Ode to Avocados

Prized as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, avocados have been cherished since the early Aztecs first harvested the wild fruit over 10,000 years ago. While that’s an impressive history, proving its long term stating power, I’m disquieted to imagine any point in time that this most precious, indispensable stable didn’t exist. Rarely does a day pass without some form of avocado appearing on my personal menu, and often more than once. I hate to play favorites when there are so many incredible fresh finds out there… But I know avocado is the one I couldn’t live without.

Once the underdog of the produce world, avocados have enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity only during the later half of the 21st century. Now ubiquitous, Americans alone account for over $2.6 billion in avocado sales annually. No wonder millennials can’t afford to buy houses anymore. The buttery flesh may be green, but it’s really worth it’s weight in gold.

As National Avocado Day looms ever nearer on July 31st, the whole event seems curiously redundant. Don’t we already pay out respects at the shrine of the ahuacatl more religiously than most conventional deities? I don’t really need to suggest a celebratory round of guacamole, as if it wasn’t the most serving suggestion in the book? Besides, you have a whole separate holiday to rock out with your guac out, on September 16th.

There’s no wrong way to eat an avocado. In fact, my favorite method is to scoop it right out of of shell with a spoon, gilded with tiny pinch of flaky salt over the top. If you’d like to pull out all the stops for this party and try something special, however, I do have a few more ideas that are sure to make any avocado lover swoon.

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The Great Shake Down

What makes a truly great milkshake?

Greedily drinking down my umpteenth test subject, I must ask myself this vital question. Why is this one superlative, crave-worthy at all times, while an equally priced, similarly composed competitor is more like a nuclear meltdown in a cup? With that, my quest to find the very best that Austin has to offer began in earnest.

Flavor, of course, is essential, though highly subjective. Judging objectively, it all comes down to texture, which encompasses a number of factors:

Viscosity– Thick enough to drink through a straw without great duress, just shy of being able to turn the cup upside-down without incident, but with more body and heft than a protein shake.

Smoothness– This is no place for gritty powders, but more importantly, errant chunks of unblended ingredients or coarse ice cubes should be considered a crime. There’s no excuse for that kind of neglectful prep work.

Temperature– If it’s not icy-cold, there’s something wrong. Though rich and indulgent, it should still be refreshing enough to take the edge off a sweltering summer day.

Ingredients– As with the components for any other recipe, quality counts. This is where I need to get a bit granular and disqualify anything that uses bananas as a base. Sorry kids, that’s a smoothie, not a milkshake.

First up, the reigning champ should surprise no one: Milky Way Shakes has it right in their name, after all. The only thing on the menu here are frosty blended beverages, with options for both the mild and wild of disposition. Taking inspiration from galactic sources, your kicked up classics are the Chocolate or Vanilla Eclipse, which both come adorned with a dark chocolate crescent moon, adorned with almonds and edible glitter. While I personally default to the Oreo Borealis which hits that sweet mint-chip spot thanks to homemade peppermint syrup, coarsely crushed sandwich cookies, and the critical garnish of star-shaped food-grade confetti, the seasonal specials are out of this world. In the frigid days of winter, it would be worth the chill to snag the North Star, a rich and creamy eggnog blend that’s topped with a genuine meringue snowperson. These nondairy masters go above and beyond the average options, while still churning out pitch-perfect nostalgic treats. You definitely don’t need to be vegan to appreciate the artistry and bold flavors happening in this tiny trailer.

On the same level of handcrafted indulgence, Sweet Ritual is a full vegan scoop shop preparing unique ice cream concoctions from scratch. The challenge for each visit is deciding whether you can forgo the decadent sundaes, cookie sandwiches, straight-up pints, or, of course, milkshakes. Unlike most parlors, opting to drink your calories is not a sad sacrifice here, where you get all the goodness of their bestsellers in semi-liquid form. Their signature coconut and soy soft serve can accommodate any flavor requests, though the Coffee Shake made with cold brew and crowned with a beguiling swirl of vanilla soft serve “whipped cream” is a top request, for obvious reasons. Nothing beats the bright, bold, and pure refreshing properties of the simple Mint Shake, though. No chips need apply to keep me coming back for more; thick and creamy, melting slowly even on a steamy sun-drenched afternoon, it satisfies my thirst and sweet tooth all in one luscious slurp.

