Kampyo Maki and Natto Maki
Tempura Avocado Maki
January is upon us. The quietest month of all, a natural respite from the cacophony of holiday festivities, the days ahead stretch out like a lazy yawn. Mercifully unhurried and undemanding, it’s back to work as usual, but without the same frantic pace as before. Some unspoken understanding allows us to resume our activities with a greater margin for error. Retreating back into the warmth of our homes, insulated under the padding of thick sweaters and blankets, I used to see this as a very isolating time of year. Now I’ve come to realize that it’s just a matter of how we choose to find comfort. We’re actually all in this together, experiencing the very same nesting instinct; whether we choose to share our nests with one another makes all the difference.
Inevitably, much will be said about comfort food in the coming days, despite of the incessant push to “eat clean” or observe a “New Year, new you.” Join me in rejecting these silly slogans, once and for all. Changing your diet or exercise regime won’t change who you are. No matter how far you run, no matter how many green smoothies you chug, your essential core remains the same, and you know what? I think that’s pretty amazing.
Pardon the terrible segue here, but I just wanted to take that brief opportunity to wear my heart on my sleeve, inspired by the deeply soul-satisfying dish known as manicotti to us Americans, or “little shirt sleeves” to Italians. Such a labor-intensive pasta preparation could only be made with love and patience, both of which I’d like to believe are in ample supply as we stride boldly forward into 2017. Fitting the definition of comfort food to a T, the combination of noodles, cheese, and red sauce is one that can’t be beat… But perhaps, with just a bit of innovation, improved upon.
Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro replaces the wheat-based pasta with savory sheets of yuba, naturally savory, toothsome, and somewhat lighter on the fork. Lithe and flexible, the tofu skins are wrapped up around dairy-free ricotta filling like crepes. There’s less danger of tearing apart hot pasta while fruitlessly burning your fingers during preparation, so even the cook can take it easy during this meal.
A perennial favorite on the menu, it strikes me as an especially appealing dinner now as we steep ourselves in the depths of winter. Soothing and familiar, yet exciting enough to pull us out of hibernation, it’s the kind of meal that makes it a little bit easier to share openly- of food, thoughts, and comfort.
By Chef Barry Horton of Sanctuary Bistro
1/2 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Red Wine
1 14-Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
Salt and Pepper, to Taste
1 Pound Firm Tofu
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
1 Teaspoon Minced Garlic
1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock
10 Ounces Fresh Yuba, Cut into 3×5-inch Rectangles
Fresh Chives (Optional)
Begin by preparing the marinara. In a sauce pot, sauté the onions in olive oil until translucent. Add in the garlic and cook until aromatic and very lightly browned. Pour in the wine, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer until reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and continue to simmer for an additional 10 – 15 minutes. Add the seasonings and yeast, along with salt and pepper to taste, before transferring to a blender. Blend until as smooth or as chunky as you’d prefer.
While the sauce is simmering, make the most of your time and get started on the tofu ricotta. Add all of the ingredients into your food processor and pulse to combine. Pause as needed to scrape down the sides of the container, ensuring that everything is well incorporated. Continue blending until smooth.
To assemble, spoon about 3 tablespoons of tofu ricotta across the short width of each yuba rectangle. Gently roll the strips of yuba up like a little wrap. Sauté 3 or 4 at a time in a generous amount of olive oil, cooking until crisp and lightly golden brown. Serve on a pool of sauce and garnish with freshly chopped chives, if desired.
Makes 3 – 4 Servings
Wide-eyed, mouth agape, and stomach rumbling, I remember the very first time I heard of the concept. Sushi always had a special place in my heart and on my table, from a weekly after school maki roll habit to special birthday dinner requests, often cited as my last meal selection when asked. Despite my youth, I thought that such relentless passion had already exposed me to all the category had to offer. New vegetable, legume, or fruit combinations could shake things up from time to time, but there was nothing earth-shattering to be found in this time-honored edible art form.
