Tender Greens

Sometimes, I feel a little protective over my very favorite spots--those restaurants that I visit as often as once a week, places where I have to get my fix.  Something inside of me gets greedy and wants to preserve their familiarity, my feelings of ownership about these gems.  But today, I'm feeling generous.  So I'm sharing the latest episode of LA on 20's web series, and this time I am visiting Tender Greens in Santa Monica with my little brother, Sam.

I find that one of the most difficult things about being on a budget is being able to eat healthfully.  Fresh produce, especially organic and sustainably farmed/caught/raised fare just costs more to procure, and sometimes it can feel out of reach for those of us looking to get the most bang for the buck. 

Which is why I really treasure Tender Greens.  Seriously, it's a special place.  Because not only have they created a model where they can offer all of those things--seasonal, ethically raised, fresh, organic food--at an affordable price point, on a large scale, but they go above and beyond by also offering a consistently excellent, inventive specials menu each and every day.  I have had a beautifully cooked piece of cod with braised hen of the woods mushrooms for $12.  I have had delicious and light pea tendril ravioli with a side of arugula salad for $12 for dinner.  Free range beef and pork meatballs in a slowly simmered, rich marinara for $4.

It's cafeteria-style dining, because that's what allows them to offer these really elevated, well-executed, healthy, delicious dishes at that price.  But it feels like a nice sit-down restaurant--they have beer and wine on tap, and seasonal and decadent desserts, including some really good vegan ones.  There are multiple locations throughout LA and in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Orange County, so wherever you find yourself in California, this affordable and healthy option isn't far away.  I really cannot say enough about how cool this place is.  So I'll let the video do the rest of the talking.  Please enjoy!

Hungry Pocket Falafel House

The state of Israel turned 66 last week, on May 6. American Jews celebrate Israeli Independence Day in the same way Jews celebrate everything—we eat! And so it was with great pleasure that I sat down to a heaping plate of Israeli food on Tuesday night at the synagogue where I teach. Did you know I teach a Jewish cooking class to 7th graders? Salatim, the various little Israeli salads—beet salad, sauerkraut, purple cabbage, Israeli salad (diced cucumber and tomato with vinaigrette and herbs), hummus, babaganoush, and tahini—topped my pita stuffed with falafel. On the side, grape leaves filled with rice, and on top of everything, two Israeli hot sauces, or skhugs, one green and one red. This feast was catered by Ta-Eem Grill in Hollywood, and I was extremely impressed with the authenticity and flavor of the food. The hot sauce was hot, for starters. Polishing off my generously stuffed pita, I was transported back to the time I gained 5 pounds in a week in Israel. Israeli food is many things, but light isn’t one. And when I travel, I take my fill of everything—it’s not often I’m in Israel, so I leave no schwarma untasted on my short journeys to the homeland. I’ve never been to Ta-Eem in person, but I do have a favorite falafel establishment near me, a place that feels like an escape, a wormhole from Santa Monica to the Middle East. It is a humble stand-alone building on one of the more dilapidated Santa Monica blocks of Pico Boulevard. Hungry Pocket Falafel is located in a small strip mall next to a constantly rotating tenant—it’s been two different yogurt shops and a boba shop in the few years I’ve been aware of it—but Hungry Pocket stays steadfast and unchanged. The interior is tiled like a subway bathroom; there are a few tables in the small space, and a counter that opens to the schwarma rotisserie and flattop. There are freshly pressed juices—carrot and orange and beet, not the trendy kind; there are cubes of salty, crumbly house made feta; hand stuffed dolmas and potent house hot sauce, served in a communal bowl that is passed from table to table on request. There is fresh tabbouleh, one of my favorite versions of this grain salad, herbaceous and lemony. There is of course falafel, there is schwarma, there are gyros and kebab. A falafel sandwich here costs a whopping $4.75, and you can choose whole-wheat pita. I believe there are all-you-can eat falafel nights on Mondays and Wednesdays for $8.75, though I have never participated—I do attempt to practice moderation when I am not traveling.

