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.

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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.

Fresh Off the Boat

One of the most buzz-worthy restaurant openings of recent months, much has already been written about FOB Kitchen in Oakland, California. Filipino food is quickly gaining mainstream traction, but remains relatively rare in an elevated dining atmosphere, particularly in an accessible, approachable format. Given the circumstances, such breathless anticipation can be forgiven. Clamoring for something new, the dining public is absolutely eating this stuff up- And not just for the novelty factor.

In a culture ruled by pork, vegan options are rare at best, but not so on the menu at the Temescal treasure. FOB Kitchen goes out of their way to provide meatless eats for their diverse, discerning Californian clientele.

Tofu-mushroom adobo, the entree that earns the most critical attention, is the result of recipe testing for over a year to get the flavors just right. Garlic-forward in the best way possible, aromatic onions and peppers give this lightly stewed combination its essential character, enhanced by a generous hand with the coconut oil for a luxurious eating experience.

Ensalada talong, an unassuming eggplant salad, turned out to be the sleeper hit of the evening, dazzling with a bright vinegar dressing sprinkled across crisp jicama, tomato, with the surprising briny bite of sea asparagus woven among tender braised eggplant and shredded mango. Crunchy broken rice crackers crown the melange with a satisfying toasted note, essentially allowing eaters to indulge in forkfuls of chips and chunky dip without looking like brutes. This dish alone is worth a return visit.

Kabocha squash also dazzles with stunning depth, stewed in coconut milk alongside long beans and onions. Such simplicity belies the incredible richness of each melt-in-your-mouth soft orange cube.

Pancit sontaghon, simple glass noodles with a handful of colorful vegetables, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle, but still satisfies with its savory soy sauce-infused translucent strands.

Suman, a variation on mango sticky rice, presents the starch as a completely smooth cylinder on the plate that bears only gentle resistance to the fork. Topped with caramelized coconut crumbs, the lightly bitter notes contrast beautifully with the tropical fruit arranged on the side. Though I might personally prefer more sauce, it could probably be served in a soup bowl and I’d still have the same complaint.

Beginning life as a fledgling pop-up back in 2015, the name is an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat,” but I truly hope they’re dropping anchor to stay a good long while.

Ready… Set… Dough!

Can you imagine a time when a flavor as ordinary as cookie dough ice cream would have been deemed controversial? The year was 1984 when Ben & Jerry’s shocked the world by dishing out scoops of vanilla ice cream riddled with unbaked batter. We’ve certainly come a long way, but the drive for sweet innovation remains the same.

Unafraid to venture off the eaten trail from day one, Ben & Jerry’s has been pushing frozen boundaries as open-minded eaters grow more adventurous, and diverse diets pose unique challenges. The game-changing release of four non-dairy pints almost three years ago was just another chapter in this never ending story. Now the full lineup stands eleven tall, as two new doughboys join the ranks. Classic Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, described as having “gobs of chocolate chip cookie dough and fudge flakes,” answers the demand for this familiar childhood staple, while Chocolate Caramel Cluster treads a new path along a cocoa terrain, littered with peanuts, fudge chunks, and salted caramel swirls.

Ben & Jerry’s has been seriously rolling in dough recently, starting with the limited release of Snackable Dough Chunks back in fall, followed by the line of Cookie Dough Core ice creams in their original dairy base. Amidst all of that dough-licious decadence, it only stands to reason that vegans should get to enjoy “the number one global flavor” at long last.

Made with a blend of almond milk and pea protein just like its predecessors, the cookie dough ice cream scoops easily right out of the freezer, soft and smooth, with a premium texture that translates into a rich creamy sensation on the tongue. The buttery, warm vanilla base is rounded out by a marshmallowy sweetness that strikes me as a marked improvement over the first submissions to the dairy-free field. Each spoonful is pockmarked with shatteringly crisp stracciatella chocolate shards, rather than rock-hard chunks. As promised, Ben & Jerry’s delivers the goods in great abundance. Dense nuggets of dough with a fine grain, dominated by brown sugar flavor, turn up in every bite.

Even for an old-school omnivore, it would be hard to find fault in this pint. If you’re already a cookie monster, you know exactly what to expect here: it’s a simple concept, simply done right.

This post was made possible thanks to Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

Breaking Breakfast News

For anyone who ever wanted to skip the formalities of a balanced breakfast and dig straight into the cookie jar first thing in the morning, you’re in luck! Voortman Bakery, better known for their crisp wafer cookies, understands that impulse well, no doubt through decades of temptation by their own treats. Only that kind of experience could yield such sweet results, without actually adding any sugar or compromising on flavor. Voortman’s Breakfast Biscuits satisfy that early cookie craving while delivering all the nutritional benefits of a bowl of oatmeal, without the need for a spoon.

Brand new on the market, two of the three offerings in this fresh lineup are 100% vegan, which presents a more difficult choice than you might imagine! Rest assured that no matter which fruit calls to you first, there’s no risk of disappointment here.

Crisp, with a soft bite and slight chew, these are no mere granola bars presented in a new circular format. Not the least bit dry and crumbly as I had initially feared, these treats gain a uniquely coarse, toothsome texture from oats, as promised by their titles, but also rye flakes and buckwheat to round out the base. Surprisingly satisfying and hearty for two little cookies, they’re sweet enough for the kids, and healthy enough for adults.