That was until I came across sushi burritos. Hulking bundles rivaling the size of a newborn, these babies were instead swaddled in oversized sheets of slick, glistening nori, overstuffed with a rainbow of fresh and widely varied ingredients. Just one order would satisfy the average eater, if not push them right over the edge into a contented food coma. Back in the early days, there was only one: The Sushirrito, the granddaddy of them all. Scrolling through blogs that featured mouth-watering photos of the beast, I vowed that one day, I would venture out west, if only to taste this legendary creation for myself.
Almost a decade later, it’s safe to say that this is no longer a passing trend, but a hot ticket item that’s here to stay. Sushirrito has expanded its empire all the way out east to New York, with plans to unveil its 8th and 9th outposts soon. More tellingly, however, is the number of rivals now on the scene that offer up their own perspective on the giant sushi wrap. What might surprise you is the fact that all of these fish-centric establishments offer wholly vegan options, and the greatest variety is actually found across the bay, in Berkeley and Oakland. So who makes the one veggie sushi burrito to rule them all? It took me over a year of eating and countless packets of soy sauce, but what follows is my official* ruling on the very best of the bay area.
Pulling off the greatest upset in sushi burrito history, the young upstart Sushinista gets the gold star in this competition. Less than a year on the scene and still flying well below the radar, their offerings are some of the least traditional, but accordingly most inventive and exciting. Portobello mushrooms slathered in a mild green curry sauce are the shining stars of this menu, complimented by a range of seasonal vegetables and crunchy toppings that have previously included such unsung delights as persimmon and Asian pear.
Giving credit where credit is due, Sushirrito still carries the torch in San Francisco proper. Quite frankly, it’s hard to beat the obscenely rich mushroom fries found in the “Buddha Belly,” ringing with umami and wholly satisfying on their own. I’m tempted to call it a tie with my top pick, but points ultimately had to be deducted for sloppy construction. Kudos for providing a roasted garlic tofu aioli, but that added sauce frequently created soggy nori, leading to catastrophic blowouts while eating. You’ll eventually need to attack it with a fork in the end.
Big bonus point and serious kudos go to Sumo Roll for being the ONLY establishment offering not one, but two veganizable options. Although both the veggie-forward “Kabuki” and curried tofu “Midori” automatically come with egg-based aioli and one with slaw, just let your sushi burrito artist know about your dietary needs and they’re more than happy to customize. Ask for the tangy miso-ginger sauce instead, and you’ll be in business. Hat tip to Sumo Roll for providing what is quite possibly the best value around, serving up truly sumo-sized servings that don’t hold back on the flavorful fillings.
Placing Torpedo Sushi so far down the list feels downright heretical, considering the consistently luscious slabs of avocado and chunks of baked tofu wrapped up in every bundle. They simply got edged out for offering smaller portions, and occasionally bulking up their rolls with more rice than fillings. Burritos can be somewhat hit-or-miss based on these proportions, so I’d be more inclined to order the “Veganator” in rice bowl format instead.
Traveling back to downtown Berkeley, Sushi Secrets certainly doesn’t skimp on the goodies wrapped up in their “Denemon,” throwing unexpected ingredients like purple potatoes and corn into the mix. Unfortunately, their wraps also suffer from issues with structural integrity, and the sweet and sour dressing dominates the entire composition, drowning out any nuances that the unique vegetables might provide. Once unwrapped, the whole thing is liable to explode into your lap, and sadly, it’s not even worth the effort of picking up all the shrapnel.
Ordering sushi from a truck might seem sketchy, even when opting for a fish-free meal, but We Sushi has proven itself as a reliable source for sushi satisfaction. The “Vegan” burrito is solid, a fine fix if you’re craving vinegared rice and veggies, featuring sweet potato tempura most prominently, but nothing to rave about. It’s the beige cardigan of sushi burritos; reliable, comfortable, but nothing you’d want to show off in public. Go ahead and order up if you spot the truck parked in your neighborhood, but don’t go out of your way to hunt it down.
Pulling up the tail end of this edible parade, the “Tofu Teriyaki” burrito at Sushi Taka seems more like an afterthought than a feature. Ordered without spicy mayo, the wrap tastes only of seaweed salad. Soft tofu squares dissolve without any notable texture, and the promise of teriyaki flavor goes unfulfilled. In a word: Pass.
