In Loving Memory

Talk about a turbulent year. 2017 has generated more sensational headlines than the past decade altogether, and even with mere hours left on the clock, I wouldn’t count it out for churning up some new controversy yet. Eager to move ahead straight into the new year without looking back, leaving those lackluster memories far in the past, it’s essential to hit pause, resisting the relentless push forward, to reflect on just those low points. For perspective, we can better appreciate when things are genuinely good, and for knowledge, to prevent those same mistakes from being repeated once again.

In this case, I wanted to take a moment and say a final farewell to some of the dearly departed vegan establishments that we’ve lost in San Francisco in the short span of 12 months. While it’s a grueling industry where failure is much more common that success, especially in the long term, it feels particularly poignant to see so many personal favorites close their doors, despite the immense talent, support, and passion in the kitchen.

Encuentro is the establishment I find hardest to let go of. If you had asked me before, I would have easily placed it on my list of top three restaurants in the bay area, if not first place to begin with. Few fine dining establishments exist for those that eschew meat, dairy, and eggs, but you would never even consider what wasn’t present on the plate here. Execution was on par with that of any Michelin-starred restaurant, in my opinion, but without the pretension that goes along with such a lofty award. Fancy but not fussy, I can’t recall a single bad meal here. Generous platters of tender sweet potato gnocchi and dark, devilish chocolate cake will forever haunt my memory. The dream is not yet dead, though, as the otherwise vacant store front still plays host to periodic pop-up events.

No No Burger shocked fans when they announced the end of their glorious but shockingly brief run. After transitioning from an infrequent pop-up to a daily staple at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, the future seemed bright, especially considering the nearly universal rave reviews for their juicy meatless patties and decadent toppings, deeply savory and indulgent enough to satisfy the cravings of even the most staunch omnivores. Many considered their burger to be the bright spot in a dark, murky landscape of mediocre vegetable-based hockey pucks, leaving a gaping hole in the dining scene between the ultra meaty Impossible Burger and old-school bean burgers.

Photo from Elyse T. via Yelp

RAW – A Juice Company was so much more than just juice, contrary to the name. Offering a rainbow of produce painstakingly crafted into living cuisine, you couldn’t go wrong with a plate of raw lasagna or an abundant acai bowl. Judging by the active Facebook page, though, we may just see the next chapter to this story taking place in the topical islands of Hawaii. Only time will tell when, or if, these fresh finds will resurface.

Seed + Salt had a whole lot of heart for such a tiny place. Wedged into a storefront the size of a bread box in the Marina, not even the limited seating could detract from the experience of eating in. Fully gluten-free in addition to being vegan, eaters of all stripes could find sweet and savory treats to enjoy. The chickpea frittata, served solo, in a breakfast sandwich, or sliced atop a bountiful plant-based Cobb salad, was always hard for me to resist. It’s a simple yet satisfying entree that has inspired many attempts at replication by myself and others in the know.

The Plant Cafe, while still an apparently thriving business with no less than six bustling outposts under its belt, including one in the highly desirable SFO Terminal 2 space, has shuttered both the Burlingame and waterfront Embarcadero establishments. Citing the usual battery of labor shortages and skyrocketing rents, it’s just a relief that their light, healthy fare will still be available for visitors and locals alike. Their impeccably well-balanced grapefruit and avocado salad remains the highlight of any trip that necessitates a stop at the airport. If you find yourself at any of other sit-down cafes that offer a full menu of brunch choices on the weekends, you can’t go wrong with the pesto tofu scramble, either.

Photo by Celiac Community

3 Potato 4, once a small franchise with three locations scattered about the bay, has slowly been shuttering those outposts one by one. The last holdout was in the Pleasanton Stoneridge Shopping Center, but without any warning or confirmation, that store seems to have gone dark mere weeks ago. Dedicated to spreading the spud love, their simple menu offered an array of baked fries and sauce, with seasonal soups, plus soft serve to finish on a sweet note. For comfort food without all the grease and guilt, it was hard to beat this accessible, affordable option. Here’s hoping that the tides turn and this outage is but a brief blip in business as usual.