Known for their coconut-based pints found in freezers nationwide, Nada Moo is rooted here in beautiful Austin where they can flex their creativity for us locals. Serving up more than the supermarket hard-packed products, your best bet is the DIY shake option, giving you full control over your particular mix-in masterpiece. The option of swirling your scoops with cereal milk is a standout offering that’s worth sipping at least once, but don’t let that dissuade you from going with a ribbon of chocolate or caramel sauce, applied to coat the inside of the cup like a luxurious lace blanket. For more hardcore cravings, though, you can never go wrong with the Death by Chocolate shake, which is every bit as dark and devilishly fudgy as it sounds.

Departing from the conventional custard creations, TLV blends an entirely unique base of 100% pure sesame tahini, date molasses, and almond milk into distinctly nutty, buttery shakes. It’s an unlikely foundation that proves unshakably strong in the face of any comparable rivals. Disqualifying the banana option for reasons outlined above, it’s delightful served up as is, or embellished to make a Chocolate or Cardamom-Turkish Coffee Tahini Shake. There’s truly no better accompaniment to a meal of crispy, freshly fried falafel or mushroom shawarma. Move over, French fries; the be-pita sandwich and tahini shake are the new power couple on the block.

Brand new on the scene, Project Pollo has finally launched their much-awaited oat milk shakes just this past weekend. Being that I rushed out first thing to get my fix, they deserve a bit of slack while still hammering out the fine details. While enjoyable, my inaugural Double Chocolate Shake did fall a bit short of expectations. More like vanilla soft serve with chocolate syrup, it was certainly thick, but not exactly drinkable, and quite pale compared to the advertised images. Also available in Strawberry Shortcake flavor which promises real strawberries and crumbled sugar cookies, I’ll check that one out next time, perhaps after a longer trial period. At least when you snag an order of loaded fries on the side, you won’t walk away disappointed.

When you find yourself at Next Level Burger, there are no two ways about it: You must order a “next level” milkshake, or be sorely disappointed by the “classic” flavors. The basics are one-note, bland, and too sweet, trying to compensate by adding more sugary syrup. Go big or go home with the Cookie Shake, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a cool contender blended with its namesake, topped with extra crumbles and chocolate syrup. The real trick is to ask for chocolate chips as well, for the best textural and most flavorful experience. Take your pick from a soy or coconut base, though I’ve tasted no discernible difference between the two. You can now get the same drinkable desserts through their ghost kitchen sister establishment, Next Level Clucker, too.

A trip to The Yard Milkshake Bar is not a journey to be taken lightly. By placing your order, you’re making a commitment to face down a frosty behemoth; there is no such thing as a small size, only big, bigger, and biggest, with “toppings” well exceeding the confines of the commemorative keepsake glass. The NOT MILK? is the sole vegan option, but even that will leave the most hedonistic glutton for punishment craving more. Chocolate soy milk blends with oat milk chocolate chunk ice cream, topped by either almond or coconut whip and crushed cookies. Vanilla icing acts as the edible spackling paste gluing more cookie pieces to the exterior, and thick rivulets of chocolate syrup stripe across the whole thing. Don’t forget the full-sized soft chocolate chip cookie that’s nearly hidden in that thicket of garnishes. If that sounds like a situation, you’re not wrong. Full embracing your milkshake and all the mess that comes with it is part of the experience. Fully prepared for this inevitability, each shop is equipped with an extra-large bucket sink to wash off your glass- and self- before slowly waddling home. It’s outrageous, it’s over the top, and it’s a must for anyone that wants a truly memorable milkshake.

To close out this roundup, I must offer an honorable mention to the Birthday Cake Smoothie at Nekter Juice Bar. Yes, we do have bananas here, but by some strange alchemy, you’d never know it from the taste. The flavor is that of unadulterated, unmistakable layer cake, frosting and all. Better yet, it’s tinted a festive blue hue thanks to the natural color granted by spirulina, and topped by pastel sprinkles. Don’t forget to request plant-based protein though, since whey is the default option.

Who makes the best milkshake on your block? Though you could easily hold that title yourself, what makes it such an illustrious treat is the luxury of having someone else make it for you. Everything tastes better when you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, or in this case, arduous blending, especially when you get genuine chefs and ice cream experts on call.

