The food in New Orleans, LA

The one thing I’d heard over and over from multiple sources about New Orleans was the food there is AMAZING. I put it on my list of places to visit for the creole, etouffee, gumbo, fried anything, beans and rice, and on and on. Then after I started eating plant-based, I wrote it off. So when I visited last week, I really had managed expectations despite what I’d heard about it being some kind of food mecca.  I thought I’d for sure have to duck into some greasy junky Chinese restaurant to find a plant-based meal.  I seriously entertained the idea of looking for a Panda Express. But holy moly was I utterly wrong about that.  NOLA has the best (plant-based) food I’ve had in all my travels since I started eating plant-based. They have plenty of restaurants (way more options than I can find in DC) and they’re all knocked-it-out-of-the-park excellent and the ones I had were all within a 5 mile walkable or transit-able distance.

Even if you don’t eat totally plant-based, you’re going to love this food. It’s just good food period. Here’s what they served.

  • A well-thought menu, with well-crafted dishes.  Not a burger patty made with rice or quinoa slapped between a hamburger bun. Not a salad minus the cheese.  Not some afterthought of side dishes slapped together.  It has cooked beans or lentils.  It incorporates fresh vegetables and whole grains.  It’s not overly fried or salted or made with unrecognizable composites and called “chick’n”.  It’s real food made with real ingredients.
  • Hearty and filling food.  The portions are generous enough for me to say “I’m full and satisfied” at the end of the meal.  And let’s just say I’ve had enough people gawk at me as I take seconds or thirds to recognize that I have a very healthy appetite.
  • Tasty and fresh ingredients made with plenty of flavorful spices enough to inspire me or give me new ingredients to experiment with when I cook again.  And it’s also flavors I don’t make at home.  It’s new and interesting to me.

These places I went to in NOLA all fit the bill.  I wanted to take them all home with me and I miss them now even as I reminisce.

These first two on my list I declared as “my favorite” “number 1” “this is the place to go if you only get one meal in NOLA” each time I ate at each place.  So it’s a toss up.  I ate at both places, one after the other, on my last day before catching the flight home.

Sweet Soulfood
Sweet Soulfood

Walking in here, you’re hit with a steam sauna of flavor. They cook everything fresh and it steams up the little diner. Everything is plant-based and it’s all so hearty and delicious, I wanted everything. Their portions are generous enough to fill me up. The dishes are made with fresh ingredients and they have rotating daily specials. This meal’s daily special was the barbecue cauliflower. I love their jambalaya and cornbread. They do use some vegan sausages for some dishes, like the jambalaya, but it’s not heavy-handed and you will find bay leaves in the food because they actually cook with real seasonings. So good! I’m going to be saying that a lot here.

Good Karma
Good Karma
This place is such a hippie-dippie-coffee-tea-organic-plant-based-gluten-free-namaste-yoga-hang-out-and-relax kind of cafe. Seriously, it’s connected to a yoga studio. Their food is phenomenal and I said that every time I dug into their daily soup and veggie special. It’s inspired me to cook with lemongrass, galangal, and lime juice more, though I doubt I could create any of these dishes. I need this restaurant in my life. The food is incredibly warm and delicious. I think we ate here for four meals.

Seed
Seed
This place is a lot more fancypants then the first two places. They have table service. They also serve cocktails. The nice thing about NOLA is I can order a bourbon drink before noon and it’s perfectly whatever. Also, it was so good I noted the mix: Buffalo Trace, lemon juice, and hot sauce. I will definitely make that at home. This is also an all plant-based restaurant, but the options lean a tad more vegan-junk-food. Fried seitan nuggets for example. However, you can get hearty non-junky things too like gumbo and etouffee. Wonderfully warm and flavorful.

Green Goddess
This place is not entirely plant-based but they have multiple vegan entrees and they’re all well done and satisfying. It’s conveniently located in the French Quarter and if it were located here in DC, it would easily be one of my favorite places to eat. In NOLA though, with all those other places competing, this one is just okay. I have to give them credit for well-designed dishes though, beans, rice, vegetables all freshly prepared.