To these fallen friends that we leave behind in 2017, I’d like to raise a toast- Piled high with avocado, of course- And wish their proprietors all the best on their next big idea. May they find this fork in the road ultimately as fulfilling as the meals they once shared.


The Other Wheat Meat

Living “High on the Hog” has always meant enjoying the finer things in life, originally in reference to the choicest cuts of meat found on the upper half of the animal, which almost always meant one thing: ham. For many, a holiday just isn’t a proper celebration without a lavish roast on the table to both flaunt and share their prosperity. Such deeply ingrained customs are slowly evolving right alongside the shifting landscape of food preferences, so it was only a matter of time before someone was bold enough to take this tradition to task. I can’t think of any company more qualified to do so than Tofurky.

Makers of the original alternative roast, touting veganism before it was cool, Tofurky hasn’t stopped innovating since that fateful first product launch over 30 years ago. Trussed in genuine butcher’s twine and accordingly crosshatched by the pressure, the Vegetarian Ham Roast plays along to fit the bill, albeit on a much smaller scale. This beige football is said to feed five, but presumably a full feast with additional side dishes could stretch that number if need be.

Sharing many qualities with the classic turkey substitute, this porkless roast thaws out from a frozen state to meet a toasty preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. The biggest difference is that this rendition has no stuffing inside, but exterior embellishment instead. Included in the box is an “Extra Special Beer Glaze;” a thick syrup featuring Hopworks Velvet ESB, with a slightly granular texture owing to the inclusion of coarse, stone ground mustard. Make no mistake, it’s very sweet, first and foremost, but ultimately a good contrast to the saltiness of the roast.

That said, I had other plans for my roast and decided against the glaze, in favor of a more nuanced, herbaceous root beer brine, playing off the complex spices from the soda and contrasting with the savory heft of the roast. Dense, chewy, and quite solid, the texture is best when sliced thinly. No one would mistake it for meat, no doubt about that, but it’s a welcome departure from the standard faux-fowl or straight soybean fare for more festive occasions. Additionally, leftovers are brilliant additions to typically porky dishes, like a simple pot of creamy white beans or split pea soup. Since ham isn’t an entree that I encountered frequently as a child, it resonates more as a flavorful, protein-packed new ingredient than a whole entree for me.

That’s why I was especially excited to play around with the extra slices to make mock chashu, a Japanese form of marinated pork belly. Fanned out atop a bowlful of hot, steaming ramen, the visual and flavorful impact was quite stunning. Even with my otherwise humble assortment of vegetables cobbled together out of the pantry, this meal became an instant, unforgettable hit thanks to that exceptional meatless inclusion.

As further recipe experimentation has proven, this new plant-based ham roast provides more than just an annual comestible experience, but a promising year-round addition to anyone’s daily menu.

Root Beer Brined Ham

1 12-Ounce Bottle (1 1/2 Cups) Sugar-Sweetened Root Beer
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Allspice Berries
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or even 48 if you can bare the wait.

To cook, bake the roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 75 – 90 minutes, until golden brown on the outside and hot all the way through. Meanwhile, set the leftover brine back on the stove and simmer until reduced to a thick, syrupy sauce.

Slice thinly and serve with the root beer reduction on the side.

Makes 5 Servings

Printable Recipe


3/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Red Miso Paste
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Mirin
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Just like the previous preparation, this procedure couldn’t be simpler. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 8 hours.

Slice thinly and add to your favorite bowl of ramen noodles to serve. The warmth of the soup should reheat the slices without any additional cooking necessary.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

Top Nog

What is it about the holiday season that incites us to cast all common sense aside and engage in otherwise inadvisable behavior, with childlike glee, no less? Whether that means racing outside into giant piles of freezing snow, risking frostbite to all appendages without a second thought, or racking up credit card bills for the sake of tree dressings and silly ornamentation used only once a year, we all write off these aberrations as all part of a collective Christmas madness shared throughout society. What causes you to throw out the rule book and deviate from standard operations? What touch of insanity do you entertain to make it really feel like the holidays are here? For me, that would be buying every single vegan nog option available across three towns for the sake of comparison.