Flipping the Bird

When I was a kid, the closest thing I ever had to fried chicken was the sporadic nugget or tenders at Friendly’s, eaten as the obligatory protein that would unlock the gates to dessert. Meat was never a feature for me, so I had no problem making the switch to veganism, even in those early days when eating the plant-based alternative meant whipping up a pot of beans. Things sure have changed in recent years, accelerated by technological advances and the quickening drumbeat of climate change. It’s not just the compassionate choice, but simply the most sensible one for the planet.

That’s all to say that I’m fortunate enough to have expanded my palate since going vegan so many years ago. Rather than feeling the constraints of a restrictive diet, pledging to try anything plant-based has opened up my eyes to a bold new world of food, quite literally. Though fried chicken isn’t exactly the pinnacle of culinary achievement, it’s still quite a marvel to behold, for the beautiful simplicity of the art form.

Shatteringly crisp, a properly fried, greaseless crust should give way to quick, sharp bite, revealing tender, juicy flesh within. Meaty, but not sinewy, firm but yielding to the tooth, that texture is where 90% of the experience lives or dies- And in this case, nothing should have to die to fulfill that craving. Some are made of soy, some gluten, others pea protein, and still others use a combination approach to achieve plant-based prowess. Luckily, my only intolerance is to animal cruelty, so Austin is my vegan oyster when it comes to exploring these deep-fried delights.

Stunned by the breadth and depth of options suddenly at my disposal, I decided to embark on a noble quest to find the best vegan fried chicken in this fair city. Even as I ate, watching the plates pile up, even more restaurants opened with hot and fresh new options. Thus, this critique is forever a work in progress. At this rate, seeking out vegan fried chicken may soon become as relevant as hunting down vegan hummus; though it’s possible to go astray, you’d have to try very hard to mess that one up.

This is far from an exhaustive list, presented in no particular order; the rapidly evolving restaurant scene makes it impossible to keep a complete catalog of options. Rather, it’s my little black book of favorites, featuring plant-based renditions to do proper justice to the breaded bird. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve excluded fully vegetable-centric versions, buffalo wings, and barbecue, focusing on complete proteins, simply seasoned and fried only.

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A Eulogy for Eateries, 2020

Like so many poor souls infected with COVID-19, a staggering number of restaurants met their untimely demise this year. Well-established eateries and fledgling startups alike were afflicted. Mom-and-pops, national chains, dive bars, bastions of fine dining; none were spared the wrath of this indiscriminate virus. No one could have predicted the devastating impact on business across the board, let alone prepare for it. Restaurants which already operate on razor-thin margins took the first hit, and keep taking the abuse, even as many other sectors begin to show signs of recovery. It comes as no surprise that we have excessive losses to mourn this year, but still, it’s no less sad.

The fatalities, like the number of cases, continue to rise unabated. At the time of this writing, approximately 1 in 6 establishments have turned the tables for the last time. To put that in perspective, that’s over 100,000 individual restaurants, touching countless lives. Their loss is felt profoundly by owners of course, but also employees, devoted regulars, and adjacent businesses that thrive on their success as well.

In the eye of the storm now, between holidays and stifled festivities, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just a few of these losses. 2020 has been a turbulent for me personally as well, beginning in the Bay Area, and ending in central Texas, so this particular restaurant obituary will follow that same winding path. My deepest condolences to all those mourning these losses.

Before the virus truly sunk its claws into the world and began the first wave of widespread shutdowns, Analog quietly slipped away in February, going gentle into that good night. Lining the walls with records, VHS cassettes, and old school video games, entering through the narrow doorway felt like returning to my ideal 90’s childhood library. Hosting popups for many fledgling vegan chefs, I remember spending one of my earliest nights in Oakland there, tasting Hella Vegan Eats for the first time. Their house menu of thick sandwiches stacked high with all manner of classic deli fare was the real attraction, though. Seitan Reubens, bahn mi, meatless corned beef; they were slinging these thick stacks before it was cool, true to character. With another strong supporter gone, the future of the analog medium itself hangs in the balance.

