Sunday, 21 September 2008

RawforLife Goes to the US Part I (Southern California)

Yes, I've just returned from an amazing trip to the US, or - to be more specific - two small parts of the US - the stretch of Southern California (SoCal) from Los Angeles to San Diego - followed by Sedona, Arizona, for the Raw Spirit Festival.

I've so much to write that the report is split into two parts - SoCal first, Sedona second. And, it's not a travelogue; we holidayed in the US for many non-raw reasons (eg my husband, being in the film business, had 'other things' to do in LA, and I had an amazing birthday trip to the Grand Canyon), but the blog articles will focus on raw food experiences.

And if such a holiday seems a pipe-dream to you right now, believe me when I say that it was exactly the same for me this time last year. Loved the sound of the Raw Spirit Festival, but cost was out of reach, 'we always go to Greece', etc. But just before the end of December persuaded myself that I just had to go for business/research/personal development reasons (!) and floated the idea to husband. Shortly after, found myself booking Raw Spirit Festival tickets for two (note - I saved $100 dollars per ticket by booking nine months in advance), then main flights, then over a period of several months put together the other parts of the holiday and somehow managed to pay for them.

Articles written by other raw foodists on raw food restaurants and Raw Spirit 2007 proved very helpful in planning the holiday, and I hope this article could itself prove useful if there is a seed in any reader's mind of SoCal being a holiday destination one day, and, if you have ever felt that it must be much easier being a raw foodist in California than elsewhere, I can personally confirm that... yes, it is. MUCH easier! Californian raw foodists are very fortunate!

And in fact the 'galloping raw gourmet' holiday 2009 should cost you fewer £ or $ than it did fme, AS...rumour has it that the next Raw Spirit Festival will be held in Southern California itself rather than Sedona, Arizona. Although Sedona is a wonderful place, this did mean a two-location holiday for us, with all the extra cost re accommodation/flights that entails. However, I've heard that the next RSF will be in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is just north of LA, halfway between San Francisco (which we didn't manage to include on our trip) and LA.

So, if you spend, say 6-7 days driving down the West Coast between San Francisco and San Diego, you could take in lots of raw food cafes, restaurants, farmers' markets, Wholefoods outlets, AND the Raw Spirit Festival - all within a few hours' drive of each other. In fact, it makes me want to plan another US holiday just thinking about it, but, as I'd like to stay married right now, think it might be Greece next year.

So, first things first..

THE FLIGHT

We flew Heathrow to LA with Virgin Atlantic and, although many airlines now (even budget ones) do offer raw vegetarian meal options, VA doesn't (bar small fruit salads). So, I took lots of fruit and salads to keep me going through the 10-hour flight (yes, it's also good to fast, but I am not the best of flyers, and needed 'comfort food'!). And, having not taken a long-haul flight for a few years, it was good not to experience the blown-up tummy and general discomfort I'd always experienced wedged into a budget airline seat pre-raw.

Shortly before landing, the stewardess informed us that we were not allowed to take fruit and vegetables into the US, and that anyone in possession of said offending items were required to hand them in to her. So, not wanting to waste, I quickly ate my one remaining banana.

On arriving at LA, a sniffer dog made a beeline for my bag and found...banana peel! I was then told to join a special queue with other criminals (eg small boy with banana) and submit the peel to an agricultural specialist. So that held us up a bit. Luckily, I was then allowed into the US. (It wasn't the same going back - when re-entering the UK we were told bananas were fine, but meat, dairy etc wasn't, so no problem there!).

ARRIVING IN CALIFORNIA

Just one non-food thing must say about LA/California generally that hit us as soon as we arrived - FLOWERS!! So many beautiful flowers everywhere. In the UK, we have hedges. In California, hedges have beautiful red flowers growing out of them! The roads are also full of great clusters of the sorts of pink and purple flowers (such as bougainvillaea) we'd previously seen in such abundance only in Greece. What a beautiful place to live.