Yes indeed, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The great Nog-Off of 2017, pitting past industry heavy weights against startups and newbies to determine which eggless nog reigns supreme. This round was the most impressive yet, bringing in no less that nine different beverages vying for the title of Top Nog.

Time is of the essence, with each of these elusive elixirs produced for a very limited time during the most festive of days, so let’s pour a glass and get started, shall we?

It was an extremely difficult, close race to judge, but last place was obvious right away. Sorry, not sorry, but Rice Dream Rice Nog will never be welcome at my holiday party. Inexplicably pink and quite watery, it utilizes aggressive sweetness to compensate for a distinct lack of flavor. Granted, it’s not outright dreadful, but not even close to “authentic” nog. On the plus side, the rice base will appeal to those with severe allergies, and the aseptic, shelf-stable carton means it will keep well… Possibly for years… Much like an unwanted fruitcake.

That said, this came as no surprise. My greatest disappointment was actually the second to last place finisher, the highly esteemed MALK Pecan MALK Nog. Tawny brown, it stood out with a distinctive darkness in a sea of pastel hues, owing to a unique blend of maple syrup and whole pecans as a base. The bottle isn’t kidding when it admonishes the drinker to shake “super” well; no stabilizers or fillers means that this stuff separates, which I can certainly appreciate from a stance of ingredient integrity and a commitment to quality. Scented strongly of cinnamon, the overall impression was surprisingly light, dangerously drinkable- Smooth and sweet, but not particularly thick or rich. Sadly, this made it more reminiscent of horchata than eggnog. It just couldn’t cut the mustard for that full-bodied eggless experience.

From there, things improve drastically. Luckily, you can’t go too far wrong with most selections available Nationwide, and in fact a number of these cartons could be interchanged without any guests being being the wiser.

Califia Holiday Nog and Silk Nog Original pull in the next rank up, tied for their close flavor profiles and consistencies. Silk is perhaps a touch sweeter, if anything. Though the former is almond-based and the later soy, both have a smooth, creamy pour equivalent to the average, slightly richer non-dairy milk. There’s a distinctive brightness at first sip that defies definition; almost like undefinable spice or burst of acidity, but without warmth or sharpness. Fine as an everyday, everyman sort of nog, a hit of bourbon or brandy would be a welcome addition to make things a bit more festive. Fairly neutral, without explicit nutmeg nor eggy notes, either would be inoffensive, if undistinguished, offerings on the drink buffet.

Fresh on the market, Trader Joe’s Almond Nog has already taken Instagram by storm, right along with the impressive array of new vegan options that seem to crop up on each new trip to the store. Smooth and mellow, creamy, and boasting a balanced sweetness, this blend presents a harmonious middle of the road option that should please all who imbibe. Satisfingly in thick, not overbearing nor weighed down by gums, a light hand on the spicing and very subtle nutty undertone explains why dairy-free drinkers are delighted by this new choice. No one would mistake it for the traditional brew, but no one would complain about the substitution, either.

Moving on up, it’s with sadness and joy that I must report that previous grand champion So Delicious Seasonal Coconut Holiday Nog has been dethroned! It’s a sad blow to the superlative brand, but a boon to veganism that there are even greater choices to pick from now. Still a genuinely delicious selection, true to the name, the coconut base is definitely rich, decadent, and bold. That said, it was all love and sweetness on the first sip, and then… A startling aftertaste of old latex bandaids came to the fore. Off-putting, upsetting, to say the least, this mysterious sour note almost put it on the naught list this year. Such missteps would certainly be forgiven with a splash of booze to smooth things over, but otherwise it was fabulous!