Satsumas
Satsumas
Ok, not a restaurant, but easily our favorite food in New Orleans. They’re a local in-season fruit and they are so juicy, sweet, easy to peel, and thirst quenching. We walked or took the trolley 3 miles each way to get these at a local grocery store three times for a total of maybe seven dozen satsumas. At first glance they don’t look all that great. Green tangerines. I expected them to be sour. But nope, they were awesome little fruits. I think my favorite thing to do whenever I travel is visit grocery stores and local markets.

So in short, New Orleans is a food mecca. It’s dirty, it’s gritty, it rained every dang day we were there. But the food. Man! The food! It can only come from a city with so much love you can taste it.

Back to CA

We just got back from another visit to California as I mentioned earlier. Two visits within a year. That’s a first for me – anywhere. This second visit was to attend a wedding. By the way, my fave part of the wedding might have been the bride and groom’s choice of wedding bands. They were fashioned out of leaves from a tree in her backyard and they lasted not too long beyond the first half of the reception. For folks who aren’t jewelry wearers, it’s perfect. While there, we hit up our favorite places to eat and this time around, maybe because we’d just visited several months earlier, a lot of the places were just okay. Ippuku, I’m looking at you. And also like in the case of Chez Panisse, their vegetable entree left me still hungry. I needed more food. Cancun Taqueria was tasty and filling. I’m not sure, I think the food in the area is losing its sparkle for me. Again, maybe it’s because we had it too frequently having gone twice within a year’s time whereas before we’d only visit once every 3 years or so. So this time we ate out less frequently and made some food from the farmers market and those turned out to my favorite meals. Beans, random mushrooms we don’t get back home easily (maitake, chanterelles), fennel, dandelion, kale, fresh zucchini. Fennel grows everywhere in that region. It’s a weed! A tasty weed. Well, so’s dandelion. So my favorite place to eat there is now the farmer’s market.

TSwizzle’s Launchpad

It’s not like I HAD to go to Nashville to be in the solar eclipse’s path of totality.  But that the path drifted through Nashville was a sign I wasn’t about to ignore. And lo, it happened. She started announcing her new album on eclipse day. We are kindred spirits.  We understand each other.
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Nashville, though it be what I consider to be deep south, is not at all how I imagined deep south to be (gun totin’ bible thumpin’, secessionists).  I was wrong.  Nashville is retirement-worthy, an honor I don’t hand out easily; it follows Hawaii.

It is a trendy place.  Fancy.  Gentrified.  What was that word some real estate articles like to throw around?  Tony?  Yeah, Nashville is a tony town. The people are glamorous.  It felt wealthy.  Coming home after hanging out in Berkeley or NYC makes me feel like our hood is so nice and clean. But after Nashville, I felt like I was coming home to a dump.  Isn’t it odd, the higher the cost of living, the dumpier the place? Something for me to keep in mind for the future. Maybe it’s the rising tide effect. Wealthier places have a higher gini coefficient probably.

Also, Nashville is hands down a better food city than DC.  We dined twice at Little Octopus where they served the most creative dishes.

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This is a cucumber watermelon salad made with chili, lime, peanuts, and mint. We came here two nights in a row.

Another delicious place we stumbled on is The Grilled Cheeserie.
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Tomato soup, grilled cheeses, and tater tots. All of this is plant-based! So addictively delicious!

And if you’re into music, you’re surrounded. We didn’t even have to try to see a show. One night, we stopped by a bar after dinner and they had a jazz/bluesy singer performing.
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Another night, we walked through Broadway and there were live shows all up and down the street. They all sounded record-contract worthy to me. I have even more respect for her skills after seeing Nashville. That TS was plucked from all of these gifted artists speaks to her level of talent. She’s the real deal.

So I wanted to walk where she probably has walked many times over.
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To her collaborating song-writer, Liz Rose’s studio on Music Row (which looks like a street of single family homes). They wrote Teardrops On My Guitar, Fearless, You Belong With Me, and All Too Well together, amongst others.

And of course, her own record label’s office, just a few doors down.
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Big Machine Records. Totally unmarked, it looked like somebody’s home so, feeling intrusive and rude for loitering about, I quickly took a picture and left. Being there made my heart flutter.