We had an RV, and were self-catering for some meals, so early on we made a supermarket stop, at 'Ralph's', which had a good selection of fruit and veg, including organic. Differences between US and UK? Far bigger selection of peaches, including those 'squashed'-shaped ones - flavour incomparable to anything I've tasted in the UK recently. Bananas weren't just the long, yellow kind - but RED, and short, fat 'n' stubby! Organic romaine lettuce was a revelation! I love organic romaine at home, but this did have an amazing flavour - quite extraordinary.

The one food that wasn't as good as in the UK was large papaya. Papayas of all sizes have tasted good at home, but this large papaya was...not good. I can quite understand now the anti-papaya comments of those on US forums if papayas of this sort had been their only experience. Reassuringly, small papayas we bought later were fine, so if you think you don't like papaya and have only tried large, please try the small. All the vegetables we see in US recipes but can't (generally) obtain in the UK were available, such as jalapeno peppers, and the root vegetable jicama (which I understand from my San Diego friend Prescilla is pronounced 'hikker-ma'.)

And, a paragraph to itself for the WATERMELON - Oh those lucky Californians, and anyone else in the UK or otherwise living in an area where proper watermelons are still available. About a year ago in the UK (and New York, so I understand), the shops were flooded with small watermelons with pink-red rather than red flesh, a few pale, rather than black, seeds, and insipid-tasting flesh - such a disappointment. The watermelon I had in California was the real thing, and tasted so sweet and flavoursome. The pic shows me in shut-eye bliss on Watermelon Day One. However, I did buy a massive one, and still had some left three days later. I'd detected some fermentation in the taste, but did I listen to my body? No, I scoffed the lot, and suffered with a blown-out belly and pain for the rest of the day. The facial expression on Watermelon Day Three was somewhat different from Day One, so no pic.

Now, at this point I should explain that back home for the preceding few months I'd been following a relatively simple, high-fruit, lowish-fat raw food diet. But I decided to 'relax' this for the trip, and relax it I certainly did...still ate lots of fruit but also ate quite a few complicated raw meals, quite a lot more raw fat than usual, and...enjoyed it very much!

SANTA MONICA/VENICE

The 'shopping/beach' districts of Santa Monica and Venice are on the western edge of LA. We walked from one to another along Main Street. Certainly to a visitor, they seemed relatively trendy/arty compared with other parts of LA, and the walk along the beach was full of the sights we tend to associate with California - upscale beach houses, palm trees, rollerbladers and lots of tanned beautiful people, although should say that California certainly has a lot of overweight/obese people as well - it's not quite as the TV series' portrays it. And, along with relatively healthy-fare restaurants, there are plenty of junk food outlets (and it's just as much of a challenge to get an all-raw salad in a 'cooked' restaurant as it is anywhere).

The raw gourmet tour started in a small way at a juice bar on the Venice Boardwalk where I was able to introduce Leigh to the delights of young coconut juice sipped from the coconut. In the UK, this is occasionally available at raw food events, and it's sometimes possible to buy young coconuts at Tesco (or ethnic markets). However, in the UK we are generally presented with a whole green coconut. Every time I had young coconut in SoCal, or indeed Arizona, the coconuts were white, that is, they'd been shaved of the green outer layer. This I understand is done to save air freight/shipping weight. However, it does mean that the coconuts then spoil quickly so need to be dipped in chemicals. Whilst this is obviously not ideal, I'm assuming (hoping?) that perhaps the chemicals don't get through to the inside of the coconut, as the shaved coconuts are very popular with raw fooders in the US, and if the insides are 'intact', then they would certainly be as good, if not better, than any whole green ones sold at Tesco as I'm told these can be kept in storage for a year before being put on the shelves.

