Hula’s Modern Tiki: Best Veggie Burger Vote

Photo by Malu Bañuelos

When I think of island cuisine, I don’t usually consider vegetarian options but my good friend recommended it to me, which is much more direction than I usually get when going to a new restaurant, so I decided to try it.

After a horrible dining experience that day I decided to try again hoping that my taste buds would forgive me. I went to Hula’s Modern Tiki on North Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix and was instantly drawn in by the modern outdoor ambiance. It felt like a rooftop restaurant with all of the surrounding high-rise buildings, except it wasn’t. Rejoice acrophobics!

I was impressed by the multiple vegetarian options on the menu, sometimes I’m lucky if there is one option available, let alone two but I was pleasantly surprised to find five vegetarian options on the dinner menu. I ordered the $10 Big Sur Black Bean Burger with sweet potato fries and my dining partner had the $11 Spicy Tofu Tacos with black beans over white rice.

Photo By Malu Bañuelos

The house-made veggie patty was topped with grilled maui onions, shiitake mushrooms, jack cheese, sun-dried tomato pesto aioli and avocado, which I added just because. This is exactly why I love trying new places, you never know when your new favorite meal is just one restaurant away. This veggie burger is officially my favorite. I’ve probably tried every veggie burger at every place from In-n-out’s patty-less burger to Fat Burger’s Boca patty burger and even my own attempts at a home made patty. This one was perfection. It was a fusion of flavors, and textures, which I expect in any meal. I have not one criticism of the burger I didn’t even notice that it had shiitake mushrooms, as opposed to other kinds that don’t leave the aftertast thtat shiitake mushrooms do. The sweet onions gave the burger its island flare, while the aioli gave it a gourment touch. As if that wasn’t enough, I had it with sweet potato fries. I don’t usually like fries, I can’t eat them without a huge sense of guilt but with sweet potato fries that is a different story entirely. This selection was perfection!

Photo by Malu Bañuelos

I don’t like tofu. People often ask what kind of vegetarian doesn’t like tofu? This kind. A palate for tofu doesn’t follow being vegetarian. I was hoping the tofu tacos would be tasty considering the tofu was seasoned and topped with taco slaw and sun-dried tomato pesto aioli on corn tortillas. Unfortunately the verdict is blah. Is there a word for less than blah? If so, please apply here _________. The taco slaw and aioli sauce were unsuccessful in flavoring the tofu. “Tofu has very little flavor and will take on the flavors of your recipe which is why tofu is so versatile,” according to Nasoya, a leading tofu producer. A dash of seasoning on top will certainly not suffice. Tofu’s consistency can vary from soft to extra firm, on the rare occasion that I enjoy tofu it is extra firm. I don’t enjoy soft variations of tofu because it dissolves in my mouth and not in a good way. The black beans were, well, black beans and void of any exciting flavor, they were placed on top of some more blandness–I mean white rice. I can say that the beans weren’t canned, which is more than I can say about the pathetic excuse for salsa that was included on the side.

On a scale from one to 10 the burger definitely gets a 10 while the tacos get a 3 so that’s a 6.5 average. If you want a 10 experience go for the burger. If you’re void of taste buds go ahead and try the tofu tacos… at least they’re healthy.

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La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop, Gourmet it is Not

Photo by Malu Bañuelos

After typing “gourmet restaurants Phoenix” into Google, I came across a list of restaurants with “gourmet” as part of their names. I realized the word gourmet is like the word classy – If you have to say you are, you’re probably not.

Instead of starting a new search, however, I read the reviews, which were all great. It was even recognized by several publications such as 944 magazine, Phoenix New Times and AZCentral.

So I got up, put the address into my navigation and headed to La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop on 16th Street, in Phoenix. I didn’t let it’s location scare me away, I went fearlessly in search of good food. I’ve found many hole-in-the-wall restaurants by not pre-judging them and I hoped this one would be yet another added to the list.