But we weren’t done fluttering my heart.
This is the Adelicia.
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Unless she’s since sold it, this was the first place she bought and the first night she spent alone in her own place inspired the song Never Grow Up.

The real star of the show for this trip was our star though. The sun! (Sorry, that was cheezy)
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Not a good picture of the total eclipse, but this was a photo of it. Experiencing it was awesome, in the truest meaning of the word. It was humbling. And for a split second before we had to put our eclipse sunglasses back on, the diamond ring was the most beautiful part of the show.
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These are crescent-shaped shadows cast from the trees when the moon was starting to uncover the sun.

Union Market

Earlier this month, we planned to go to a little vegan bakery diner place called Fare Well for brunch.  They didn’t take reservations for weekend brunch and when we got there the wait was 2 hours!  So we trekked it over to Union Market.
Union Market
Union Market is a bustling, crowded indoor market with tons of little food stands. It’s tucked away in a corner of what otherwise would look like a totally sketchballz place. Actually H Street looks like a gentrified former sketchy place. It’s now full of fancypants casual restaurants, yoga studios, and a Whole Foods. On our way to Union Market we even passed by a rental apartment sign. 1 bedroom – 1 den – 1 bath for $2,500!
The food at Union Market all looked tasty but unfortunately the seating is very limited so we ended up eating at a restaurant there called Bidwell. Kinda’ pricey for the stuff they sell, but they have tables and chairs! I probably wouldn’t eat there again but I wouldn’t mind going back to Union Market for some of their other food options. I saw a dosa stand that looked pretty good and there’s good people-watching too. Not a resounding endorsement, but eh, on a day where the weather is nice, and I just want to go outside and be among my brethren, it’s a good option.

Revelation from Hawaii

On my first day in Hawaii, the Big Island, we hiked from South Point (the southern-most tip of the U.S.) to Green Sands Beach.
Green Sands Beach
It was about a 3 mile hike there and I lamented that I belonged on my couch in fronna the TV! Why am I here in this sun and dusty dirt road!? We went on to hike 5 more trails and I realized how much I like being outdoors. I don’t belong enclosed in walls for hours a day. Even outside, I’m surrounded by tall walls of buildings and pavement and concrete beneath, so I still feel enclosed. So all this time, we train ourselves to adapt to this way of being. Breathing exhaust and stale air and crated. And it doesn’t even have to be in Hawaii, although it was unimaginably beautiful.  I just have a newfound appreciation for outside. Trees. Dirt roads. The sound of water. It makes me feel more connected to the world. To people. To my body.

Mahalo National Parks.  You have preserved for us all the most spiritual places on earth.

Why I love plants

Along the same lines of my love for calendars, plants are like living calendars to me.  In 2 years time, this grew from a cutting to a 9 ft tall plant.  I got that one in 2005 when I worked with this lady who gave me a cutting.  This one came from a leaf I picked up off the floor.  They’re like diaries.  And watching a plant grow reminds of of how slowly and quickly time passes.  Like watching the clock during the last half hour at work, if you stare at a plant, time seems to stop, the plant doesn’t change.  But if you look back to years past, the plant has grown to a huge weed and I realize how many years I’ve known the people at work.

I have talked myself into and out of growing plumerias many times.  I don’t have ideal light or space.  This isn’t even the right climate.  But I was in Hawaii.  And plumerias were in bloom all around me.  I got these three.

Plumeria cuttings planted

I’m crossing my fingers they thrive.

Aloha!

I had been talking about visiting Hawaii for years! But it’s just so much easier to watch YouTube vids of other people’s trips, or drive to a local weekend destination than to plan a trip to Hawaii. As much of a homebody as I am, it took but the mere mention of a wedding and I booked the trip, packed up, and was ready to go.

Food:
If you’re looking for vegan food, stick to the Asian joints. Many traditional American/Hawaiian places also had vegan options due to Asian influences but there were times when I had to settle on a carb turducken (a breakfast of fruit and hash browns on toast). Towards the end of the trip, I was craving sweets (which I rarely do). Not sure how true it is, but I’ve heard that it’s a sign of a protein deficiency.  In the end, I was feeling insatiably hungry and weak so I relented and had egg at one breakfast joint.  And then I chased it down with a vegan snickerdoodle.  Protein and sugar!

