Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vegan in Sacramento

Whenever I make plans to travel to a new city, the first thing I want to know is how vegan-friendly it is. With a big, beautiful Whole Foods store, (where I was very naughty and indulged in a decadently rich Sweet and Sara Smore), a fabulous food co-op, a handful of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, an impressive collection of ethnic restaurants and seemingly more Thai restaurants per capita than any other city I've ever visited, it's safe to say that Sac-Town is very vegan-friendly. Several small vegan companies are also based in Sacramento, including V-Dog and Sun Flour Baking Company.

While winter seemed to drag on into summer here in Oregon, (my husband reported that it was as gray, wet, and chilly as any winter day), I got to unabashedly enjoy bright, sunny, breezy and balmy 85° weather in Sacramento. After checking in at my hotel, I made my way to Au Lac Veggie restaurant to check out their vegan Asian fusion fare. Vibrant aromas wafted into the parking lot from the kitchen—a good sign, for sure. Au Lac is simple and casual, and the prices are startlingly inexpensive, with entrees ranging in price from $5.95 to $7.95—about what you'd expect to pay for street food, not at a restaurant! Most of the dishes rely on soy-based meat analogues, something I have been avoiding of late (although there are dishes made with only vegetables), but I figured that once in a blue moon, it wouldn't kill me. I also wanted to avoid anything deep-fried (Orange Veggie Chicken Nugget sounded enticing), so I decided to try the Veggie Chicken Vegetables (#29).

The sauce was delicately seasoned and flavorful and the texture of the mock chicken was surprisingly pleasant. Sadly, I often find the food at Asian vegetarian restaurants to be drenched in salt and oil, but joyfully, this dish was neither excessively oily nor salty. It was quite delicious and left me feeling healthfully satisfied.

My dining companion, Laurel, ordered Veggie Beef Broccoli. I didn't taste her dish, but the broccoli looked as though it was cooked to perfection, and I could only imagine that the mock beef was as good as the chicken.

Being the Thai food freak that I am, I had to try at least one Thai restaurant during my visit. With so many to choose from, I would have been taking a shot in the dark honing in on one. Fortunately, my friend, Alicia, already had a favorite and brought me to Takieng in the Fair Oaks neighborhood. The decor was very pretty, with wood accents throughout.

It's been awhile since I've enjoyed Peanut Curry, so after asking all the right questions, (read the comments section of the previous post), I chose the Pra-Ram Curry with Tofu.

It was lunchtime, and I didn't think I could eat all that tofu and cabbage. But it tasted so yummy, I almost finished the entire dish!

Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe opened its doors about three months ago in a cute little Victorian house on K Street in downtown Sacramento. I couldn't wait to check it out and invited Alicia to join me there for dinner.

Once inside, we couldn't help but get all googly-eyed over the display case that showcased some very scrumptious-looking cookies, cupcakes, pies, macaroons, and other assorted pastries and confections. (Can you say "Whoopie Pie"?)

Alicia eyed this gorgeous California Chop Salad that Walker brought out of the kitchen. Without even so much as peeking at a menu, she decided on the spot that this was what she wanted to order.

I had a much more difficult time deciding what I wanted. Choosing between the Baha Street Tacos made with portobello mushrooms, cabbage, and guacamole or the Sweet Potato Avocado Panini seemed almost impossible. I finally decided on the Sweet Po and Avo, and my only regret was that I promised Alicia that we'd share our dishes. This was one yummalicious sandwich, and I wanted it all for myself!

Imagine sweet potatoes, avocado, Daiya vegan cheese, tomato, and roasted onions bathed in a poppy seed aioli and served on grilled ciabatta, and you'll begin to have some idea of how incredibly delicious this sandwich was. I could have eaten three of them over the course of the weekend and never grown tired of them. It was that good! I'm determined to come up with a vegan poppy seed aioli recipe, so that I can recreate this incredible sandwich and enjoy it at home.

I never did make it to Andy Nguyen's Vietnamese Restaurant in Rancho Cordova (a must-visit restaurant, according to a several reviews I've read), but on my way out of town I did make it to Noble Vegetarian. This unassuming Vietnamese restaurant serves up tasty vegan food with friendly service at modest prices (entrees are $8.95 or less) making it another Sacramento vegan treasure. Since the temperature reached a sizzling 95° at about 5 PM the day I left, I decided I didn't want anything hot, so I ordered the Prawns Perfection Roll and Taste of the Tropics Salad.

The little rice paper rolls filled with veggie prawns, noodles, and greens were served with a tasty peanut sauce.

The salad was made with jackfruit, peanuts, more prawns, sesame, mint, coriander, and wonderful little fried onion shreds in a very light citrusy dressing.

This was a filling and refreshing meal, and a most pleasant end to a wonderful culinary adventure. If you visit Sacramento, bring your appetite. You'll both be treated to some very tasty vegan cuisine. What's your favorite vegan-friendly city?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thai Me Up and Feed Me Jackfruit!

I'm food-cart loco. That's all there is to it. To a foodie like me, the explosion in gourmet street food is the most exciting thing to come along since sliced bread. It's not only the logical response to feeding hungry diners in a struggling economy. Eating at food carts is also fun, fast, and connects us more intimately with the person who prepares our food. And now I can indulge in my weakness for Thai food with delicious meals that cost half of what they would in local area restaurants! Welcome to Eugene, Drumrongthai!

This vibrantly colorful food cart is parked at one of the best spots in town. Situated on a pie-shaped piece of property along one of Eugene's busiest East-West thoroughfares at 6th and Blair, it's pretty hard to miss!

