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.