This was one of the best meals I had during the trip. It’s kabocha curry.
Pineapples' Kabocha Curry

The fruit is phenomenal. On our second day there, I got myself a cheapo santoku knife so I could cut some Hawaiian pineapples in the hotel room. Their papayas and pomelos were also amazing. Too bad we can’t get them around here easily. Still, I got my fill – three pineapples in a week.

Sights and Activities:

Big Island

  • Hike to Green Sands Beach – Not an easy hike but the beach at the end of it was such a sweet relief.
  • Kona coffee tour – This is like Napa Valley for coffee.  But rather than getting sloshed, you get buzzed.  Holualoa CoffeeCaptain Cook’s is such a beautiful area so I still felt relaxed in a chatty way.
  • Place of Refuge (Pu’uhunoa O Honaunau) National Park – A beautiful and historic park where they share the history of native Hawaiians.  1812 Trail at HonaunauThere’s a wonderful trail here too.
  • Volcanoes National Park – When people say the Earth is alive, this is what they mean.  Kilauea is pouring out lava.  During the day, it looks like smoke and steam.  Kilauea via bicycleAt night, it’s bright orange red and spurting out.
  • MaunaKea summit tour – MaunaKeaEven just on the side of a highway at night, I saw more stars than I ever have.  On MaunaKea I saw the Milky Way galaxy for the first time.  It’s a breathtaking evening.
  • Check out the waterfalls.  There are many and none of them are as impressive as say, Niagara or Iguacu, but we went to a few of them and they were pretty.Hi'ilawe Falls

Kauai

  • Hike the Kalalau Trail on the Na’Pali Coast – If I did nothing else on this island, this was the one thing I wanted to see – the Na’Pali coastline.  It’s breathtaking.  The first section of the hike starts at Ke’e Beach and ends at Hanakapi Beach.  We heard later from friends that this was not a very safe trail.  I guess ignorance is bliss?  To be honest, I was ready to turn around at the 0.25 mile marker.  Then I was ready to turn back at the 0.50 mile marker.  Muddy hike on the Kalalau TrailSomehow, we got to Hanakapi and the way back was easier.  In the earlier part of the day, parts of the trail were wet, muddy, and slippery.  By the afternoon, much of it had dried.
  • Waimea Canyon – This was the most beautiful hike.  Waimea CanyonIt was relatively easy and relaxing under the cool canopy of a forest.  Even though I’d say this was the easiest hike we did, I slipped twice.
  • Allerton Botanical Gardens – With a return flight not until 10 PM, this was a nice little something to do.  They guide you around the gardens and describe the plants and trees.Loulu

Learn from my Fail:

  1. Hawaii and Kauai’s airports are small. Eat beforehand or bring food. There’s nothing good at the airports.  Even the water from the fountains taste funky.
  2. Bring your own knife or better yet, just get pre-cut fruit from the grocery store.  It didn’t occur to me to do that until after I’d purchased the knife.  I now have a crappy santoku knife.
  3. Stay on the Hilo side of the island at least for a night or two.  Driving to see volcanoes from Kona is a bit of a trek.
  4. Restaurants close early (generally 9 PM).  Plan accordingly.  We missed dinner a couple of nights because we stayed out to see volcanoes and the stars at MaunaKea. Both worthwhile and I had pineapples on hand, but still, dinner would have been nice.
  5. Speaking of MaunaKea, the drive up there is all up hill.  There are no gas stations.  Fill up your tank before you ascend.  We cut it a bit too close.  Luckily, on the way down, you barely use any gas.  We cruised on neutral for some portions of it.
  6. Packing: You don’t need fancy clothes in Hawaii.  This isn’t a fancypants posh kind of trip.  Plan to get dirty.

C-ville

Spent a weekend in Charlottesville, VA. Yes. The Deep South. Confederate flags and all!

We stayed at the Econo Lodge.  It was $70 a night and felt like it.  The package came with squeaky beds and audible upstairs neighbors having a lovely evening which immediately bumped up my rating of the place.  I don’t mute Keeping Up with the Kardishians for just anything.  Live entertainment is always better then TV.