Also at the juice bar I was very excited to see pre-packed gourmet raw food from 'Leaf Cuisine', who also run three raw food restaurants in the US. I bought collard (spring greens) wraps, served with a dipping sauce. Now, non-raw fooders don't quite understand our excitement at finding ready-made stuffed green leaves, butwhat a treat when in an RV with just a few square inches of food preparation space and no gadgets! The Leaf Cuisine foods did include ingredients like 'nama shoyu', which I never use at home, as it's not a raw food, but, as I did want to sample most things, let's just put that in my 0.4% 'non-raw' (please?)

It was in Santa Monica that I was able to test my mosquito theories. For reasons that are probably best left for another article I intend to write one day, I theorised that either a) the mozzies wouldn't bite me at all, or b) the mozzies would bite, but my body wouldn't react much. Seemed both were operable. They feasted on Leigh, and his skin reacted dramatically - he still has sores weeks later. I had a few bites, but they didn't develop; there was the odd spot, but no swelling and virtually no irritation. Although, a sample size of two is hardly conclusive so I'd welcome comments based on your own experience.

'Euphoria Loves Rawvolution'

Walking back down Main Street to Santa Monica, we found Matt Amsden's 'Euphoria Loves Rawvolution' and stopped for lunch there. In the daytime it has a relaxed 'cafe' feel, with people wandering in and out for sit-down food and takeaways. We started with an excellent spiced durian (fresh) shake. For mains, I ordered the 'Big Matt' and Leigh had a 'Cocophoria.' The 'Big Matt' was a burger between onion bread with dressing and salad. Although the burger was actually quite small, it did taste very good, and so did everything else. Altogether a most enjoyable meal, as was Leigh's, which was similar, but with curried coconut.

'Juliano's Planet Raw'

In the evening we went to Juliano's - probably the best-known raw food restaurant in the world. Juliano was there, although I believe his partner, Ariel, is now in charge of the food preparation. For starters we each had a 'platter' including stuffed peppers, tortellini, a soup and chips, and these were delicious.

However, main meals, and the experience from that point onwards - thumbs down I'm afraid. I'd given Leigh quite a big build-up, as I'd heard so many rave reports about Juliano's, and had been told that it was just the place to take non-raw people (although Leigh eats more raw than he used to, he is still 'part-cooked'), as it was reknowned for it's 'imitation cooked food', eg 'cheese' burgers etc. So, for main course Leigh ordered the special - 'meat and potatoes' - and I ordered 'kelp pasta'. Now I think one problem here is that the starters had been very highly-flavoured (spicy, vinegary, fermented) and we were fine eating these sorts of foods in small quantities, but the next course seemed to be more of the same. Leigh's greens were so hot neither of us could eat them. The 'meat' appeared to be a round patty with a vaguely mushroomy taste. He then tried a few mouthfuls of the remaining food on his place but felt no enthusiasm for eating anything more on the plate, which was a pity. I did finish my course (mainly because I'm a pig) but can't say was bowled over by the food. Also, it was so dark (despite candles) that we couldn't really see what we were eating, which didn't help.

I then ordered 'Berry Fruit Crepes' for dessert. The berries and cream tasted good, but the crepes themselves were like boot leather (and no, I've never tasted that, and before anyone shouts, I don't buy leather boots any more either!). But I can't think of a better analogy. I couldn't cut them using cutlery, so tried picking one up and trying my hardest with teeth alone. These crepes would have presented a challenge for the strongest teeth (mine are quite good - I crack nuts with them!). So don't know what happened there - perhaps they had been left for too long after dehydrating.

So, a very 'raw gourmet' day all in all. We both much preferred the lighter raw food at Rawvolution to the complicated food at Juliano's. The next morning got quite a shock when testing the pH of my wee (yes, I'm a sad obsessive who does this quite regularly), and got a highly acidic reading (in the 5's - it's normally 7) and my tummy didn't feel good. Was this something to do with the food at (either of) the raw restaurants? Both restaurant's meals included vinegar, which is something I rarely have at home. More likely explanation is that I ingested far too many digestively incompatible foods in the space of one day.

ORANGE COUNTY

Orange County is between LA and San Diego Counties, also on the coast, although we travelled inland a little.