Crispy, tender, and well-seasoned falafel has been strangely difficult to come by in San Francisco, which is why the arrival of Liba Falafel was such a venerable establishment of Middle Eastern delights. Beginning life as a mobile truck and eventually taking root in Oakland as a brick-and-mortar, their fried chickpea balls were as famous as the rainbow of accoutrements that came with them. Arrayed like the salad bar of dreams, the purchase of one box would allow the voracious eater to fill it with as much Israeli salad, schug, onions, roasted peppers, and pickles as would fit. Clearly, this self-serve approach couldn’t survive such stringent coronavirus measures, and has become a thing of the past. After 11 years on the streets, they leave a gaping falafel-sized hole in SoCal.

Originally unleashed upon the world as Republic of V, Animal Place’s Vegan Republic has undergone quite a few struggles to stay afloat despite widespread support. COVID-19 was just the final nail in the coffin. Opened in 2014 as the first all-vegan store in Berkeley, there’s still nothing that’s equivalent to their selection of specialty plant-based goods in the area. From home goods to clothing to groceries, it was a paradise where everything on the menu was vegan, not limited to purely edible entrees. It also served as an event space, sharing the floor with vegan authors like myself on special occasions, becoming a meeting place for the community at large.

Nick’s Kitchen, once booming with three distinct outposts, turned belly-up seemingly overnight. All street-facing locations have closed, but this story isn’t a complete tragedy; this incomparable plant-based Filipino food has been reborn as a special order delivery service directly from Chef Reina. Rumor has it that nationwide shipping will soon be an option for more widespread access than ever. I’m holding out hope for this exciting development, because at about the same time as this announcement was made, I had reached the end of my time in California, too.

Heading down south to Austin, TX, it breaks my heart to have just barely missed experiencing the legend that is Veggie Heaven. Most Chinese restaurants have a token tofu dish or serviceable vegetable plate in a pinch, but now, none exist with a 100% vegetarian menu. Where does one go for sizzling mock meats, eggless hot and sour-style soup, or teriyaki cauliflower wings now? Seriously, I’m asking for myself here. There seems to be no equivalent establishment to reasonably pick up the slack.

Sending shock waves through the community, Mother’s Cafe called it quits after 40 years in Hyde Park. A bastion of old-school, nostalgic vegetarian and vegan dishes with a Tex-Mex twist, the owners attempted to survive on takeout only during these uncertain times, but found it entirely unsustainable. At least, as small consolation, they plan to eventually offer some of the restaurant’s best sellers as packaged food, as they currently do with their widely acclaimed cashew-tamari salad dressing. There’s no replacement for a mother’s love, though. For generations of locals that grew up in this dining room, this loss truly feels like a death in the family.

Best known for moist cupcakes, tender scones, and chewy cookies, Happy Vegan Baker also had a legendary Chick Un Salad along with more satisfying savory delights. Carrying the torch at farmers markets and events year round, their treats would also fill the deli cases at Fresh Plus, Natural Grocers, Tom’s Market, Dias Market, and Rabbit Food Grocery. Though they never had a static outpost, these snacks and staples were always close at hand. I personally regret not loading up my own fridge while I still had the chance.

All that glitters isn’t gold, and Austin will have a bit less of a shine now that Curcuma is no longer serving golden lattes directly to the public, alongside their renowned raw, healing cuisine. The trailer is no more, but the golden paste lives on for homemade turmeric treats. There’s no replacement for their distinctive pecan tacos though, made with spiced pecan “meat” on crisp jicama “tortillas.”

Open in Austin for less than a year, Cosmos Kitchen was taken from us before its time. Though well-liked and highly reviewed, accolades could not save it from the pitfalls of social distancing, with the reduced volume and revenue. Filling tacos with meatless al pastor, chorizo, picadillo, and more, the flavors transcended all dietary boundaries. The absence of this colorful food truck will be mourned by eaters across the city.

To all those that have left us this year: Thank you for all the delicious memories. You will not be forgotten. Your struggles, successes, and inspiration will live on, within us all.

Bundles of Joy

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

Pandemic or not, the holidays must go on. They may look a bit different, but the sentiment is all the same. We’ll spend time together, even if we’re physically far apart, spreading joy, creating memories, and of course, giving gifts. The beauty of online shopping is that your selections can arrive on your loved ones’ doorsteps with contact-free, hassle-free delivery. What can you send that will satisfy the foodies in your life, and where can you find it all? Consider iHerb your personal Secret Santa, or perhaps, Mystery Maccabee.

