Friday, August 7, 2015

Lunch at Whole Foods & Vegan Grocery Haul

If you're vegan, you probably already know about Whole Foods, and the fact that they have a large salad and hot food bar. The food is pretty pricey, but you can usually get a really nice meal with your grocery shopping. My only knock (apart from the prices) on the food is that it's either too consistent, or too inconsistent. Sometimes there's something you absolutely love, like the Asian noodles, and they hook you on it week after week. Then, at the peak of your addiction, poof! Gone. On the other hand, sometimes they decide you want the vegan samosas, and there they'll be, week in, week out, until you want to scream.

During the summer my husband, my mother, and I go in for lunch before our groceries. We each make up our own quirky plates. This time around I had a salad with a bunch of stuff: spinach, couscous, black beans, mushrooms, broccoli, and corn, and the split pea soup, which wasn't labeled vegan, but was. They tend to mislabel the food, so you really have to read the ingredients, which are thankfully always posted (and, one hopes, correctly).

The salad was very fresh, and the soup absolutely delicious, even though we had to sit outside in the 93 degree weather--the one thing about Whole Foods is that the lunch crowd is insane, so don't expect to find a table without a wait. I got the soup thinking of eating inside, where it's supermarket freezing, but out in the heat it was not the best choice!

My husband also opted for a salad. He also got the couscous and some kind of beet-marinated tofu, with cauliflower and some spinach:

My mom got some pita bread and hummus, some mashed sweet potatoes, vegan lasagna, and tofu:

I think she paid the didn't-read-the-label price, however, assuming that the mashed sweet potatoes were vegan. I believe they usually add butter or sometimes honey, which is one of my pet peeves. So many dishes that would be vegan if not for the honey! What is this obsession with honey? Have they never heard of agave? I had the vegan lasagna last week; kinda wimpy.

And then I thought I'd include our grocery haul, just in case you're wondering what all vegans are buying these days, what there is to be found at Whole Foods:

Starting from the left and going across, we got some blueberries, some vegan cookies from the Whole Foods bakery (oatmeal raisin and ginger), some vegan cheese puffs from Earth Balance, some coffee creamer, spicy sprouts, vegan yogurt, whole wheat elbow pasta, a cucumber, some tomatoes, an Amy's soy cheese pizza, some Daiya mac and cheese, coconut oil, baking powder, Tofurky slices, almond extract, Yves pepperoni, and some pluots.

Some of these are staples, like the blueberries (I eat these with granola for breakfast), tomatoes, cucumber, and sprouts (for sandwiches and salads). The So Delicious coconut yogurt is also a staple. Some of these are very sugary, so I try to get the plain unsweetened, which you can also use for cooking, and then I add some Truvia if I want to eat it straight up (or some Love Crunch granola, which we didn't buy this time around but is really amazing and already sweet. The dark chocolate is vegan). Most dried pastas are vegan, so we always have some around, and the coconut oil has a myriad of uses from making fudge to moisturizing. The pluots are a summer staple. I can't describe how good they are. The word orgasmic comes to mind, but that's not enough. You'll have to get some of your own. The cookies are a splurge, but they are EXCELLENT. They also have chocolate chip. They always have the big ones at the bakery, but every once in a while they put the mini ones out in boxes and then you just have to buy them. You just have to. We've tried all the vegan pizzas on the market, but Amy's soy (they also have Daiya) is the one we keep returning to. It's best if you add extra cheese (Daiya) and your own toppings (hence the pepperoni), since the ones with toppings tend to be very skimpy. The Tofurky slices are my mother's go-to lunch meat. I think they're kind of bland, but I was never a fan of lunch meat, even when I ate things like that.

Two of these are new products that are exceptionally good: The Earth Balance white cheddar cheese puffs and the Daiya alfredo mac and cheese. Oh my! The one thing I miss from the dairy world is cheese puffs, which are so artificial anyway that I can't believe they're not accidentally vegan. These Earth Balance ones are delectable, however. We pretty much ate the whole bag minutes after taking this picture. We've also tried Amy's mac and cheese, but this Daiya one blows it out of the park. It's downright gourmet. The box says three servings, but if you want three servings, I suggest you get three boxes.

Well, that's all, folks. Obviously Whole Foods gets an A+ despite the prices, simply because they've been catering to vegans since before it became trendy. Luckily, these days you can get about 75% of your vegan groceries at regular supermarkets, especially Publix. My husband even found vegan mayo at Walmart! For the more esoteric stuff, however, Whole Foods continues to be the go-to place, with more selection than Trader Joe's. And don't forget those cookies.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Arturito's Farewell Dinner at El Tropico

Saturday was the saddest day of the year: the day my uncle Arturito goes back home to North Carolina. Of course, you have to give the man what he wants, and when we asked him where he wanted to go for his farewell dinner, he said: El Tropico.

Cuban food is a nightmare for vegans rivaled only by that great triumvirate of corporate vegan apocalypse, Applebee's, Chili's, and the OG (where even the salad dressing has cheese). Cubans looove meat, hate vegetables. I have had interesting conversations with Cubans where there have been claims such as "corn is what we feed the pigs." Moreover, the traditional cooking oil is lard, although some restaurants have moved (thank God) to less psychotic choices such as olive and corn oil. Though some of the traditional menu items may look vegan, such as, say, moros (white rice cooked with black beans), most cooks toss in bacon or lacon (pork shoulder) "for flavor."