Another fresh face on the scene is making a big splash, pulling in a top spot with an unconventional flaxseed fixation. Good Karma Holiday Nog is the one and only flax nog on earth, to my knowledge. Glowing with the palest complexion of pastel yellow, the flavor profile is defined by a restrained sweetness, a bare hint of spice, and a subtle nutty, pleasantly grassy aftertaste. Smooth and creamy, but slightly sticky, it lingers on the palate in an indulgent sort of way that belies its impressively light calorie load.

In a big upset, my mainstream market nog of choice this year turned out to be Classic Almond Breeze Almondmilk Nog. Curiously absent from the official brand website and difficult to track down, it was a sleeper hit. So easy to drink, creamy and cool, it makes no bones about the almond base with an attempt to cover up the nutty influence, incorporating it harmoniously within the overall beverage instead. Vanilla plays a more prominent role in this blend, and although I do wish there was more nutmeg sparkling throughout the mix, this was the bottle I ultimately wanted more of when all were drained.

But that’s not the end of the story. There was one clear, standout winner here, rising far above the ranks of these more attainable options. The crown is well deserved, for its genuinely egg-like richness, sheer decadence, and clear holiday spirit. Though you may need to special-order it online, the efforts would be worthwhile for a true nog lover. The Urban Remedy No Egg Nog is in a class all its own. Rich and filling, with a clean finish, it has a very different texture from the rest of the pack, without gums or stabilizers. Though easily the most indulgent option available, it’s arguably the most healthy, owing to its simple, natural ingredients; whole almonds, cashews, and dates join forces in this nutmeg-centric and boldly spiced beverage that drinks like a meal. A considerable sprinkle of salt boosts the flavor up to eleven, making it entirely crave-worthy on a whole new level. This is what the holiday season is all about: a rare, special treat that breaks through the typical structure of one’s daily life, or daily diet, as it were. You wouldn’t drink it everyday, but you’ll miss it dearly when it’s gone.

To all those unfortunately out of driving or delivery range, the sweet folks at Urban Remedy have a generous holiday present to share. You can actually scope out their unique recipe, posted for all to enjoy and freely imbibe.

If all that noggin’ around doesn’t get you into the holiday spirit, I don’t know what will.

So, how did your favorites stack up? Do you agree with the 2017 Nog-Off results, or are you willing to pick a fight for your own personal winner? More importantly though, did I miss any other contenders for the next round?

True Gossip

Rumors are flying about the new taco spot in Nob Hill, but the buzz is so much more than mere gossip. Although that’s the translation of Chisme, the bespoke restaurant has already proven itself a worthy contender in a city teeming with Mexican eateries. Menu options are limited, focused on a short list of fillings to swaddle in soft, handmade tortillas, served two per order. Simple yet irresistible appetizer staples like chips and guacamole or fried potatoes do beckon, but stay focused here. Take a closer look at those taco options. Not only are the vegan choices clearly marked, but compared to the more meaty entrees, they dominate the colorful paper printout.

Fusion is the name of the game for these unconventional offerings, such as eggplant slathered in peanut mole, or plantains and black beans paired with a creamy coconut ranch dressing. Perish the thought of strained, unsatisfying attempts at “authenticity” here; flavor comes first, regardless of origin. Chisme caters to a different sort of crowd, and those customers seem to be eating it up.

Order at the front, grab a number, and take a seat at the communal table or benches. One might call the space spare and the service no-frills, but it’s warm and friendly, open and inviting, regardless. Besides, in a matter of minutes your surroundings will become irrelevant as a hot plate of food drops in front of you. If there’s only one dish to order, it’s the Jackfruit Taco. Marinated in a savory sauce and fried to crispy perfection, it remains juicy inside, with an impossibly meaty bite all the way though. Greens and cabbage are par for the course, adding a bit of freshness and crunch to the conversation, but the unexpected brightness of the mint verde sauce truly seals the deal. It sounds like a crazy combination, but trust me, it just works.

Don’t sleep on that fiery green hot sauce that comes on the side, either. It’s the sort of condiment that people would steal if it was put into bottles, or for those with more restraint, buy by the case if it was sold in stores. If the heat becomes overwhelming, cool down with a dairy-free coconut horchata for dessert. The sweetness of this cinnamon-spiked elixir could easily rival that of a proper milkshake, but is a welcome refreshment on a hot day.

