are also great, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t vegan – just vegetarian. If your meal doesn’t come with Miso Soup, you should definitely order a bowl as well!

My default entrée of choice for years was the Yasai Chili Men.

Wagamama Yasi Chili Men

It’s a huge bright red bowl of veggies, tofu and noodles that provides plenty of heat in the mouth and belly. Since I’m usually traveling for work when I go to Wagamama now and not wanting my dinner to keep me up late at night, I’ve switched allegiances to some other favorites with less after bite.

As boring as it may sound, my latest favorite is the Yasai Cha Han (order it with no egg to make it vegan).

Wagamama vegan yasai cha han

It’s basically fried rice, but it’s not greasy and nasty like some fried rice can be. Instead it’s light, hearty and full of subtle flavor. It also comes with Wagamama’s wonderful vegan miso soup, which is a life saver on a cold night in Boston. It’s usually what I get if I’ve arrived in town late and want to go to bed without a gut full of spice.

But the entrée that keeps me going back for more is the Yasai Itame.

Wagamama yasai itame

This delicious noodle soup is made with coconut milk, rice noodles, a light hint of chili and ginger spice, and tons of tofu and vegetables. It’s always way more than I can eat, but I try to at least finish the tofu off. If you order it, make sure you squeeze lime into it to bring out the flavor even more.

If you have room left after all of that, Wagamama usually has a vegan sorbet that makes a nice palette cleanser. However, on my last visit in the U.K. they offered a vegan “ice lolly” that I thought would be something unique and fun. Instead it was a pre-packaged fruit juice popsicle shipped from somewhere in the U.S. Oh well!

There are other vegan entrees on the Wagamama menu that I haven’t tried yet. Maybe if they ever make good on their promise to open hundreds of locations in the U.S., I’ll feel less pressure to always order my favorites and will experiment more with the menu.

Beyond the food, the ambiance of Wagamamas always makes me happy. The restaurants tend to be in basements, so you feel like you’re descending into someone’s hidden, private space (except the Tower Bridge location in London — that one is down right scenic). The servers are always friendly, but not chatty, and very good at their jobs.

In the U.K., they sit you directly with other people at long rows of tables, so you usually get to meet fun people from a wide variety of countries.

Wagamama Windsor, U.K.

In the U.S., while the tables are still long, they put small gaps in the rows so the visual of open dining is still there, while giving territorial Americans some sense of privacy. Maybe when they move west that will change.

The ordering process is unique as well. Wagamama is the first place I had been to where the servers used hand-held wireless devices for orders and credit card processing – and that was more than 10 years ago! It was cutting edge high-tech to me at the time! Every menu item has a number, and the servers don’t just enter it into their devices, they also write the numbers on your place mats so the right food goes to the right person. You have what I’d call a “main” server, but everyone manages your order in a communal fashion. All of this makes for an efficient experience.

Over the years, I’ve made Wagamama addicts out of several friends and co-workers. If you’re ever in Boston or in one of their many overseas locations, give it a try and let me know what you think! Maybe we can get a petition going to bring Wagamama west!

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NYPD Pizza Delivers on Its Promise: The Perfect NY-Style Vegan Pizza in Phoenix!

When I moved to Phoenix 15 years ago, my ability to successfully adjust to living in this town hinged on one important thing: the need to find decent NY-style pizza. I tried many “local favorites” and determined they were all inedible. Finally, two recommendations from friends rang true: Ray’s and NYPD Pizza. Both were at least 30 minutes from where I lived at the time, but I was raised in an Italian family that regularly traveled vast distances for “good pie.” But as both restaurants expanded their footprints, I was becoming a vegan. And so, my search for the perfect NY-style pizza was rendered pointless. Or so I thought!