Aside from its location, I could have probably guessed that the food wasn’t going to be “gourmet.” But I took a seat and ordered the $8.95 La Condesa Veggie Taco combo plate, which came with white rice and beans.

My father taught me a trick to knowing whether a Mexican food restaurant’s food will be good, by its salsa. La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop has a full salsa bar, the largest selection I’ve ever seen, actually, but sometimes a restaurant needs just one – not 10 mediocre ones. I tried them all, some were good, while others were merely fillers like the pecan salsa. I was curious of course, pecan salsa, who wouldn’t be? Well, in a nutshell – pun intended – it tasted pretty much like mayonnaise. I won’t go through my critique of each salsa but I will note that the chipotle, green chile and chile de arbol were decent, under-salted, but decent.

Photo by Malu Bañuelos

Okay so onto the food, which is what you really care about anyway. The corn tortilla tacos were filled with “toasted Oaxacan cheese, mushrooms, poblano pepper, onion, spinach & fresh garlic, grilled with olive oil.” I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care much for cheese before but I, unfortunately, forgot to tell the server I did not want any.

I tried one of the tacos with the cheese to get the full experience. The first bite tasted just like a quesadilla. I don’t like cheese therefore I don’t care much for quesadillas so I’m probably biased. It wasn’t bad; it wasn’t great. After I took as much cheese off as I could with my fingers, I was able to get a better taste of the veggies, which lacked salt. I added salsa to increase the taste and it did, a little. The rice was blah, I mean how good can white rice be? And the beans were good. I asked the server whether the beans were prepared with lard and she assured me they were not but I wasn’t convinced so I decided not to try them because they smelled like bacon. I was over the place after the first taco but decided to finish what I started. As I unmasked my second taco of its cheese I noticed a bacon-looking piece. Upon further dissection I found a piece of BEEF! I tried to keep my barf to myself and immediately informed the server.

Needless to say, I left immediately. I’m not one of those vegetarians who cheat. Ever since I decided to become vegetarian in 2008 I have not eaten meat. I don’t need, crave nor want it. I am utterly disgusted and do not plan on returning to La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop. If you decide to go despite my poor experience, at least you were forewarned. Good luck.

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El Segundo Sol, Second Chance?

Photo courtesy of El Segundo Sol

When traveling, one of the most difficult things can be finding a restaurant that satisfies both the vegetarian taste buds and those of our non-vegetarian friends. In Las Vegas there is an abundance of restaurants but knowing which ones are vegetarian friendly can be a struggle

I love Mexican food but I am often wary about eating it because of the meat-based products used to prepare many of the foods. Mexican fried rice, for example, is often made with chicken broth or base. Similarly, many soups often have chicken broth so you always have to ask your server whether it is, in fact, vegetarian. The worse offense that Mexican food joints commit is adding lard to their beans. Beans are so healthy and flavorful on their own but unfortunately many restaurants find the need to “enhance” their taste by adding lard.

While in Las Vegas I found a Mexican food spot right on the strip called El Segundo Sol. I’ll admit I was first attracted to it because of its luring outdoor seating area, but the ambiance matters none if the food isn’t good.

Many of the vegetarian menu items were cheese-based, which I generally try to avoid, or basic salads. I love salads but when I’m hungry I need something more than just lettuce so I ordered the $13 vegetarian taco platter by default. The plate was served with cilantro-lime white rice and black beans. The taco filling was comprised of wood-grilled market vegetables: grilled squash, asparagus, red and green bell peppers, fresh corn and one extra spicy red jalapeno. Their handmade corn tortillas came on the side but I wanted to keep my meal as light as possible so I ate my meal without them. Mexicans in poverty often use tortillas to get full because they are filling and inexpensive to make or buy.

One of the worst mistakes a restaurant or cook can make to mess up a recipe is over or under salt a meal. It’s salt, not rocket science. I hope the cooks at El Segundo Sol are better at rocket science than salting food because the beans and rice were extremely salty. My taste buds are very sensitive and I couldn’t ignore the taste, though I tried.