Stop the gossip and get the facts. Chisme is the real deal.

Under Pressure

Scores of cookbooks sing its praises, boasting equally effusive reviews to match. Facebook groups gain followers faster than the average religious cult. The Instapot has achieved cult status thanks to the countless innovative yet impatient cooks across the globe, reveling in the abilities of this now ubiquitous kitchen appliance. More than a mere electric pressure cooker, even the most basic models can also morph into slow cookers and rice cookers with the touch of a button, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For the tech-obsessed, you can even find wi-fi connected contraptions, set to start wirelessly through a few smartphone commands, no matter how far from home you start craving a hot dinner. As a previous keeper of the beast, I can personally attest to the power of the Instapot. Moving across the country, one of the greatest sacrifices was leaving that hulking beauty behind on the opposite coast, for no amount of force could ever wedge it into my suitcase.

On the bright side, the world of kitchen gadgets lay out before me again, beckoning, begging for a second look. Is there anything to the name brand, or could other electric multi-cookers simmer, stew, and steam with the best of them?

Enter: The Power Pressure Cooker XL. I’ve had over a year to learn its quirks, putting it to the test with every endless recipe experiments, and am now ready to weigh in.

Like any pressure cooker worth its salt, digital or analog, this baby will pay for itself by churning out perfectly toothsome beans at a quarter of the price of canned, in a tenth of the time it would take to soak and simmer. Instead of soaking overnight and stewing for an hour, chickpeas transform from hard marbles to plump golden nuggets in 30 to 40 minutes. Don’t even get me started about the bounty of excess aquafaba you’ll reap at the same time.

Rice of all colors swells to an ideal al dente consistency every time, as does any other grain you can throw at it; quinoa, millet, farro, amaranth, and rye berries alike cook up effortlessly, allowing you to focus on the main meal instead. Never again worry about scorched pans either, forgotten on the stove to toast the contents to a darker shade of charcoal, thanks to the automatic warming function that kicks into gear as soon as time on the clock runs out.

But beans are just the start. One-pot meals are the saving grace for many hectic days when quick-fix takeout options would otherwise beckon. Soups, stews, chili- You name it, you can pressure cook it. Even my take on a meatless pot au feu, a deeply savory combination of seasonal vegetables that practically melt in the mouth, no longer conforms to the translation of “pot on the fire,” demonstrating that a burning flame need not apply.

When an avalanche of ripe plums rained down from the tree stretching out across the backyard, I jumped at the chance to use one of the rarer features: the pressure canning function. Most electric pressure cookers can’t safely deliver a punishing round of heat and force that is sufficient for proper preservation, which gives this model a serious advantage for the avid jammer or pickle pro. Though skeptical, I followed all the standard canning guidelines, carefully set my plum-packed glass jars in place, and without any fuss nor fanfare, they emerged perfectly sealed, exactly as promised. Truth be told, this was my first solo attempt at canning, so it was a truly sweet victory, indeed.

Venturing further off the beaten path, I opened up the valve and turned the vessel into a compact steam bath. Elevating a half dozen pearly white bao on a small wire rack, the results were nothing short of spectacular. Fluffy buns enclosed a simple mushroom-zucchini filling, hot and juicy at the core, the exterior soft as a pillow.

All told, one fatal design flaw prevents me from giving this particular appliance a completely enthusiastic endorsement. The steam valve, the single most important piece of this entire contraption that allows it to achieve and maintain pressure, does not lock into place. Tiny icons note the open and closed positions, but it could spin endlessly around without perfectly hitting the mark. On more than one occasion I have a endured a full cooking cycle, excitedly lifting the lid only to discover completely uncooked rice, potatoes, or what have you, looking exactly the same as when they first entered the pot, but sitting in slightly warmer water. This doesn’t affect the outcome for steaming, slow cooking, browning, yogurt making, and all other no-pressure situations, but since that’s the main selling point for me, it’s a huge weakness that knocks the Power Pressure Cooker XL down a number of point by my unofficial tally.

