Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706

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The Straight Dough(p)

It was only a matter of time. After releasing a glorious vegan version of their infamous cookie dough ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s has now unveiled the next level of dough indulgence upon the world. Joining the previously limited run of “just the chunks,” vegans will soon see a variation with their names on it appearing in grocery stores and scoop shops nationwide.

This is the real deal; the straight dough(p). Cylindrical extrusions exactly like you would see rolling down factory conveyor belts, destined for an unceremonious ice cream burial. Now, they’ve been freed of that typical, undistinguished fate for a glorious full feature. No longer the sidekick but the true hero, every nuance of their buttery, brown sugar sweetness can be properly appreciated. Never before have I tasted anything so closely matched to the flavors of homemade dough without reaching right into the bowl of my stand mixer.

Suddenly, I’m three years old again, standing on a chair to see over the tiled kitchen counter while my mom prepares cookies. Stretching to reach the very edge of the beater, I surreptitiously swipe tiny morsels of soft batter, one after another, letting the flavors explode across my palate and slowly dissipate before going in for another bit. Each stolen taste was just enough to flood my senses with the slightly grainy texture of undissolved sugar and flour, subtly balanced salted edge, and deeply satisfying richness. Stealthy, I was not, but my mom charitably humored my advances, pretending to be engaged with very complicated oven calibration every now and then while I made my moves.

Like the flashbulb of an antique camera, the memory fades off into black, and just like that, the bag is empty, too.

Ben & Jerry’s, take another bow. This is a completely faultless edible masterpiece by any standards. If you’ve ever craved raw cookie dough, this is what you’ve wanted all along.

Bare Essentials

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

Essentially, the freshest new obsessions in ancient wellness trends are essential oils.

Distilled from the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits, essential oils are the most concentrated expression of individual plants available through natural means, which makes them incredibly potent and effective for therapeutic uses. It doesn’t take a medical degree to reap the benefits, though! Aura Cacia makes these powerful extracts accessible to everyone, offering well over one hundred single origin essential oils and dozens of different blends. Previously overlooked or simply unavailable in small health food shops, iHerb is delivering the largest selection of these indispensable ingredients around.

Based in California but reaching customers in over 150 countries all around the world, iHerb boasts over 30,000 brand name natural products, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your oils will arrive on time for even the most urgent needs or ailments; no need to suffer from both an unfortunate malady and the offense of an interminable wait. Additionally, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, without going on a mad goose chase trying to hunt down obscure pieces to complete your wellness puzzle?

Aura Cacia oils promise the highest standards of quality. You’ll never find synthetic fragrances, fillers, artificial colors or stabilizers in any of their products. Only 100% pure essential oils make the cut.

Starting from truly the bare essentials, uses for these powerhouse oils are endless. Take a peek into my kitchen and you’ll undoubtedly find an impressive array of those tiny glass bottles standing tall, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine for someone as food-focused as myself.

Not only do citrus oils infuse everything they touch with a bright, clean, uplifting scent, but they’re also powerhouse grease busters. Natural antibacterial and antiviral properties make everything from lemon, tangerine, grapefruit, sweet orange, and all the sunny shades of warm yellow in between ideal candidates for chemical-free cleaning. My very favorite Citrus Symphony Dish Scrub is made of little more than baking soda and essential oils. Sometimes I’ll switch up the routine and inject a new bright scent with ginger or lemongrass, which are both excellent for soothing nausea, in case the aroma of your splattered, stained, and crusty dishes becomes overwhelming.

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Going to the Dogs

If you build it, they will come. If you shake the treat bag within earshot, they will come with tails wagging and tongues panting, too.

The push for alternative proteins isn’t limited to just the human diet; behind the scenes, toiling away in laboratories and kitchens, the race is on to develop a more sustainable, ethical, and wholesome way to nourish man’s best friend. Wild Earth is growing their blend, and their business, from the ground up with koji, a type of fungus used in soy sauce and miso.

Higher in protein content than steak (24 percent protein by weight), these cultured mushrooms contain over 45 percent protein by contrast. Though the nutritional numbers are impressive, to say the least, what matters the most to my guy is the fact that these healthy spores impart a unique umami flavor to the treats.

Luka and I were early adopters of this innovative concept, well before the Berkeley-based company revamped their packages, added different flavors, and made a big splash on Shark Tank last week. Now pet parents nationwide can’t stop buzzing about the brand, which successfully secured a $550,000 investment on the show.