In July, a co-worker told me that NYPD Pizza had posted a question on its Facebook page, asking for name suggestions for their new vegan pizza, which would be made with Daiya cheese. I of course freaked out with anticipation. They said they would have it in stock in August. Despite my constant stalking and hounding of their Twitter feed and Facebook page, and calling the restaurant, no vegan pizza appeared on the menu. Finally, I gave up and stopped checking. I wrote it off as a promise unfulfilled. Until last Friday.

I was trying to decide where to have dinner on Friday night, and checking to see if Green had posted any new specials on its Facebook page. The answer was “no,” but something made me think, “I should check NYPD’s page.” To my surprise, they had announced “the Veganizza” the week before, while I was out of town!

I went to the NYPD website to get the specifics, and saw the “Gluten-Free/Vegan” menu option and became even more excited. Just be sure, I called my nearest restaurant to confirm they actually had Daiya in stock. All systems were go!

While the Veganizza wasn’t actually listed on the menu in the restaurant yet, I didn’t panic. The waiter didn’t blink when I said “16-inch Veganizza please!” But he did come back to the table once he put our order in to say, “It will be about 25 – 30 minutes,” which makes us think we got their first one…

It was worth the wait! In my eagerness to get my hands of my first slice of Veganizza, I forgot to get a picture in its pristine state.

NYPD Veganizza

The Veganizza comes default with Daiya, Roma tomatoes, fresh spinach, basil and garlic. While it lacks the fake meat found on zpizza’s Berkeley Vegan, it makes up for it with excellent flavor and the perfect NY-style crust (defined as: very thin, but firm enough to fold).

NYPD Veganizza slice

The proportions were perfect (just enough cheese and sauce) and the basil and spinach were a great combo. My only recommendations are that they should make sure the cheese goes all the way to the edge (which is always a complaint of mine with pizza – never leave a cheese gap)! And they need to cook it just a little bit more, but this seems to be an issue with restaurants that are new to cooking with Daiya – they just don’t trust the cheese! It’s okay though, because we had enough left over to cook it a little longer at home the next day. Next day pizza can’t be beat!

NYPD veganizza twice cooked

The best part is, there’s an NYPD three blocks away from my office, so the phrases “Who wants pizza for lunch?” and “Hey honey, you worked late, how about I just pick up a pizza on my way home?” have re-entered my life! However, I think “I’m going to ride the exercise bike for awhile” may need to be uttered more frequently now as well!

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Phoenix Street Food Update: Vegan Pizza and Tacos!

Now that the weather is getting a bit nicer in Phoenix, it’s time to start exploring the outdoors again – in particular outdoor vegan eats! There are days when I just sit and contemplate what I love more – vegan pizza or tacos. This is a tale of both!

I rarely get a Friday afternoon free to head down to Food Truck Friday, but I was highly motivated when I learned that the Pizza People food truck has a vegan Daiya cheese option. Quite possibly the best vegan pizza I’ve ever had was from a food truck in Portland called Pyro Pizza so I had to check  these Pizza People out!

Pizza People Food Truck

The menu was ideal – a good sized pizza for one, with a decent options of veggies.

Pizza People menu

My husband went for spinach and mushrooms, and it was a very pretty pie. I chose a green peppers and onions pizza.

Pizza People mushroom and spinach vegan pizza

Pizza People green peppers and onions vegan pizza

The crust was nice and fluffy and the red sauce tasted fresh and light. I would, however, suggest they use a little less cheese (I know that’s sacrilege coming from Daiya-obsessed me). My guess is that chefs are nervous that Daiya won’t melt so they over-do it, and the excess soggifies the pie. I saw some table-neighbors’ dairy pies that had the right ratio, so Pizza People, lighten it up a bit please and you’ll have an outstanding vegan pizza!

While we were there, we checked out the menus on the other trucks. Clearly I’m going to have to track down the Uprooted truck at a future date. Check out the menu!

Uprooted Kitchen menu

A week later, I found out Green Vegetarian was setting up a food tent at the Arizona Taco Festival, and lucky me — I won tickets by suggesting they make potato tacos! The festival was much more massive than I expected, but I’ll go to great lengths for Green’s tacos – so I was willing to battle the chaos.