Onto the veggies, which were grilled to perfection, but unfortunately under salted. All hope was not lost, however, the over salted/under salted combo worked to my advantage. When mixed together the balance was great! I had ordered the fresh guacamole and it supplemented my rice, bean and veggie concoction very well. I have to note that the avocados were slightly under ripe but not so much that I couldn’t ignore their taste.

Although my experience was mixed, I enjoyed the meal. I ate every single thing on my plate, which surely must speak for something.

I have two things to note, however. The water was HORRIBLE! I didn’t realize it was tap water until after I took a drink. It was served from a glass bottle, which I thought meant it was filtered, but it was NOT. Everyone in my party agreed that a lemon would have been the least they could have done to offset its dirty dishwater flavor. Good thing I carry a water bottle with me wherever I go.

The second shortcoming of my experience was our server. He could be the worst server I have ever had to deal with. He was rude, inattentive, dismissive, forgetful and distracted by the game playing as well as his cellphone. I had to leave a note for the manager before I left because I was beyond upset with the service.

So, my fellow vegetarians, go to El Segundo Sol at your own risk. I’m guessing the food and the service is hit or miss, hopefully for you it will be a hit. I haven’t decided if I’ll go back again because although I was able to fix the food’s flavor, the service left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Olive & Ivy: vegetarians matter too

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I must have an “eye” for good food because by total coincidence I found myself at yet another Fox restaurant concepts restaurant. This was by far my luckiest blind experience at a restaurant.

I will disclaim it now, I am not in any way affiliated with the Fox restaurant chains.  The reason I feel compelled to state this is because my experience at Olive & Ivy was so over-the-top amazing that you might think I was writing an ad for them.  On the contrary, I think everyone should experience the delectable meal that I did.

Ever heard of the saying “stick a fork in me, I’m done,”?  How about “stick a bullet in me, I’m done”?  That is exactly how I felt after my dining experience at Olive & Ivy in Scottsdale, after that meal, I would have died already in heaven, no need for the commute.

For a Sunday evening the place was relatively dead but it could not have been because of the food, maybe it was the Emmy’s that were airing that night.

The restaurant itself is beautiful.  There is dim lighting–which I happen to look best in, so it’s ideal for a date night– and candles all over the restaurant.  There are also private dining areas and an outdoor seating area.  The temperature was still near the hundreds so still too hot for me to eat outdoors.

So down to the food.

For starters, complimentary bread, which is made daily beginning at 3 a.m., according to our server Kelsen, and is served with an olive oil concoction.  I have said before that I’m not a bread person–and I’m not–the bread itself, nothing special but when dipped in the olive oil mix that contained pine nuts, basil, pesto and parmesan cheese it was amazing!  I had to stop myself from eating too much because we all know bread is filling and I wanted to leave room for the rest of my meal.

After sampling the complimentary bread, we had second thoughts about the bruschetta orders we had placed but we would have been fools not to have sampled the apple caponata and asparagus bruschetta.

My selection was the $4 asparagus bruschetta.  It was toasted ciabatta bread topped with chèvre goat cheese and piquillo pepper marmalade.  When I took my first bite, all of the ingredients nearly melted and fused together in my mouth.  The asparagus was grilled but chilled which I wasn’t expecting but for some reason it made the flavor more pronounced.  The marmalade, which at first sight looked like marinara sauce, was incredible!  I am a big fan of sweet food–not cake sweet, barbecue sweet– and it was so tasty with the asparagus.  It had goat cheese, which I’m not a fan of, but I wanted to be a good sport and try it with the cheese.  It wasn’t bad, but I preferred it sans cheese because  it stuck to the roof of my mouth, which I do not like.  Take the cheese out and the bruschetta was beyond perfect.

The apple caponata bruschetta was also only $4.  I was wary only because it was a sweet dish and  not my preference but it was a very close second to the asparagus.  It had taleggio cheese topped with roasted, chopped pistachio and yellow raisins–I HATE raisins– but the complemented the bruschetta nicely!  The bread was soft because of the taleggio cheese, which is a spreadable cheese, according to restaurant Manager John Adams.  Without the cheese I doubt that I would have enjoyed this because it offset the sweet flavors.  There were also different textures which I love in food because it becomes a guessing game in your mouth.