Yet, you can't live in Miami and avoid Cuban food forever, especially when you have visitors from other places where Cuban food is either less readily available or less authentic (most Cuban restaurants in Miami are run by actual Cubans). So, one must find a way to navigate that large, meaty menu in such a way that you can get more than just a salad out of it, especially given that what Cubans consider salad is usually just a bunch of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes (remember, the pigs get the other veggies).

Enter El Tropico in Sunny Isles. I know I said I would stick to places close to home, and Sunny Isles verges on the edge of the land beyond which there be dragons. But it's the home of my aunt Bebita, and she's the one who discovered El Tropico. It's a typical Cuban restaurant, but the vegan choices are tastier than some other places we've been.

What are the vegan choices at a Cuban restaurant? Apart from the plain salad (avocado or "aguacate" salad is also vegan when available) with oil and vinegar, you can usually rely on some sides for a good meal. There's always white rice, which is vegan, and traditional black bean soup is accidentally vegan, although some places, like Casa Larios, have decided to pollute it with meat, so you better ask. "You better ask" is the motto here, especially when it comes to the kind of oil they use for frying and whether everything's fried together in one big gross vat. Be prepared to be looked at quizzically; these are not questions Cubans ask. We prefer to ask for the No. 4 and be done with it, but nevertheless both times we've been at El Tropico the server has been kind and forthcoming, and, best of all, gotten the unusual orders right.

My mother and I opted for black beans, white rice, and the best gosh-darned tostones con mojo (fried green plantains with garlic sauce) I've ever had:

I have no idea how they get these things so big. Usually tostones are the size of your palm; these are the size of your face, and they are yummy, thin and light. The portions are HUGE--here is what the tostones looked like before I put them on the plate with the rice:

Mind you, that's a regular-sized dinner plate you're looking at. These are definitely sharing portions, as is the rice, so get one order of tostones, one order of rice, and two orders of black beans for two people, and you've got a fine vegan meal for just under $14!

Tostones are very bad for you, as they are basically a deep-fried starch. My husband tried to be healthier and got a nice pig's portion of sauteed (in oil) veggies, an unusual menu item:

These included broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and yellow carrots, which we'd never had before and were quite tasty and fancy. He also had some black beans (sans rice, very unCuban), splurged on some yucca (which is also very bad for you given its starchiness, but at least it's not deep-fried), and ordered some corn off-menu, which they have around because it's an ingredient in some dishes:

I tried the yuca and it was delicious, soft and creamy. Yuca is difficult to make well--it can come out hard and the whole thing depends on the mojo. This yuca is very, very good.

There's some other vegan sides you can have. You can have the quintessential platanos maduros, the sweet fried plantains that are so good (and so bad for you!). There's French fries, although French fries at Cuban places tend to be frozen (we did not try them here). You can also get mariquitas con mojo, the green platain sliced up thin like chips, or the fried yuca. They're also vegan. But stay away from the moros and yellow rice unless you ask how they are seasoned, and be aware that the tamal has pork, even the plain one. All the fruit shakes are prepared with milk, and if you ask for soy milk at a Cuban restaurant they'll think you're a Communist and throw you out. Don't eat the bread, either. Cuban bread is made with lard and prepared with butter.

Let me tell you, the three vegans at the table ate like pigs.

I highly recommend this place if you are in the Sunny Isles area. They have live music on Saturday night, and the ambience is laid back and comfortable. The carnivores loved their food, too. Arturito had a bistec empanizado (chicken fried steak) bigger than a hubcap. I wish I had a picture of him, but for some reason his pictures came out fuzzy. Here is one of my aunt Bebita, myself, and my mom:

We had a great time and would definitely go back. This place is better than either La Carreta or Versailles, which are much more popular. They get an A for making Cuban food vegan accessible.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lunch at Johnny Rockets in Dadeland Mall

Ah, Johnny Rockets, that bastion of 1950's nostalgia, when even the word "vegan" was newfangled falderol. Who would have thought they'd have a delicious veggie burger?

Surprisingly, though Johnny Rockets may not have the world's largest vegan selections (the "Streamliner" is their one and only choice), they have something perhaps even better: 100% full disclosure of all of their ingredients on their website. You don't have to wonder if their veggie burger is vegan (many veggie burgers elsewhere contain egg whites), or ask a server who may not even know what that means. They tell you right there on their website. Kudos to you, Johnny Rockets! And do bring back the accidentally vegan apple pie.

Here is my delicious Streamliner with fries, ordered just as it is on the menu, no subs needed:

Sorry I had already taken a bite of it. I was so freaking hungry I forgot I was going to do a blog. One always wonders about the fries; are they fried in the same vat of oil as the meat? Johnny Rockets says no, and sometimes you just have to trust.

This is one of the tastiest veggie burgers around, and the fries are awesome, thick and creamy, not those heinous stiff fries you get at other places. The burger is a decent size, and the fries generous enough to share.

Plus of course they have a full menu for the carnivores. Here is my uncle Arturito enjoying a chocolate milkshake:

Dadeland Mall is actually not so bad. The food court also has Daily Bread, a Mediterranean spot, and some Thai food I have not investigated yet. Outside the food court is The Cheesecake Factory, which also, believe it or not, has more than a few decent vegan options. Aroma has soy milk for your coffee and some light vegan eats. Plus fancy shopping? Not too shabby.

So, to recap, Johnny Rockets gets an A+ for the Streamliner and fries, and the super-easy full disclosure website. About the only thing they could do better is offer some soy milk shakes. You can visit them at many locations in Miami, though sadly a few have closed down recently. Find one at