It is the care taken with the little things here that make it special, and after I’ve consumed their wonderful babaganoush and chicken kebab, I turn my thoughts towards baklava. For $1.35 I can enjoy a small square of gooey, chewy, homemade baklava, all phyllo and nuts and honey and nothing else. Like Hungry Pocket itself, the baklava has no superfluous ingredients. Except maybe a little bit of love.


Cafe Bolivar

Every college town has its local favorite spots where students gather off-campus, seeking to settle in for an afternoon and an affordable meal, places where one could ostensibly get work done and still enjoy some atmosphere. In Palo Alto the choice hangout was inarguably Coupa Café, a large but cozy Venezuelan place serving arepas and sweet, creamy coffee beverages (coffee being the lifeblood of the college student). We would gather around the fireplace in the back room, sinking into couches and digging in to crêpes or arepas or tortas, gossiping, refueling, maybe even writing an essay or two. I wouldn’t say the arepas or the crêpes were the best I’ve ever had. But we went there for the vibe. Coupa Café actually has a location in Beverly Hills, and I admit I have yet to visit, perhaps for unfair reasons. You see, Coupa Café now has a location on Stanford campus, which is very nice for them—but they took over the space of a beloved campus coffee stand called MoonBeam’s, a small business type of place where I made many fond memories, and for that I begrudge them. Most likely you do not care a whit that Coupa ousted my beloved MoonBeam’s, and I don’t blame you. Feel free to try Coupa Café in Beverly Hills. I promise I will give it a shot soon.

I, however, have a more than suitable substitute right here in Santa Monica, which I happen to think is a pretty crafty find, considering the rarity of arepas on the LA food landscape. Café Bolívar has all the trappings of a college town hangout—free wifi, rotating art installations, cute little wooden bookshelf in the back, strong coffee. It even has that one table that is clearly superior to the others, nestled in an enclave by the window and equipped with the only comfy looking chairs in the café, two giant stuffed orange monstrosities with wings. This table is always taken, I suspect by Santa Monica College students who stake it out early. The arepas are better here, I find, than Coupa’s offerings, though that may be a grudge-based opinion. They are petite, made to order, with white cornmeal. Arepas are kind of like pupusas, but fluffier—they’re puffed up cornmeal pancakes that are split in half and stuffed like little sandwiches. Always crunchy on the outside with a soft, warm polenta-like inside, Bolivar’s little pockets of corn stuffed with stews or cheeses are hearty and filling.

The minimum order is two arepas, and they range in price from $4-$6. Two arepas are perfect to fill me up for lunch. My favorite is probably the pulled pork shoulder cooked in Caribbean spices for 8 hours. I find Caribbean spices are more sort of earthy or warm than Mexican spice, which has more of a bite. Caribbean spices include those Christmas-y flavors—nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and clove—so there’s more of a slow burn and less of a punch in the face.

I also love the simple black bean and fresh white cheese, and the very strange sounding but delicious tasting sliced mango with avocado, fresh white cheese, garlic confit and rosemary aioli.

Sidebar: Have you noticed that most other countries make cheese much better than we do? I have. Is it our penchant for sanitizing the shit out of our dairy that robs our cheese of flavor? Think about it—buffalla mozzarella from Italy is the gold standard by which all cheeses are measured, in my opinion, and we all know French camembert, pungent and assertive, kicks the ass of sad, mild American cheddar. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to eat “mild” anything. Israeli dairy is smooth and decadent—yogurt, widely considered a diet food in the US, is made there with full fat dairy, so a small container of rich, smooth unsweetened Israeli yogurt makes the perfect breakfast. I never understood what cottage cheese was supposed to taste like until I had it in Israel. Manchego from Spain is salty and earthy, and I love Mexican queso fresco and crema because it always tastes richer and stronger than other cheese. The fresh white cheese at Bolívar has a texture most similar to ricotta salata, and is sliced and piled liberally and stuffed into warm arepas with stewed black beans or mango.