We had to visit Orange County for non-raw reasons as firstly my children were avid viewers of the TV series 'The OC' a few years ago and secondly because Leigh wanted to visit 'Orange County Choppers' (motorbikes). I hadn't watched 'The OC', so photographed a few suburban streets thinking that maybe they were the sort that the characters lived in, only to be informed on returning that the TV houses probably cost a few million dollars more. Oh, and we discovered that 'Orange County Choppers' is actually in New York (although Leigh did manage to pick up an OCC T-shirt later in San Diego!).

Anyhow, apologies for digression - back to the raw bits! My raw food reason for driving into Orange County was 'Au Lac'.

Au Lac

'Au Lac', in Fountain Valley, Orange County, is basically a restaurant serving Oriental-style food run by Vietnamese (and the faschia advertises 'humanese cuisine'). Situated in a plain precinct, it has an unprepossessing exterior and an interior just like your neighbourhood Chinese/Thai restaurant, with leatherette seats. In other words, the restaurant itself looks quite ordinary, but the food isn't!

'Au Lac' has two menus - a raw, and a cooked vegan/vegetarian menu. I ordered two starters (all in the name of research): 'salmon' rolls with dipping sauce, and 'Love Raw not War' soup. The nori rolls tasted exquisite and were beautifully presented. The soup was also excellent - warmed (but I'll assume not beyond 118 F...) green, with chunks of avocado and sea vegetables. I followed with a 'seafood primavera' including amongst other things courgette noodles, coconut, cauliflower and aubergine, and it reminded me (in the most favourable way) of a cross between a vegetable biryani and a sag aloo from my cooked food days (but less spicy). I wish I could show you photographs of the food, as it all looked so beautiful, but they came out a little blurry.

Leigh chose from the cooked vegan menu, which did include soy textured and shaped to look like meat and fish, but it was very, very good and the prawns so...'prawn-like' that we found ourselves wondering if they'd really just popped in some real ones. I do recommend you visit 'Au Lac', as the food is of such high quality, and it's quite different from standard gourmet raw food. Portions are large; work on the basis that all dishes, whatever the menu says, serve at least two! We had our left-overs boxed and enjoyed the meal all over again later in the day.

SAN DIEGO

Farmers Market, Hillcrest

No farmers' market in the UK I've visited has come anything near this one for variety and quality of fresh produce. You want tomatoes? Tomatoes in every size, shape and colour, often chopped up and handed out on tasting trays by vendors. Same with fruit - sweet, juicy peaches, plums, melons... a financially-challenged fruitarian could probably sustain themselves for a day on the freebies alone! I tried two fruits new to me -prickly pear (soft, sweetish, but with quite large, hard pips), and sapote (vaguely appley but with a fleshy texture).

One stall had trays piled high with different sorts of beautifully-ripe figs (so often in the UK they aren't quite ripe, which makes such a difference to flavour). The black figs are like the ones I buy from my local Waitrose; the greeny-yellow ones are sweeter and taste more like the dried figs we remember from cooked Christmasses. And I discovered that the owner of the stall was a raw foodist! Barry Koral (optimumhealth.org) told us about his own health transformation through raw, and was so sparkly and enthusiastic about the raw life; we later passed his stall and heard him whipping up the passers-by with 'If you love avocados clap your hands!' and we later saw him at Raw Spirit Festival, where he was manning a stall in the Farmers' Market section! Small world indeed.

And...how many farmers' markets near you have a gourmet raw food stall?! (Californians - don't answer - it would be too hard on the rest of us!) Here I sampled some delicious raw pizza quite unlike any I'd had in the UK. The topping was light, eg very little 'cheese' (if any?) and more tomato and other vegetables (including tiny yellow 'grape' tomatoes - about half the size of our 'cherry tomatoes') and the base was essentially a flax cracker mix, made thicker than usual to minimise sogginess.