A similar failing in the design department is the lack of clear manual settings for those who want to explore less common cooking territory, with dishes that don’t fall neatly into the “stew” or “rice” category, but still require control over high or low pressure. Luckily, approximating a similar preparation and adjusting the timer from there has yet to go too far awry, but it’s not entirely user-friendly.

All told, it’s a strong contender; good long-term performance, an excellent value for the money, and highly versatile for a while range of culinary experiments. Finesse in design can’t quite measure up to the shining example set by the much esteemed InstaPot, but for pure functionality, you won’t regret making this reasonable investment. The Power Pressure Cooker XL will quickly earn its keep.

Equipment provided by the Power Pressure Cooker XL for review, but all content and unbiased opinions are entirely my own.

The Softer Side of Tofu

No longer a foreign, slightly sinister block of bland austerity, tofu has finally come to enjoy mainstream acceptance. Many meatless meals are built upon these solid bean curd foundations everyday, whether the intention is to craft a plant-based dish or not. That sort of universal recognition has been hard won, after many years of residing only within fringe health food stores, or the odd Americanized Chinese stir-fry. Still, what most people recognize as tofu is ironically one-dimensional; firm or extra-firm dominate the shelves, and anything with slightly less structural integrity is deemed crumbly, mushy, or generally unpalatable. If it can’t get crispy or stand up to a solid saute, it just doesn’t make the cut. It’s a real shame that softer, silken varieties are thus overlooked time and again; this rendition is the truest manifestation of tofu, in my humble opinion.

In this form, tofu straddles the line between custard and curd, a savory study in simplicity. Fresh is always best, which could explain some of the hesitance towards equal appreciation. Composed of only quality soymilk and nigari, each element makes a huge impact on the final flavor. The only way to ensure a delicious experience is to make it yourself… And thanks to the convenient tofu kit offered by Morinaga (makers of the very popular self-stable Mori-Nu) that’s not nearly as daunting a task as it may sound. Everything you need is included, from ingredients to hardware.

Granted, the instructions leave quite a bit to be desired. Despite the helpful video guidance for the truly intimidated, there’s no indication of ramekin size or number of servings. Additionally, the time range is quite large, and there are no hints of what to look for when it’s done.

Thankfully, despite these shortcomings, homemade tofu is almost effortless to prepare. You only need to know how to boil water to bring your own bean curd to life. Serving up my first batch still slightly warm, embellished with a bare minimum of garnishes, the experience is downright ethereal. So soft, it practically dissolves on the tongue. Delicate, in texture and flavor, such a product would be impossible to transport or preserve, which is why it far surpasses anything you would find sold in stores. Not aggressively beany but gently nutty, earthy in flavor, it’s the antidote to the super salty, pre-seasoned packs that are simultaneous gaining in popularity.

The beauty of this format is that it can just as easily be dressed up for a sweeter sensation. Topped with adzuki beans gently stewed in brown sugar, my fresh tofu created the perfect creamy base to support this healthy treat.

If you’re still craving something with a bit more of a bite, never fear. It’s just as simple to craft curds with greater density by pressing out some of the water. Rather than pouring the hot soymilk into a serving vessel, let it chill out in the provided mold lined with cheesecloth. After a mere hour or two, you’ll have something primed for slicing. Reminiscent of traditional cheese-making, I couldn’t resist the urge to season mine like feta and toss the cubes into a summery salad of leafy greens, fresh peaches and corn. The results were predictably spectacular.

Although considerably more fragile than mainstream options, the beauty of making your own tofu from scratch is the possibilities for bolder flavorings. Stirring in a healthy dose of sriracha, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh herbs instantly brightened up this particular block, no marination necessary. The sky is the limit for flavorful inclusions, so you only have yourself to blame if you still think tofu is plain and bland.

Bottom line: If you’re already on the tofu bandwagon, this all-inclusive kit will put you over the moon. If you’ve been ambivalent about those soybean blocks, it may finally win you over.