All arepas here are served with a delicious green guasacaca sauce, a blend of cilantro, oil, vinegar and garlic. I always attempt to discard the ends of the arepa that don’t have any stuffing left on them, but invariably end up dredging them with guasacaca sauce and devouring them. Arepas and guasacaca sauce.  From the left: black bean and fresh white cheese, mango avocado, pulled pork

Bolivar also has the sweetened coffee beverages that seem to be a Venezuelan mainstay, my favorite being the Café Bolívar, a latte sweetened with condensed milk. They have a variety of smoothies and breakfast items, including a really nice veggie bagel, toasted and topped with cream cheese, tomato, avocado and red onion. The best part of their veggie bagel, that little touch that puts it over the edge, is the drizzle of fruity olive oil and sprinkling of sea salt and briny capers to finish. Veggie Bagel

I love a real neighborhood café that’s not fancy and not a hole in the wall either. Café Bolívar feels like a hidden gem, and it’s a welcome deviation from my usual lunch of a big salad or soup. Venezuelan cuisine is not a hot trend right now, and that’s what feels just right about Bolívar—it’s a discovery.

Thai Vegan

This new Santa Monica spot is just way better than a weird little massage parlor/teak furniture store turned takeout Thai restaurant should be. The bf and I used to joke about the ridiculousness of the place all of a sudden announcing itself as a restaurant, and yet one day, hungry for a healthy, quick and cheap lunch, I was compelled by an unknown force to go into Thai Vegan. I have been frequenting the place since then, and everything I have had here, without exception, is delicious. My first sampling of Thai Vegan’s fare was the pad thai with tofu and vegetables. I was starving, and ate until my stomach hurt, but still barely finished half of the steaming heap of squishy rice noodles with that sweet orange sauce, peanuts, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and of course tofu. Thai flavors happen to lend themselves particularly well to vegan cuisine--authentic Thai curry is made with coconut milk anyway, so nothing is sacrificed in the translation. The curry at Thai Vegan happens to be excellent, sweet and complex and not too thick, packed with veggies and soft tofu. I ask for the curry extra spicy and order a side of brown rice, a huge scoop of multi-hued, wild rice that is always perfectly cooked. With the $5 curry, the entire lunch comes out to $7 flat, and it’s honestly enough to feed two people. Two spring roll-esque fresh vegetable wraps the size of burritos with thick, sweet, spicy peanut sauce are $5. Eating the wraps is like biting into a salad of freshly picked herbs. Full of cucumber, lettuce, tofu, basil and mint, they come wrapped in a chewy rice paper roll, and dipped in the peanut sauce they make the perfect crisp, fresh lunch. The prices here are astoundingly low. All curries are $5. Noodle dishes are $7. Thai iced tea, $2. They also have fried rice dishes and tofu wraps, satays and soups, green papaya salad and wonderful mango sticky rice. Everything is $7 or less.

I’m not suggesting that Thai Vegan is the new Jitlada. It’s not that the flavors are particularly unique in terms of the Thai places around town, even among Thai on the West side. You obviously aren’t going to find any odd delicacies like fish kidney curry (though the smell alone of that dish is enough to provoke my gag reflex). But the freshness of the food, the surprising complexity of the curries, and the spot-on execution of all of the dishes are refreshingly delightful. There are a few wooden tables and benches where you can sit and eat if you prefer not to take your food out. Perhaps you would like a convenient Thai massage to aid digestion after your meal--only $39/hr. It’s like a refreshing spa day at one of those cheap Korean spas downtown, only without the mandatory nudity.