Honorable mention goes to Nombe, for taking the fusion concept to the next level and actually wrapping their sushi burritos in flour tortillas. These are a rotating item on the menu, but I don’t think you’re missing much if you don’t see them during your visit; the combination of carb-on-carb is just a total starch-fest, especially considering the fact that rice takes up more than half the bundle to begin with.
It’s safe to say that sushi burritos are officially having their moment out west, but time will tell if that enthusiasm of oversized maki rolls will continue their spread across the country. There are highlights and low lights to be found, with wide variations all over the board, but overall, there’s a lot to love about the concept.
Have you had sushi burritos? Have you made sushi burritos? Tell me about it, and let’s craft a better burrito, together!
Little Free Libraries are community-run and supported book sharing outposts that are popping up across the nation in mass numbers. The best map for finding these resources in the bay area is one created by an unaffiliated individual who lists all libraries, “official” or not. For more information about the movement, visit LittleFreeLibrary.org.
If you’d like to unspool your own kite into these deep blue skies, it’s not such a wild flight of fancy; feel free to click on the last photo above to download the full size image. To save and enjoy it as your desktop wallpaper, right click the larger version, select “Set as Desktop Background,” and choose the “Stretch” option to best fit to your screen.
“They’re pretty good… But I’ve had better,” the woman sitting at a neighboring booth leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.
Seated in one of the most highly regarded vegan restaurants in the bay area, luxuriating in some of the most masterfully composed dishes around, this stunning utterance was enough to induce whiplash. Snapping back into reality out of a food-induced daze, it took a moment to re-focus and discover the source of such heretical words. A small woman with a kind face looked back at me, eyes gleaming with clarity- Or perhaps it was a hint of mischief.
The dish in question was a tamale, lavished with smoked black beans, spiced pepitas, and a luscious avocado crema. Impeccably plated with all the flourishes one would expect of a fine dining establishment, it was a sight to behold, and certainly no slouch in the flavor department. In fact, up until that moment, this could have very well been the pinnacle of tamale artistry in my opinion. Now that impression was suddenly questionable, an uninformed statement based upon only half of the story. I had to get myself these purported transcendent tamales.
I had to go to Flacos.
An east bay institution serving up an entirely vegan menu, the bill of fare is short and sweet. You won’t find any overstuffed “Mission-style” burritos or loaded nachos here, but real deal Mexican meals. Tacos slide out of the kitchen on handmade corn tortillas, thick and crisply toasted. Masa is made from scratch every day, and that dedication to the craft pays off in huge gustatory dividends. The scent of cooking cornmeal wafts out onto the street early in the day, tempting passersby even as breakfast time has barely ended.
Huarache is a regional delight that doesn’t make a big splash in most American states, which is a real shame given its fool-proof flavor combinations. Soft slabs of fried masa lurk beneath a veritable forest of romaine and cilantro, huge servings of refried pinto beans, and slathered with rich, creamy avocado salsa. It’s worth noting that the avocado salsa is available in both mild and spicy formats, but unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I would advise keeping it cool. The heat on the spicy rendition is no joke; I’ve seen grown men weep over their taquitos upon discovering this fatal flaw.
On cool, foggy days, nothing satisfies like a bowlful of pozole, a very simple soup of tomatoes and hominy. While it’s not quite on par with the other, flashier staples, it’s sure to hit the spot if you’re craving a bit of comfort.
But enough beating around the bush. The main attraction, the thing we’ve all been waiting for, the banana leaf-wrapped tamale is hands-down the single item you must order if you can only pick one. Though the mole, caper, potato, and green olive filling sounds like a discordant combination, suspend disbelief and give it a try. The reasons why it works so well remain a mystery, but you’ll never question it ever again. A true rarity in the crowded and heavily promoted bay area food scene, this particular promise lives up to the hype.
Tamales can be ordered a la cart or as a plate, complete with rice, beans, and salad. While you may feel more virtuous by selecting a fully balanced meal, the sides are nothing special. Get the most mouthwatering bang for your buck by doubling down on the tamales instead. It’s an easy choice that you’ll never regret, even for those with a penchant for fine dining. Flacos might very well hold the key to the best tamales you’ve ever had.