We skipped the soup and salad to maintain dinner appetites and went with the $12 Margherita flatbread and $14 summer corn capello pasta.  I asked our server what would be lighter between the sweet potato cannelloni and he said the corn capello was much lighter, I didn’t question his recommendation.

When my partner ordered the Margherita flatbread I was pretty disappointed.  With the unique options available, I thought he could have chosen something riskier but he is a pizza lover and that was his choice.  However, ordinary, bland, and plain the flatbread was not!  it has such a delicate yet flavorful taste.  It was extremely light, even the cheese.  I have never had a better flatbread, Margherita, or pizza than this one.  I was afraid to take one more bite for fear that it would ruin the memory of the first but it did not. It had crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella & basil.  How could something so “simple” be so incredibly tasty?

Onto my meal, which was the summer corn cappello with tomato concassé & fava beans.  There are no words that could possibly explain how delicious this plate was but I will attempt to nonetheless.

The pasta was so soft, when I bit into it and it introduced the tomato concassé filling it was better than unwrapping a duffel bag filled with hundred dollar bills!  Again, the sweet filling with the unmistakably fresh corn kernels. I was in pure bliss, I had to close my eyes to not give a show my eyes rolling to the back of my head.  When I took my last bite, I shed a tear because it was all gone.

After all of the orgasmic meals I had, there was no way I was going to risk such a perfect experience with dessert.  I called it a day and asked for the check, which was less than $60 for a gourmet dinner including drinks.  I have never spent money more wisely than on that experience.

As a vegetarian, it’s sometimes difficult to reveal to people that you are vegetarian.  They instantly classify and deem you “difficult.”  It’s especially challenging when you go to a restaurant and have to verify whether meatless items are in fact vegetarian because many times although meals don’t have chunks of meat, there are still meat products like chicken broth, beef fat or even lard.  Olive and Ivy is very vegetarian friendly and even discloses on its menu that dishes are vegetarian.  As if that wasn’t kind enough, they also list items that are gluten-free.  Adams said the menu was revamped in July due to the trends toward vegetarian and gluten free meals they were seeing.  He said listing it right on the menu made it easier for customers and I couldn’t agree more.  Sometimes I feel like I annoy people by asking but I have to ensure that I do not consume any meat products.

You could easily dine at Olive & Ivy and have a marvelous meatless meal without realizing that you just had a vegetarian experience.  You would never miss the meat or meat products because the creations are so delicious and satisfying.  Adams said most people who order meatless items are not vegetarian, adding only a handful of people a day are.

So, my fellow vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike, dine at Olive & Ivy fearlessly for there are just as many vegetarian options as there are meat options.  You will not have to limit yourself to sides, it is clear that the Olive & Ivy team thinks vegetarians matter too.

Check out their dinner menu online.

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About this blog

I’m a restaurant’s toughest critic.  I have loved food with a passion ever since I was young.  I have memories of spending my allowances on meals at sit-down restaurants.  I also grew up in LA and visited top eateries as a hobby for many years.  I feel that I have been exposed to finer foods and have become somewhat of an informal expert because of it.

What might be a simple task to others is not so much for me. Here’s the checklist that I subconsciously follow every time I decide what to eat:

  1. Vegetarian or vegan foods, which automatically eliminates a large percentage of meals and restaurants for me.
  2. Low fat/low carb.  I am not a vegetarian who regularly substitutes meat products with cheese and bread.  First of all, they are not nutritional substitutes, secondly they do not automatically make a meal tasty, and thirdly they are super fattening!
  3. Taste.  I’m hard of hearing and my vision is very poor which is why food is more than just sustenance to me.  My taste buds are strong where my other senses are not so much.  I can often pick out ingredients and spices in foods by simply smelling them.