Charlottesville doesn’t seem like much of a food destination.  It’s not bad, but it’s nothing memorable either.  We ate at Bodo’s Bagels, Firefly, Mellow Mushroom, and Mellow Mushroom again.  Granted, that’s not much of a sample size.

We also visited a brewery bar – Three Notch’d Brewery.
Three Notch'd Brewery
Good beers.  I learned that I’m not a fan of very very hoppy beers. Of the ones we tasted, Jazz Fest (sugar cane and pecan ale) was our favorite. You can definitely taste the pecans. Hydraulion Red was number 2. It was just a very balanced beer that was a little bit caramelly sweet. And number 3 was Jack’s Java Espresso Stout. It definitely tasted of coffee. Probably our least fave was Ghost of the 43rd American Pale Ale. It tasted of hops, hops, and more hops.

Our two main attractions while visiting Charlottesville were the McCormick Observatory and the Paramount Theater’s children’s musical, Alice in Wonderland.  

The Observatory was a long line where each person got to take a peek through the giant telescope to see Jupiter and 3 of its moons – Io, Callisto, and Europa.  
McCormick Observatory
It was mostly for historical purposes, just to get an idea of how people in the late 19th century studied the stars. Nowadays there are more advanced telescopes (Kepler/Hubble) that sit in outer space. The experience included a good bit of waiting in line while a staff member gave each person a few quick seconds of a look.  I love looking at outer space things.  They’re kind of magical and beautiful.

The Paramount Theater is in “downtown” Charlottesville.  The performance of Alice in Wonderland was given by the Missoula Children’s Theatre by local children in the area.  The company brings the props, a director and other staff and they audition local children and rehearse for about a week and put on the low budget show.  It was pretty cute to watch kids (I’m guessing they were K-12) running and dancing around the stage in costumes. It was as cute as one can imagine. Little kids dressed as lobsters and singing flowers. They waved to their moms, forgot their lines, tripped and stumbled, mumbled their lines and missed some cues. Pretty adorable stuff! Still, even though it was all rather sweet it felt more like something the family or friend of a performer would enjoy more.

And what is a trip without some shopping? I started out at the conventional shops. Ann Taylor. Banana Republic. I didn’t find anything I liked that much. Then while we were at the Paramount Theater, I overheard a mom raving about their local Goodwill stores. She said the best time to shop is when all the university students leave for the summer. I mentally smacked my head, duh! Of course the Goodwill store. So after the play and lunch we went to a Goodwill store.
Thrift Store finds
I got these 4 items for $16! One still had the tag attached and one was a pink cashmere sweater that appeared unworn.

Foodwise – I’m not sure I need to bother talking about Bodo’s Bagels or Firefly. They were both decent but nothing stand-out. The best place we ate was Mellow Mushroom which is why we went there twice. The first time was better than the second though. My first impression was, hey, this is comparable to Lost Dog Pizza here. I got a mushroom hoagie.
Hoagie @ Mellow Mushroom
It was mostly bread, but with a good dollop of marinara sauce, it was decent. Some red onions would have made it even better. On the plus side, it came out very hot and the bread was nicely toasted.
The second time we went, I wanted to try their pizza. So I got a veggie pizza with no cheese.
Vegan pizza @ Mellow Mushroom
Here’s what I got. Looked and smelled good but tasted bland and dry. This is a vegan pizza made by non-vegans. They don’t consider that without cheese, it needs something more to add flavor or moisture. This thing needed oil or a lot more marinara sauce to help improve the lack of cheese situation. This just isn’t a pizza. I realize this isn’t fair to Mellow Mushroom. They sell traditional pizza and I turned it into this monstrosity by choice. So when I opine that it’s sub-par to Lost Dog, I took those particular dings out of the equation. What makes Lost Dog better is the crust, which is thinner and lighter (less dense doughy-ness), the marinara sauce, and more even distribution and generous portions of toppings. To boot, LD on a busy day churns out their food a lot faster than MM on a quiet day. Mellow Mushroom can hack it in Charlottesville but I’m not rushing to go to any of the locations here.