Treats are truly just the appetizer to kick things off. Coming soon, proper dog food will be made of the very same savory stuff, providing a completely vegan, fully vetted (AAFCO-compliant) main meal.  That may come as a surprise to those still wedded to the notion that dogs are obligate carnivores, but with more research supporting the possibility of raising healthy, happy canines without the need for meat, Wild Earth is making it not only feasible, but enjoyable for the pups in question.

World Renowned, Locally Loved

How many chain restaurants can draw lines everyday, from opening to closing, numbering well into the dozens on a “slow” day? What about an outpost that can claim a Michelin star? If you haven’t already heard of Din Tai Fung, there’s a good chance you’ve felt its impact on the overall culinary landscape whether you realize it or not. Born in Taiwan originally as a cooking oil purveyor, Din Tai Fung transitioned into the restaurant business in 1972 and has taken the world by storm ever since. Based primarily in Asia, the west coast has been blessed with a handful of these hallowed outposts, each one drawing rave reviews at a fevered pitch typically reserved for rarefied fine dining. Making a taste of the extraordinary accessible on a mainstream level is just one of their many triumphs.

It’s been said that their xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings, are the absolute pinnacle of perfection; the very best example of the art, executed with the exact same mastery every single time despite being made by hand, in volumes that would boggle the sober mind. Unfortunately, that’s not a debate I can weigh in on, as vegan soup dumplings are about as common as three-legged unicorns. Why bother with the wait, which can range from a minimum of  one to three hours, then? Well, there’s a whole lot more to this menu than just dough-encased parcels of pork.

Keenly aware of their local audience, Americans are treated to clearly labeled options for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes. Even without modification, overwhelming choices unfold with the turn of the page, particularly for vegetable-lovers with a penchant for spice.

Vegetable and Mushroom Dumplings surely can’t compare to their plump, porky brethren, but offer a highly competent, crowd-pleasing combination of springy wonton wrappers and tender umami fillings. The same can be said for the Vegetable and Mushroom Bun, which simply replaces that thin and chewy exterior with a puffy, fluffy cloud of steamed white bread. Essential for enjoyment is the DIY dip you’ll concoct from slivers of fresh ginger and black vinegar, mixed to taste.

No, that alone would not bring me running back to the Westfield Valley Fair mall where this Santa Clara locale has set up shop, of all places. It’s the starters and sides that make this meal. Like Thanksgiving dinner, side dishes are the stars of this show.

Go with a crowd and order every single plant-based appetizer because I can’t imagine leaving without just a bite of each transcendent taste lingering on my tongue. Soy Noodle Salad, a cold composition of shredded bean curd, is an absolute necessity. Deceptively simple on the surface, masterfully balanced flavors play on every delicate strand, sparkling with gently salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory notes in such perfect harmony that one can’t be fully separated from another. The Cucumber Salad arrives at the table like a statuesque work of edible art. Columns of stacked cylinders are crowned with a single clove of marinated garlic, which is a prize you’ll want to fight for, by the way. Wood Ear Mushrooms in Vinegar Dressing may not resonate as universally, but for fungus fiends, this is slippery plateful of earthy bliss.

Flip over to the section on greens and dig in deep. Every single dish here is completely vegan! Picking here comes down to personal preference, but don’t sleep on the Sauteed String Beans, lightly blistered from the kiss of the wok and dripping with sizeable garlic chunks. Taiwanese Cabbage gets a similar treatment, providing one of the few great examples of the concept this side of the seas.

Dessert buns stuffed with red bean paste or taro also tempt for a sweet plant-based finish, but I can’t personally vouch for these treats. Undone by an unreasonable attempt to eat through the full range of vegan specialties, I left feeling quite like an overstuffed dumpling myself.

Though you may go for the dumplings, you’ll inevitably come back for the vegetables.

Expo West Exposé

Natural Products Expo West is like Christmas for food professionals and obsessives alike, bearing wilder, bolder, and more brilliant new products than one could have dreamed possible just the previous year. Science has come to meet the art of cooking, marketing, and cravings all at once, giving us more than mere eye candy to look forward to. It would be impossible to share everything that caught my eye for this round, but a few bold trends definitely emerged from the pack.