Delivering holiday cheer to over 180 countries across the globe, iHerb boasts over 30,000 natural products, from supplements to pantry staples, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your presents will arrive on time for the big event; no excuses, no empty stockings. If you ever need help, you can talk to customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in 10 different languages. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, happily ensconced in fuzzy slippers and warm pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

After almost a full year under varying degrees of quarantine, we’re all getting a bit restless. Anyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen is undoubtedly clamoring for a new project. After you’ve made your hundredth batch of banana bread and thousandth dalgona coffee, what’s left to try? Here are some fun foodie bundles to kick start brand new edible adventures.

Sourdough is almost too obvious to include, but still, too good to ignore. There’s a reason why this once uncommon approach to bread baking has risen to mainstream fame in recent months. The satisfaction of cultivating wild yeast, kneading dough by hand, watching it slowly come to life and rise of its own accord; the whole process is incredibly soothing, gratifying, and of course delicious in the end. Sometimes it’s not easy to create your own starter though, which is where the handy Cultures for Health Sourdough packets come in. They have options for Whole Wheat, San Francisco-style, and even a Gluten-Free blend! Pair that with some fun flours for your budding baker to experiment with, like rustic spelt or rye from Arrowhead Mills. Don’t forget to include primo sourdough food, since these yeasty beasts thrive on sugar. Consider Madhava agave nectar to develop a greater depth of flavor while fueling that starter the right way. Accessory options are endless, from nice bread knives to cutting boards, but you can never go wrong with a nice pack of colorful Full Circle dish cloths to both cover the growing dough and clean up after. Bonus points if you can rustle up a proper banneton bead proofing basket for fun and functional packaging.

Cheese making may not be the first activity to have crossed your mind, especially if you too have vegan leanings, but fear not! The handy Real Cheese Kits from Cultures of Health can be made with dairy-free milk, too! Take your pick from Paneer & Queso, or Mozzarella & Ricotta, or both, because you can never be too cheesy. Make the process foolproof by including Now Foods Soy Milk Powder, so your lucky recipient doesn’t need to worry about schlepping home a few gallons of liquid before getting started. Soy is also a great option for this kind of application, since it has more protein to better mimic that of cow’s milk, creating better curds. Add in a lovely cheeseboard or slate along with a cheese knife to really fancy up the package, along with snacks to pair with the completed cheeses. I happen to love the contrast of sweet, chewy dried fruits, particularly Made in Nature Dried Apricots, but do cater to your beneficiary’s tastes. All-fruit preserves could be a nice alternative, as would a bottle of tangy pomegranate nectar for a bolder acidic hit. Crackers are mandatory; Simple Mills makes a variety of flavors, but I happen to love the basic Sea Salt variety to let the cheeses themselves shine. Now that’s a [small, outdoor, socially distanced] party waiting to happen!

Kombucha is also bubbling up to greater acclaim lately. Every state can boast local, micro-batch brewers, and your lucky friend could soon be one of them! Procuring a proper scoby is more than half the battle. Happily, Cultures of Health has got this one covered too, with a Kombucha Start Culture to begin the process from scratch. Every bit as easy as making pickles, it doesn’t take much to kick off a bubbling batch of fermented tea, though there are certainly some particular additions that can make the process even easier. Simple cane sugar is essential; no fancy alternative sweeteners need apply. Go for Wholesome’s Organic Sucanat to take advantage of the rich molasses flavor and trace minerals to bolster the brew. The options for tea are truly limitless, so it’s nice to include a variety of options to provide a range of different tastes to try. The Fruit Tea Sampler from Celestial Seasonings is a great place to start, offering five distinctive herbal teas to chose from. Contain your excitement, and presents, in a handy Now Foods Sprouting Jar, which is ideal for housing the budding beneficial bacteria, too. The mesh top will allow the scoby to breathe while keeping bugs out, so there’s no risk of infestation.

Make a list, check it twice, and then visit iHerb. Shop now to get 5% of your purchase, no minimum order. Spread joy, not germs, and give a gift that everyone will happily stay at home to enjoy.