The sign for the Green tent was a little more subtle than some of the others, but they seemed to be getting plenty of traffic.

Green Vegetarian's Taco Tent menu

Green was serving two types of tacos: carne asada and potato with refried beans.

Green's vegan carne asada taco

Green's potato and beans taco

Both came with a side of cabbage salad and a delicious hot sauce I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting at Green. I enjoyed the carne asada tacos, but not as much as a steak taco special I’ve had a Green before.

The potato and bean tacos were fantastic. They only thing that could have made them better was, you guessed it, a nice helping of Daiya. I now want tacos, especially these, added to the Green menu! I know they’d be a hit, because, well, I ate five of them!

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Gourmet Vegan Dining in Phoenix? Christopher’s Says Yes We Can!

Christopher's

Several years ago, a co-worker in DC treated me to an amazing vegan tasting menu with wine pairings at the Mandarin Oriental. I’ve dreamed of replicating the experience in Phoenix, and thought my husband’s birthday was a good excuse to try to make it happen. I developed a list of top 10 gourmet restaurants in Phoenix that do tasting menus with the intent to call each one and ask if they could do a vegan meal until I got a “yes.” Lucky for me, the first one on the list, Christopher’s, put me on hold for a minute and came back with the magic words: “Chef Christopher said yes, we can do that!” I knew we were in safe hands because I said, “I wanted to do something a little more special than Green for his birthday” and the person on the phone said “I love Green!”

Christopher’s regular menu doesn’t hold much interest for vegans. But I had been to the chef’s previous venue, Christopher’s Fermier, before turning vegan and knew it was top notch. We were seated in a “semi-private” glassed-off room in the center of the restaurant. It’s a great spot to see everything, while still being able to have a conversation. I’ll admit I was very nervous about what we’d be served since I’m such a fussy eater and am not comfortable giving control over my choices to someone who doesn’t know me. All I asked up front was “no mushrooms please.” Before we started, the waiter told us the chef had been to two different stores to find the meal’s ingredients and had labored over it all day. He previewed the menu with us and it all sounded excellent!

Below is a description of all six courses. It was the most creative and unique vegan meal I’ve ever had. It didn’t have the self confidence of a Millennium meal, but it was inspired and aspirational. The tastes varied from strong to subtle, and the portions were ideal. I didn’t take pictures of the meal, but I did try to take good notes. Of course, after the third round of food and drink, the notes bcame illegible. The wines may be off a bit, but I tried to capture them accurately.

Before the meal we were treated to delicious fresh bread with olive oil. I kept saying to myself, “don’t fill up on bread” but it was too good.

Course one: Tomato tea paired with sparkling wine from Wrigley Mansion

When the waiter said “tomato tea” I had to ask him to say it again. This was essentially the “soup” course, but it was unlike any soup I’ve ever had. At its base was a chilled tomato puree garnished with basil chiffonade. The tea was then poured over the top. It created a very thin tomato broth with a hint of lemon juice. This may have been our favorite single dish. It was light, healthy and unique. The wine was a keeper as well, as in “no, don’t take that one” when they brought the next course and wine pairing.

Course two: Coriander infused heritage carrots with saffron jus paired with Chockstone Riesling Victoria

This was also a nice light dish but surprisingly full of flavor. The baby carrots (two orange, two yellow, two purple) were peeled and just barely exposed to heat; they retained their full texture. In fact, they were firmer than I would have liked, if only because the oomph required to cut them threatened to splash the jus on our clothes. Unfortunately, the bread plate didn’t get refilled in time, so we were unable to soak up the marvelous coriander and saffron broth.

