Charles Balcer: My West Coast Raw Food Adventures
That is an actual license plate that I found, belonging to a guy named Philip that I met at the Santa Monica co-op. The picture above is what my journey was all about. I had wanted to take a trip to the west coast, to check out the raw scene. The Raw Spirit Fest in Santa Barbara was going on, Matt Monarch and Angela Stokes were getting hitched, so it seemed like a good time to spend a few weeks out west. I’d been to California many times before, but this was my first time as a full-fledged raw foodist, so I was going there with new eyes. My last visit to the west coast, in February ’07, was also the scene of my last food binge. I was still really new to the raw diet at that point, and I broke it big-time on that trip with trips to all-you-can-eat Asian buffets and In-N-Out Burger.
A few weeks inevitably turned into a couple of months, as I spent some time getting my fillings replaced in Tijuana. I didn’t plan on that when I made my trip, but I figured since I was in the area, I might as well. It’s ridiculously cheap down there. Each filling was $90. And for those who think Mexico’s level technology might be a bit sketchy, I found it to be every bit as good as any dentist I’ve visited here in the tri-state area. I also visited a dermatologist in Mexico to have a big pimple removed on my chin, as well as two tiny bumps above my eyelid. I suspect the blemish on my chin was an ingrown hair from the caveman beard I had earlier in the year. A doctor in NJ was going to charge me $450 just for my chin alone. The dermatologist in Tijuana? Sixty bucks for all three bumps.
I’ve always held this arrogance that New York City had the best raw food restaurants on the planet. I had tried raw restaurants in Connecticut, Boston, and Toronto, and found them lacking compared to the Big Apple. But I was wrong. California’s got some truly awesome restaurants. I enjoyed dining at pretty much all of them. Among the places I tried were:
Au Lac: Funny place, as it’s in a strip mall and resembles a typical Chinese food restaurant. But the raw food is really good. The fried rice and garlic bread are must-try dishes. And Chef Ito, the man who runs the place, is a total character. For those who may not be familiar with him, the man has taken a vow of silence and hasn’t spoken in nine years. He’ll greet you with the warmest hugs, and then won’t let you leave, as he’ll introduce you to everyone else in the restaurant who is raw and then concoct up some elixirs or a chocolate dessert. He’s the mascot of the place, like a raw version of Chuck E. Cheese.
Planet Raw: This is Juliano’s place. They win the award for most comfortable chairs in a raw restaurant. I thoroughly enjoyed their sushi rolls, and the cheesecakes were really good. My only complaint is that a lot of his dishes feature avocado, which inevitably makes them all taste pretty similar. They’re also open until 11, which I appreciated, as most other restaurants closed earlier.
Euphoria Loves Rawvolution: This is the restaurant that I probably visited the most. I completely fell in love with their jalapeno poppers. And their maca cookie dough balls were absolutely amazing. As a curious aside: it’s also the first raw restaurant where I noticed that there seemed to be more men there than women.
Cru: Several raw friends of mine had told me that this place wasn’t that good, but I thoroughly enjoyed eating here. It’s a small place with a small menu, but what they do offer is quite tasty. Their kelp noodles pad thai was one of my favorite dishes on this trip. And I really loved their cookies n’ cream ice cream. Someone told me that they switched chefs recently, so I’d urge anyone who had a bad experience at Cru to give them another shot.
Café Gratitude: Enough has been written about this place that I don’t need to say much here, except to emphasize that it really a great place, probably my favorite restaurant overall. All of the food is pretty good, except maybe for the pizza, which could use some work. It’s become a pet peeve of mine when raw restaurants take a flax cracker, throw some creamy stuff and sprouts on it, and call it a pizza. That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed all of the other dishes, especially the burger.
118 Degrees: I discovered this spot towards the end of my days in California. Wish I had gone there sooner, as it was a gem of a place and I wanted to try more items on their menu. Their appetizers were awesome, especially their devilled tomatoes and “fried” avocado tostadas. Their tahini cheese was also fabulous. And they’re reasonably priced too.
Another thing I really enjoyed on my trip were the farmers’ markets and co-ops. Almost all of the vendors, while not certified organic, are pesticide-free. Just walk up and ask them. That’s a stark contrast from the farmers’ market in NYC, where you’re lucky to find three vendors who are organic. And the food is so cheap! Large containers of strawberries for two bucks! Blueberries for two bucks! A bunch of kale, twice as big as any bunch I’d get on the east coast, was only $1.49! Just typing about it is getting me excited, as you can tell.
But my absolute favorite place on this trip, believe it or not, was a Whole Foods market. If you’re a juice fanatic (and who isn’t?), the Whole Foods on Arroyo Blvd in Pasadena offers the most amazing deals. A 32 oz container of fresh-squeezed, organic juice was $8.45. Or you could order a juice with a base of either carrot, cucumber, or celery, and your choice of 5 extra items, which was a little cheaper. Or (and this is the offer I truly loved and took full advantage of), they will juice absolutely anything you buy in the store free of charge, provided it’s organic. So one day I bought $37 worth of produce and had them juice it all. The lady working the counter had to call management because they had never before juiced an order that large, but the manager said it’s their policy and they had to do it. I felt a bit of evil pride knowing that I broke the bank, so to speak. And, for the record, $37 worth of produce amounted to about 120 ounces of juice. I don’t remember everything I purchased, but I know it included bok choy, kale, parsley, a bulb of garlic, several pieces of ginger, and a full pineapple. I don’t know about you, but I’ve often dreamed of having my own juice slaves in the kitchen. Now I know what it feels like. If only all Whole Foods were like this.
I met a lot of great people along the trip who were super kind with their friendship and generosity, but I need to single a couple of people out. The first is April. I’ve mentioned April to Dhrumhil a couple of times, having gotten to know her on GI2MR. Her raw food pictures were always been the best I’ve ever seen. Well, I finally got a chance to meet her. She showed up with her ultra-bright pink hair and six-inch yellow stilettos and brought me a batch of chocolate chip cookies that she made from scratch. They didn’t look like raw cookies. They looked precisely like Entemann’s chocolate chip cookies, for any people who are familiar with that brand. And they tasted exactly like them. This girl, who is all of 22 years old and is completely self-trained, is seriously amazing, and the funny thing is that she doesn’t even want to be a raw chef. She’s studying to be a naturopath. She just makes food for fun, although don’t even think about asking her for a recipe. She’s told me repeatedly that she’ll take those to her grave. All I know for certain is that she didn’t use any nuts to make the cookies, which made them even more incredible. She’s also made the best looking raw pizza I’ve ever seen, which I hope I am fortunate enough to try one day.
My second shout-out goes to Rafael, another person I first met on GI2MR. (Thank you, Dhru, for creating that site.) Not only was he gracious enough to let me crash at his place for quite a number of days, but he was also mega-helpful in letting me use his address when I lost my ATM card in San Diego and needed my bank to mail me a new one immediately. Rafael is the owner of Quinimari Chocolate, a raw chocolate company that he started himself. Rafael’s chocolates are unique because he uses lots of different molds, like Egyptian pyramids, dolphins, pianos, and Porsches. And it tastes great. Rafael is running the business and making the chocolate all by his lonesome, so please check out his website. He’s offering a deal on free shipping from now through September 5th.
So now, after two months out west, I’m back home. Feels a little weird to be back. I do find myself missing the food out west. And I’d forgotten how badly NYC smells. Even Tijuana smelled better than this. But it’s home so I guess I’ll adjust. And maybe I’ll find a Raw Food license plate over here too.