Drumrongthai is owned and operated by two of the most charming people you'll ever meet. Chef A, and his sister O, (yes, these are their names!) serve up delicious Thai cuisine in a spirit and atmosphere of pure joy. Their friendly, smiling faces immediately make you feel very much at home in their little corner of the world.

Smack dab in the middle of this very busy street, Drumrongthai succeeds in creating its own unique ambiance with intoxicating sounds of classical Indian music playing and the romance of hanging flower planters, and water bowls filled with leaves and fallen flower petals placed on tables and fence posts.

There are sixteen items currently on the menu, which is quite a wide variety for a little food cart. Chef A was careful to guide me to those dishes that can be prepared vegan. He thoughtfully explained how many Thai restaurants use chili sauce that contains shrimp paste in their curry dishes, passing them off as vegan, even though they are clearly not. He said that he plans to soon make his own chili sauce free of shrimp paste, so that he can offer a vegan option on most, if not all of his dishes. He also plans to expand the current menu to include tempeh dishes and a variety of curry specials.

O offered me a Thai iced tea made with coconut milk, instead of dairy. It had just the right amount of sugar, and was brewed to perfection. (Sometimes Thai iced tea can be too strong or overly-sweet.) So now, I was really excited to taste the food.

I thought I'd start with the most basic dish possible—Pad Thai, but without the egg, of course. I also asked A to leave out the crushed peanut, as for some reason, it never seems to heighten my enjoyment of this dish. Knowing that there are as many ways to prepare Pad Thai as there are Thai chefs, I couldn't wait to taste Chef A's take on Pad Thai. In my own home, I have prepared several versions of this Thai classic. You'll find one of my recipes here. Chef A's Pad Thai was delicious! Packed neatly in this to-go box, it's hard to tell, but the noodles were bathed in a tasty "tamarindy" sauce and laced with tiny slices of delicately fried tofu. I was pretty impressed with the portion size, too. It was nice to feel satisfied for $6.50.

I couldn't wait to return and try something else. This time I ordered the Sweet and Sour with tofu, and was treated to a dish that was as vibrantly colorful as the cart itself, and as tasty as any Sweet and Sour I've eaten anywhere.

I look forward to trying many other dishes at Drumrongthai, including the Thom Ka coconut soup, Vegetable Delight, and Cashew Stir Fry, as well as all of the new dishes Chef A will create. Now that the weather finally seems to be getting nice here in Eugene, it will be wonderful to enjoy this delectable food outdoors. Drumrongthai is open daily from 11 AM to 8 PM, and closed on Sundays. If you love Thai food, you'll definitely want to check out Drumrongthai.

Earlier in the day, I had stopped at Sunrise Asian Market to pick up a few staple items and eyed this enormous fifteen-pound jackfruit sitting proudly on a shelf. I never knew a jackfruit was that big! This baby was about eighteen inches across from end to end. At $1.99 per pound, it would have set me back close to thirty bucks.

Since I'd never tasted jackfruit before, I decided to be conservative and paid the $2.49 per pound pre-cut price for a much smaller, but still impressive slice that set me back a little over eight dollars. (Crazy expensive? Yes! But it still doesn't beat the little $13.00 dragonfruit I once spied at a local natural foods store, but couldn't bring myself to purchase.) I really wanted to add jackfruit to my small, but growing list of exotic tropical and sub-tropical fruits that I've enjoyed—cherimoya, zapote, durian, and rambutan.

I soon learned that figuring out how to eat a jackfruit was an experience all on its own. I'm told that when a jackfruit is very ripe, the fruit literally just falls away from the fibrous tendrils that hold it in place. But since it's impossible to find a fresh, fully ripened jackfruit in the U.S., I had to dig my hand in and tear the firm fruit away. Inside the bits of fruit there are large seeds, which can be cooked and eaten.

The fruit tasted like a cross between a pineapple, a mango, and a banana. Not as sweet as any of them, but perhaps that's because it wasn't fully ripened. Nonetheless, it was a yummy ending to a delectable Thai meal.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Moo-Shu Noodles

I'm really enjoying playing with all of the fun recipes in Supermarket Vegan. There's a recipe for Quick Moo Shu Vegetables, which is typically served with hoisin sauce and thin tortilla-like flour wrappers called moo shu pancakes.

I decided to skip the pancakes and make my Moo Shu with rice noodles, instead. You could use any kind of noodles—lo mein, cellophane noodles, even flat pad thai noodles, or you could use small flour tortillas for the pancakes. I also added several ingredients like sugar snap peas and water chestnuts to add interest, texture, color, and flavor. Bean sprouts would also be nice, but you can use any vegetables you like. The secret to this flavorful dish is in the simple, but savory sauce.


8 oz. rice, buckwheat, or wheat noodles
6 large shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes, drained, and sliced thin (reserve water)
1 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 16-oz bag shredded coleslaw mix
1 8-oz bag shredded carrots
4 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 8-oz can water sliced chestnuts, drained and rinsed
1 8-oz package Thai-style baked tofu, cut into very small cubes
1 6-oz package sugar snap peas
1/2 cup hoisin sauce (I use Sun Luck brand)
4 Tbs low-sodium soy sauce


Prepare noodles according to package directions. Rinse in very cold water, drain, and set aside.

In a wok or large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, 30 seconds. Add the coleslaw, carrots, and scallions along with a little of the reserved mushroom water and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add water chestnuts, tofu, sugar snap peas, noodles, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce and cook, stirring until heated through, about 5 more minutes. Serve with additional hoisin sauce, if desired.