Course three: Freekeh with grilled asparagus, chive and tomato sauce paired with Montes Sauvignon Blanc

This was the best pairing of the night. The wine had an apple fragrance, which became more pronounced as it warmed to room temperature. We had never had Freekeh before, which is a wheat grain picked while still green and roasted. It was very firm, similar in texture to buckwheat, but without the overpowering flavor.  It was gently placed on top of the tomato sauce, which was not ambitious but very complementary to the grain. The savory dish brought out the elusive sweet notes in the otherwise very dry wine. The asparagus was very small, almost a garnish. It was the most filling of the dishes.

Course four: Ratatouille with tofu and bell pepper coulee paired with Vina Cousino Macul Finis Terrae Red Wine Maipo Valley

This was probably the least creative of the dishes. We are not big fans of ratatouille, since it’s pretty much a full-on nightshade-a-thon. But it complimented the tofu, which was lightly cooked, unseasoned and bore the pronounced grill-marks of being cooked over an open fire, very nicely. It was also another great wine pairing, now switched to red.

Course five: Red and yellow beet garbanzo bean ravioli stuffed w/tofu and topped with truffle oil paired with Marc Bredif Chinon

This was the dish that made us say “Is it really vegan?” Clearly extra effort was put in here to create vegan ravioli for us. The ravioli rested on a bright beet infusion and the tofu filling mimicked ricotta. The ravioli dough was somewhat chalky and inelastic, but very flavorful. This was a great finish to the main meal!

Course six: Mango and lemon sorbet with raspberries paired with desert wine (I didn’t catch the name)

A pleasent pairing to finish the night. The sweetness of the sorbet brought out the strong alcohol flavor of the dessert wine, giving the night a nice send-off. Elements at the Sanctuary does sorbet better, however.

The evening itself was a very special experience; probably the only way a vegan can have the full Christopher’s gourmet experience. You need to come prepared with sense of adventure, since you never know what they will serve. So if, like me, you cannot stand certain foods, you’d better tell them in advance. The dishes were all excellently prepared, and well crafted. However, you could still tell that they were out of their wheelhouse with vegan cuisine. You can’t expect Christopher’s to compete with a core vegan gourmet experience like at San Francisco’s Millennium, but when you add in the cost for flights and a hotel, it is a good compromise.

In summary, I’d like to say a big Thank You to Christopher’s for taking a chance, being accommodating and creating a unique celebration that could hardly be topped.

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Treehouse Bakery’s Vegan “Pop Tarts” – the New Cupcake?

Some people may think cupcakes are “all that” – but I’d like to propose a new pretender to the hand-held, single-serving treat throne: the glorious toaster pastry, aka the Pop Tart. The potential for inspired variations and flavor combinations is limitless. It’s time for Pop Tarts to go viral!

When I became a vegan eight years ago, I thought pizza would be the hardest thing to give up. I was wrong. There’s plenty of excellent vegan pizza out there to keep me happy. However, two vegan taste sensations have eluded me over the years: frosted Pop Tarts and Cheese Doodles. But now, thanks to Treehouse Bakery I’m happy to say the splendor of frosted toaster pastry is back in my life.

I had been looking for an excuse to visit the recently opened Treehouse Bakery storefront at the intersection of 15th Ave, W. Roosevelt and Grand Ave. So when proprietor and vegan baker extraordinaire Corianne Sizemore posted pictures of freshly baked strawberry “Pop Tarts” on her Facebook page, I was out the door and headed her way.

The storefront is easy to find when traveling westbound on Roosevelt, and there’s plenty of parking. It’s light and clean inside, with the fresh-out-of-the-oven treats in cases or cooling on a rack.

Treehouse vegan bakery counter

Of course since I was there already, I had to survey everything on offer and make some tough decisions.

Treehouse vegan bakery treat display

I’ve tried Treehouse’s vegan cupcakes plenty of times before (see previous review here) so I wanted to experiment a bit. I ended up with the strawberry “pop tarts” of course, plus a chocolate chip cookie and a snicker doodle.