Cha Cha Chicken

I have to admit that my first experience with this casual beach shack serving "eclectic Caribbean" was not especially favorable, so when Michael Symon chose their coconut fried chicken as one of the “Best Things [he] Ever Ate,” I had my misgivings. Cha Cha Chicken is within walking distance from my apartment, so it was with great disappointment that I noted their staple jerk chicken to be decidedly lacking in flavor, moisture, and general presentation. I found the service lagging, the décor odd. I've since discovered that to some extent, I just needed to adjust my expectations—the kitschy outdoor-only dining area, outfitted with patio tables and slightly sticky, mismatched chairs, and adorned with colorful lanterns hanging from a floral vinyl awning has its charms, especially at night, when a second round of dinner patrons forms a snaking line down the sidewalk, everyone taking full advantage of the BYO policy. Every hand clutches a beer, while ex-frat boys push tables together to accommodate large, festive groups, drinking and dining on spicy, sweet, sloppy Island food. There is a quirky cuteness to the scene.

I also just needed to adjust my order. A couple of the offerings are misses, and the jerk chicken is not the way to go here. Chef Symon was absolutely right about the coconut fried chicken, however—it is a delight. The thick, sweet, salty, crunchy crust breaks off in chunks as you bite into the chicken pieces, and those fallen morsels of chicken skin make your sides of dirty rice and red cabbage slaw so much better. The dipping sauces are so-so; the pineapple sauce is a little too goopy and sweet for me, and the jerk sauce is spicy enough, but the flavor doesn’t excite me. The fried chicken is all you really need. The sides, two of which are included in most orders, are clearly afterthoughts, dumped haphazardly on the plate. The beans in the dirty rice are often unevenly cooked and the fried plantains are starchy, unattractive brown chunks of room-temperature cardboard. The chicken gumbo is bland, the sweet potatoes overcooked.

But don't be discouraged. There are gems to be found here. Do go for the salmon, it’s really nicely cooked and spiced with a sort of dry rub version of the jerk sauce. Do go for the jerk chicken enchiladas, I find them surprisingly flavorful. I actually do enjoy that red cabbage slaw, though it isn’t so much a slaw as a mound of chopped red cabbage lightly dressed with jerk sauce. It’s nothing special on its own, but with some bits of coconut fried chicken skin or a bite of spicy grilled salmon, it’s a nice crunchy component.

Honestly, as I survey the scene from beneath a heat lamp on the enclosed Cha Cha Chicken patio, nothing but the presence of purple beans and rice is remotely reminiscent of anywhere I've been in Cuba. But the air is relaxed, the food satisfying, and I am enjoying a funky, authentically Santa Monica evening.

Ozumo Donburi Rice Bowl

Ozumo is a high-end Japanese transplant from San Francisco, with a beautiful dimly-lit, gilded dining room and a pricey menu of fresh fish and robata skewers, among other expensive traditional Japanese fare. But you don’t have to miss out on this lovely spot in the new Santa Monica Place just because you’re a frugal diner—they have some very good values for lunch and happy hour, including a $10 rice bowl. The rice bowl is huge, you could really split it with someone if you’re not starving, and there are four options: curry tofu with vegetables and brown rice, which is my bowl of choice, as well as prime angus beef with sweet soy sauce, Japanese fried chicken, and teriyaki glazed freshwater eel. If a big rice bowl isn’t appealing to you, there are a surprising number of other affordable lunch options, including sushi bento boxes for $14 and flavorful ramen and udon soups for $11. These prices might not be blowing your mind, but for the quality of the food and the really delightful atmosphere, the value is right. What I like about the tofu bowl is the flavor of the traditional Japanese curry, strong and thick and tangy. With plenty of perfectly cooked brown rice and carrots and potatoes, it’s a hearty lunch at a pretty reasonable price, and you can order it in the bar or sitting in the dining room. On a nice day though, you may want to opt for the little outdoor lounge area. If you hang around after you’re done with your rice bowl, you might just transition into the next mealtime, and order from the Happy Hour menu starting at 3pm. From 3-7 every day, including weekends, $3 draft Sapporos are enticing; $5 skewers of pork belly or grilled salmon or tender glazed chicken are also available. You could order a garlic edamame for $4 or a miso soup for $3. There are even some sushi rolls available for about what you would pay for prepackaged grocery store sushi. Relaxing in the bar or outside on the patio, drinking beers and eating tender sushi, you could pass an entire afternoon grazing with friends, and never dread seeing the bill.