Cinnamon Apple proved my favorite of the two, bursting with assertive, bright apple aroma as soon as I opened the pouch. Contrary to the norm when it comes to spiced treats, the cinnamon actually takes a backseat to the sweet but tart apple flavor. Sizable chunks of dried apple introduce another dimension of texture. You can actually see and taste the whole fruit here! Blueberry Oatmeal is no slouch either, with cobalt sprinkles of ground berries present throughout, but the flavor is admittedly a bit more subtle. If you want to ease into your morning with a bit more of a gentle taste, this is the biscuit for you.

While they’re called breakfast biscuits, they’re smart snacks, too, earning stellar grades in the nutrition department. Easily graduating at the top of their class with an A+ for fiber, they’re the crunchy cookie that every healthy eater has been dreaming of. Now the time has come to finally wake up and chow down!

This post was made possible thanks to the support of Voortman Bakery and Towers Marketing Group. All content and opinions are unbiased and entirely my own.

Plant-Based Meals that Deliver

Meal delivery services have proliferated faster than amorous rabbits in recent years, expanding from an obscure, niche business model to one as common as the standard grocery store. There’s something for everyone, they promise with bright, inviting graphics, splashed across the screen with tempting photos of various dishes. If you like to cook, you can get bundles of ingredients with recipes. If your expertise in the kitchen ends at the microwave, you can have finished dishes ready to heat and eat land on your doorstep with just the click of a button. For those feeding a family, still more options abound for bulk meal prep. Don’t even get me started on all the specialized diets, from paleo to gluten-free, sometimes available all on the same platform. How does one begin to pick apart the best choices, given such a superabundance of promising meals- And seemingly endless deals?

While most enterprises now offer at least a handful of plant-based entrees, as is the trend, only a select few boast a fully vegan menu across the board. Veestro is one that can claim that distinction, inspired by the need for organic, healthy, and above all else, tasty food that fits into a fast-paced lifestyle. For their part, the stated goal is provide more plants for anyone hungry for a healthier alternative to takeout, appealing to the omnivores among us as well.

Sign up for a meal plan to save on the bundle or cherry-pick just a few dishes a la carte to supplement your standard rotation. Deliveries arrive frozen, conveniently packaged for further storage in your freezer or immediate thawing and consuming.

Here’s where I must sheepishly admit that I first tried Veestro many months ago, but as a testament to fervent following, these proven crowd-pleases are still delighting eaters all the same today. Such is the case for this Three Layer Scramble, which stacks up with a base of quinoa, smothered by a soft tofu scramble with black beans and topped by shredded dairy-free cheese. Reminiscent of enchilada filling without the heat of chilies, the ranchero-style sauce definitely erred more on the mild side, but that’s nothing a dash of sriracha can’t fix. Emphasizing the whole grains with a generous portion, it’s a very filling morning meal that would be just as enjoyable at lunch or dinnertime, too.

Perhaps the Breakfast Burrito was designed to be a more handheld, grab-and-go option, but the piquant sauce on the side is what truly makes this dish. Pour it on with abandon to make it a “wet” burrito, with a fork, knife, and plate required. Light and bright, it revives the slightly parched interior and adds volumes of flavor. Though labeled as hot sauce, it’s really more like a smooth, blended salsa. Wrapped up in the grilled tortilla, you’ll be pleased to find tender, toothsome, black beans, tofu, and potatoes. Served separately, lightly seasoned hash browns seem a bit redundant given this combination, but certainly aren’t unwelcome here. Who could say no to a supple, buttery potato, though?

If an urgent call should go out for some homey, uncomplicated comfort food, the Shepherdless Pie has got your number. Creamy potatoes with quinoa make up the bulk of this dish, slathered with a savory mushroom gravy that leads with the distinctive cheesy taste of nutritional yeast. Though slightly grainy after a harsh freeze and thaw, that textural shortcoming is easily forgiven when mixed into the main meal. Very much reminiscent of a pot pie without pastry, this easy entree presents familiar and uncomplicated flavors for widespread appeal.

There are no downright failures on this menu, but admittedly, some small disappointments. Thai Chicken Stew combines a thick, rich tomato base with incredibly meaty chicken strips, complete with a boldly charred, grilled essence, but I struggled to find any sort of Asian influence. Not a hint of curry, lemongrass, or coconut could be found. Although it looks like fried rice on the side, don’t be fooled; it’s just plain brown rice with peas and carrots. If simply re-titled without a reference to more exotic cuisine, it would be worthy of a reorder, but promises more on paper than it delivers in person.

Also available as a full “detox” plan, juices can be added a la cart, with a classic green juice predictably leading the pack as a top seller. Apple juice as a stand-alone beverage lost its appeal around kindergarten, so admittedly, I was not particularly enthusiastic to find the diminutive plastic bottle of Johnny Appleseed Juice in my sampler box. Clearly not just plain apple, as the dark green hue would make obvious at a glance, the initial smell is of grassy celery. Thankfully, it plays more of a supporting role in the overall flavor, which was definitely vegetal, but mellow and mostly sweet. More than mere veggies, this blend boasts a decent amount of protein thanks to the addition of sacha inchi, giving it much more more than just straight sugar for a quick energy boost.

As much as I love cooking, one of the greatest luxuries in life is allowing others to take the reins, and simply be fed. Knowing that those meals are of reliably high quality, healthy, and ready when you need them makes Veestro a strong contender for anyone who wants a night off from kitchen duty. Best of all, since they ship frozen, you can stock up and save them for times of need.

Have you tried any other prepared meal services? There are new plant-based providers sprouting out everyday, or so it seems, and I’m curious to try them all!