Treehouse's vegan strawberry "pop tarts"

The pop tarts were amazing. We toasted them to give them the “fresh out of the box” taste. The crust was flaky and slightly salty, and the strawberry jam was at just the right thickness. It isn’t a Pop Tart without frosting, and Treehouse’s were frosted to perfection. And of course, the rainbow sprinkles were the essential finishing touch. I want more. Now.

Next up were the vegan cookies. Corianne apologized for the cookies being a little “flat” but they were just like I like them – soft, bendy and tasty. I couldn’t say which I liked better – they were both perfect.

I also splurged a bit since it was a long weekend and picked up a blueberry pie.

Treehouse's vegan blueberry pie

Corianne admitted up front that it hadn’t quite set (which is why I opted to buy the whole pie and not just a slice). It was pretty soupy, even after sitting in the fridge for a day, but the crust held up well. I’m afraid I’ll have to try a few more of her pies before posting a fair assessment of the Treehouse pie options.

Now if only someone could come up with a good vegan Cheese Doodle, I’d be all set.

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The Yard House Serves Gardein!

During the Phoenix Coyotes’ great 2012 playoff run (as of right now they’re down 3-1 against the Kings, but regardless of how the conference finals end – we’re still proud of you), we found someplace else to eat other than our usual hummus sandwich at Which Wich. It turns out Yard House, right outside the arena, has a complete Gardein menu! Who knew?

They don’t specify what is vegan and what is just vegetarian, and I appreciate the disclaimer on their site that they are not a vegan environment, but it’s far better than my usual “just give me some fries and a beer” when at a bar. During our visit they were way too slammed with playoff fans for me to be fussy and ask about each ingredient, but it was pretty easy to make educated guesses on what was “fairly safe” for vegans or not, based on the descriptions.

We arrived at Yard House about four hours before puck drop in an attempt to watch the New York Rangers playoff game on one of their tons of TVs before going in for the Coyotes game, to avoid an inevitable spoiler from the Jumbotron scoreboard. We asked to be seated by a TV showing the Rangers and they accommodated us, even when we threw a fit that someone else tried to change the channel. We felt bad taking a table for that long, but oh well. We killed time by getting an appetizer of the Gardein Boneless Wings.

Yard House Gardein buffalo wings

We went with buffalo style, and they were plenty hot and a very generous portion. They are served with ranch dressing, so just put that aside if you’re vegan. I liked them quite a bit but my husband turned his nose up after eating a few. They were deep fried, fairly thick and coated in sauce, but once they cooled off they got too spongy, so there were a few left on the plate at the end. They don’t come close to how great Green’s or That’s a Wrap’s buffalo-style items are, but for veggie bar food, they were just fine.

About two hours later, we ordered our meal (yes, we tipped very well). I got a Spicy House Salad, but had them hold the Asian slaw because it sounded too vague and I didn’t want to ask.

Yard House Spicy Salad

It was fine – nothing to call home about but certainly palatable and healthier than the wings! I’d probably go for the mixed greens next time though as the dressing was a little too meh – kind of fake spicy and sugary with questionable contents.

The highlight of the meal by far and above was the Gardein Burger (and fries). I failed to get a photo because we ate it so fast. It was cooked well, and the fries were really great. You can substitute a Gardein burger for any of the burger options on the menu, but for vegans the only option was “just the burger and veggies please” – everything else looked non-vegan. We also avoided the roasted garlic aioli that comes with it since we didn’t want to ask questions. The sliders might also be an option, without the cheese and probably not the “special sauce.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the bun had egg in it, but there’s no indication on the menu/on their site.

While I won’t be bailing on Which Wich any time soon, it’s nice to know there’s another dining option near the arena when we are able to get to games early either in the finals or next season and want to hang out for awhile. Of course, that’s making a double assumption there will be a “next season” in Phoenix, given the ownership situation and the pending NHL CBA talks! Let’s Go Coyotes! And of course, Let’s Go Rangers! As of today, my dream of a NYR vs. PHX final is still alive!

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