Prescilla and Ken Molitor

After the farmers' market we went on to visit Prescilla Molitor and her husband Ken in La Jolla (pronounced 'La Hoya'), San Diego. Prescilla is known to members of the giveittomeraw.com forum (which I belonged to until quite recently until I did a little self-counselling re my 'forum addiction') as 'Pink Lady Apple', although when I met her (for the first time) and cried 'Pink Lady Apple!', husband Ken was quite mystified as he'd not been aware of this 'alter-ego'...

I'd brought Prescilla some figs from the market, and noted later she had a fig-tree in her garden (of course!). Prescilla entertained us in style. On arrival she offered us a choice of green juice or freshly-made young coconut juice. Lunch was collard wraps with a selection of delicious fillings: an excellent home-made zucchini (courgette) hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, long green sprouts she'd grown herself, alfalfa/broccoli sprouts, raw Kalamata olives, and carrot. This was followed by Prescilla's gorgeous home-made raw chocolate.

We had such a lovely time at Prescilla's! Both the conversation, food, oh - and the glorious Californian weather - made for a lovely afternoon. Both our husbands were 'part-raw', so they had the raw fillings, but in cooked tortillas. Prescilla has a beautifully-equipped and large raw foods kitchen, and I know she is thinking of starting classes at some point. Californian readers - I can personally vouch for the quality of Prescilla's food and her level of knowledge and expertise.

Wholefoods, La Jolla

Our last raw food stop in San Diego was the Wholefoods Market at La Jolla. Now, in the UK we only have one branch of Wholefoods, in Kensington High St, London, which is very large and includes a sumptuous range of of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouts and pre-prepared vegetarian and vegan food (as well as a little meat and dairy). I'd heard that the US was covered with branches of Wholefoods and assumed that the average branch would be quite small. Wrong! The Wholefoods Market at La Jolla, although perhaps a little smaller than Kensington, and only on one floor, was nevertheless huge, and, for the raw fooder, better than ours as, of course, it contained many more morsels of interest to us - for example, 'Leaf Cuisine' packed raw food meals, and fresh durian!

So...that's the Southern California bit of my holiday, or at least the 'raw food' bits, and, if any of you are thinking that you really wouldn't mind doing the 'raw gourmet' tour yourself, I do recommend you add to the above key areas we hadn't managed to include - the stretch from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. I know there are many raw venues there - 'Cafe Gratitude' springs to mind. Return fare to California? Roughly £500.

In Part II I'll be taking up the story in Sedona, Arizona.

4 comments:

CRYSTAL HUTCHENS said...

YAY! This is so exciting to read...I'm planning to tour the raw food restaurants in just a couple weeks when I fly from Alaska to Portland, buy a truck, and drive to LA to start touring with my new record...I hope to book gigs at the local raw food restaurants...I'd love to hear your thoughts and these places having music in the background...big enough to support it I mean?
Thanks so much for sharing...I'm even more excited than I already was!
Cheers~
Crystal

Debbie Took said...

Hi Crystal

Sounds a great idea! In Sedona (in Part II - due to be published tomorrow, hopefully...)a lovely lady called Denise played (acoustic) guitar and sang to us at D'Lish restaurant. She was simply moving around the tables, so it would really depend how much equipment you have as to whether raw food cafes/restaurants could accommodate you.

And, at the inn we stayed at in Sedona (though not raw) classical musicians played at every breakfast! Note we only went to a couple of raw restaurants in LA area - there are more, and more up towards, and at, San Francisco as well. Very best wishes with this!.

Winona said...

Great post! I've always wondered about the food at Rawvolution, Au Lac, Julianos. We have a wonderful raw restaurant in my town, but it's due to close down due to lack of customers. Perhaps Au restaurant has the right idea - offer cooked AND raw. That's an easy place to take friends! Glad you took the time to make a trip to Cali. I'm from the US but i've never been out West. Can't wait to hear about raw spirit festival!

~Winona from goneraw

David Cohen said...

A great read (both parts)
Love,
David