4.  Price. This consideration, however, is negotiable.  If conditions 1 through 3 are                    satisfied, price matters very little.

As if that wasn’t enough, I cook so I know it’s not that difficult to make a good meal.  I also have a background in the restaurant biz.  For my entire life, my dad has owned and cooked for his restaurants and taught me about different tastes, ingredients and  nutritional value.

True Food: truly delicious

I was about to go on a nine hour fast and my last meal was to be no later than 9 p.m.  I had a not-so-good experience with Thai food the previous night, and I did not want a repeat of the excruciating heart burn.

So my criteria for this particular “last meal” was vegetarian, light, tasty and inexpensive.

The place: True Food Kitchen (Biltmore Fashion Park)

I was overwhelmed with the meal choices available for a vegetarian.  Neither I nor my dining partner had dined at True Food before so we were excited to see what the place was all about.

I was stuck between the $13 Corn & Ricotta Ravioli and the $12 Organic Tomato & Roasted Vegetable pizza.  I asked my server which the wiser choice would be, he steered me toward the pizza because the ravioli would not be very filling, he said.

My dining guest ordered the $10 Mediterranean chopped salad, which had cucumber, olives, cherry tomatoes, quinoa, feta, Marcona almonds and lemon oregano vinaigrette.  I was slightly disappointed that he opted for a salad with such appetizing selections available.

I have to note the place was packed for a Thursday evening with virtually no wait to be seated or for our meals to arrive.

His salad was brought out first and all I can say is OMG!  It was seemingly “just a salad” but just a salad it wasn’t!  It was incredibly tasty, filling, healthy and what do you know, inexpensive!

I’ve had bad experiences with bland or misplaced quinoa but in the Mediterranean salad it was right at home.  It provided the “meaty” texture that a lot of vegetarian food lacks but is mentally filling.  And it’s no wonder because like meat, it contains protein, a notable difference is that quinoa contains “complete protein meaning that it includes all nine essential amino acids,” according to The World’s Healthiest Foods’ website.  Hows that for a meat substitute?  The salad had a perfect blend of textures, which I think is important not only in a meal, but especially in a salad so that it’s filling.  I am not typically a fan of nuts in my food but the Marcona almonds were so tasty and appropriate!  They completed the fusion of flavors in the salad.

I’m ashamed to admit I basically stole the salad but I don’t feel so guilty just because it was so insanely good.

Unfortunately, my pizza wasn’t as satisfying.  It was incredibly salty, beyond tolerance!  I usually have more tolerance for salt than others because I would rather have slightly more than less but the dose in the pizza made it inedible.  I informed the server and he was more than happy to replace it with a selection of my choice.

I opted for the $13 spaghetti squash casserole, which was served with fresh mozzarella (I asked for very light cheese), organic tomato and zucchini.

Minutes later the dish was before me and let me tell you, it was heavenly!  It wasn’t your ordinary pasta dish, the pasta was replaced by finely shredded zucchini, which made it super light and tasty.  I don’t suggest ordering it without cheese, for once, because it made every other bite different.

I sampled the $6 Medicine Man drink from the Natural Refreshments menu which had Olivello, pomegranate and cranberry juices as well as black tea, soda water and blueberries.  I was disappointed with the drink. Although it had a lot of flavor, I’m not a fan of carbonated drinks so I would suggest ordering it without soda water for a smoother taste.

I typically don’t order dessert but we overheard our server describing his unique concoction to the couple beside us.  It was a strawberry rhubarb crisp that usually comes standard with vanilla ice cream but suggested a pistachio ice cream substitution to make for a completely vegan dessert!

I’ve had good desserts, I’ve had bad desserts, blah desserts and–well, you get the picture–this dessert was phenomenal.  I kept saying it was my “last bite” but I couldn’t restrain myself but why should I, it was vegan, that’s practically guilt-free!

Despite the salty pizza and the medicine man “soda” I was very pleased with True Foods.  The things I liked were very good, and the ones I didn’t were on the opposite end but for me, if I find a hit, it makes all the misses worth it!