Beans are the New Rice: It’s no longer enough to have certified gluten-free whole grains anymore. Transforming legumes into higher protein alternatives is the latest and greatest side dish to grace the dinner plate, offering a range of nutritional and culinary advantages over plain starches. Made much like their gluten-free pastas, Banza features garbanzo beans, while Pedon uses an assortment of peas, lentils, and chickpeas to make their colorful new options. Seapoint Farms has taken a different approach with their Riced Edamame, simply chopping it into a coarse meal, it much like you would expect from cauliflower “rice.”

Meat Your Maker: If it bleeds, it leads. Such is true of journalism and the race to create increasingly authentic facsimiles for meatier, beefier burger patties. Impossible Burger set the trend, but the exciting rumor I picked up on here was that it would be coming to grocery stores soon, rather than being available only as a finished entree in select restaurants. Beyond is keeping up with the race quite admirably, unveiling a ground beef made of the same stuff as its famous patties. Mega brands MorningStar and Lightlife have entered the ring as well, but a standout in this fight for me was Sweet Earth, offering a stunningly “authentic” experience with superlative texture in their new Awesome Burger. Danish import Naturli’ Foods is looking to take the US by storm with its line of Minced fresh grounds, based on peas, while Good & Green stands out in the field by slicing unimaginably accurate renditions of prosciutto and carpaccio out of humble beans.

 

More Fish in the Sea: At last, what I’ve long regarded as the final frontier of veganism, seafood alternatives are reeling in accolades across the board. Good Catch is swimming upstream through the guppies and tadpoles, presenting a soy and pea protein blend that might just taste more like tuna than the fish itself. Category veterans Loma Linda, Worthington, Vegetarian Plus are all staying afloat admirably through this sea of change, with their Tuno, Plant-Powered Vegan Tuna, and Vegan Tuna Rolls, respectively. Sophie’s Kitchen continues to offer the only alternative Smoked Salmon for sale, in addition to their fishless lineup of faux shrimp, scallops, crab cakes, and fillets. Going where few frozen foods have before, Sol Cuisine is slinging a Lemon Dill Salm’n Burger that’s ready to grill and thrill.

Better Butter: Bake, melt, and schmear to your heart’s delight, because there have never been so many superlative spreads. Miyoko’s has been the leader of the pack but now faces stiff competition from New Barn, Milkadamia, Naturli’, Medlee, Wild Brine, Wayfare, FabaButter, and Riot Eats. Whether you’re seeking something soy-free, nut-free, palm oil-free, cultured, or seasoned, you’ll suddenly find a rich range of choices.

Knee-Jerk Reaction: The question is no longer “Will it blend?” but “Will it jerky?” It seems like the answer from retailers is a resounding: “YES!” Plant-based jerky is popping up in a variety of savory flavors, most notably on a more diverse range of chewy proteins, fruits, and vegetables than ever. For high-protein savory snacks, Upton’s is slinging seitan Jerky Bites in tropical flavors, Unisoy and Myrte Greens keep it classic with soybean-based Vegan Jerky. No Evil Foods will soon be expanding their range of refrigerated wheat meats to include some shelf-stable jerky snacks with unconventional seasonings such as Pastrami and Al Pastor, among others. Taking the “plant based” concept to the next level, Wild Joy Goods is crafting Banana Jerky from- you guessed it- good old bananas, while Cocoburg favors coconut strips, and Pan’s Mushroom Jerky packs an umami punch with soft and chewy shiitake slices.

Ditching Dairy: Big brands are now looking for milk money by different means. Nestle has rocked the baking world by unveiling Simply Delicious White Chocolate Morsels, which are free of the top 8 allergens, making them the very first vegan option on the mainstream market. Reddi Wip has begun embracing coconuts and almonds as fluffy whipped dessert topping to fill their iconic aerosol cans. Following suit, Coffee Mate has expanded their line of Simply Natural creamers to include these two top picks, along with a creamy oat milk option. Presenting one of the only options for non-dairy kefir, Lifeway has unleashed Plantiful, pea-based probiotic beverages. Arctic Zero is not just offering dairy-free options, but has converted its entire line of light frozen desserts from a whey to pea protein base.

1, 2, 3, CBD: This is not a passing trend, this is an all-out takeover of the traditional food, beverage, and cosmetics industry. Anything and everything is being infused with CBD now, from the predictable gummies and tonics to cakes, teas, air fresheners, dog biscuits, and beyond; there are genuinely too many products and brands to list. Brace yourself for (but also, chill out about) the CBD inundation.

Have you seen any of these edible innovations on store shelves yet? What are you most excited about? It’s a brave new world out there for vegan eaters, allergy suffers, and gastronomes alike.