The one place that showed a lot of promise that we didn’t get to was Bluegrass Bar & Grill. The waiting time for lunch was an hour!! After no breakfast, and an hour of hot yoga, we decided to head back to Mellow Mushroom instead of waiting.

The surprising highlight of our weekend turned out to be attending 2 yoga classes. I planned them as time fillers. These were heated vinyasa flow classes and I came out of there totally soaked through with sweat and feeling calm and energized.

And what is a trip to C-ville without a visit to TJ’s UVA?
The Rotunda
Yes, this is The Rotunda. It’s under repair.

Maiden Voyage

We just got back from our first cruise ever!  Verdict: Pretty good.  I’m not in a hurry to do it again, but I wouldn’t dread it if we were to do it again (preferably with others, it’s a good group/family activity).

Going in, I was a little hesitant about it because cruises, Caribbean beaches (touristy), just don’t sound like they have much by way of experiencing different cultures and foods which is what I generally like about travelling.  Even for local/domestic travel, it’s nice to experience the local rhythms of a town.  I won’t say I was wrong about my hunches.  It is very touristy.  It is crowded, being on a big boat with a lot of people everywhere all the time.  Aboard the ship, it is devoid of local cuisines.  Think Bob’s Big Boy or Cheesecake Factory food. But it was still fun. Cruise ships are decadence, gluttony, waste.  Even though the food wasn’t wonderful, it wasn’t bad either and I spent a lot of time eating, 6 square meals a day!  Food was available all the time.  It’s always nice to not have to cook or clean for a few days.  So that was the ship experience.
With regards to the Bahamas, I love the beaches and would love to go back (said with a little afterglow of the sun). The beaches in the Bahamas were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and they weren’t too crowded either.  I would probably go by plane though and stay a few days instead of a cruise. The soft sand and beautiful blue waters… it was spiritual!  I was more relaxed than at any yoga class.  I learned that I actually do like beaches afterall.  Sunshine is glorious!

California

We paid the West Coast a visit recently. This time, the air was noticeably dusty and dry. I could feel the drought! It’s the first time I visited where I didn’t wish I lived there. There was a persistent haze. Maybe that’s why for this trip, suddenly I was noticing all the cons. Like it smelled of pee. And the sidewalks are cracked, raised, overgrown. The neighborhoods are a hodgepodge of disheveled and maintained. They’re not ones for order. I still love the walkability. The succulent plants and gardens everywhere. The sun.  The food.  Of course, the food.
We ate at:

  • Ippuku

Ippuku – Bittermelon
Bittermelon

  • Cancun Tacqueria – I almost always come here.  Excellent veggie burrito.
  • Asha Tea House – I only got here once during this trip.  I wish I had gone sooner so I could go more often.
  • Kamado Sushi – Big sushi selection.  Delicious.
  • Venus – Great breakfast place.  Probably my fave of the 3 we went to (Crepevine and Guerrilla were the other two).
  • Tokyo Fish Market – I could spend all day here shopping and eating.  They have the best natto onigiri (Full disclosure: I’ve only ever had theirs.)
  • Gather – I wish I was hungrier when I came here, but I could only stomach tomato soup after a big farmer’s market lunch.
  • Kaz Ramen – Veggie ramen was great.  Much better than the one we had in Quebec City (which at the time, I really liked.  It was just too salty).
  • Farmer’s Market – Everything is good here.  Just eat your way around the place.
  • Mi Southeast Asian Eatery – Standard chowfoon style noodles.  Tasty, but heavy.
  • Pepples – Out of this world banana or apple fritters and cinnamon swirls.
  • Philz – Smooth coffee.  Perfect with sweet pastries.
  • Crepevine – Second best breakfast place.  They have steamed vegetables.
  • Out the Door – 8 tiny morsels of mung bean dumplings for something like $10.  They were delicious.  I was so glad I got them, they were very good.
  • Huong Lan Sandwich – I made sure to try Banh Mi DC’s veggie banh mi before coming here.  Huong Lan’s veggie banh mi was better.  They’re more generous with the vegetables.
  • Loving Hut – A bigger menu than the Loving Hut here, but they needed more servers.
  • Mission Heirloom Cafe – bulletproof coffee seems gimmicky to me, like the Paleo or Atkins diet.
  • Guerilla Cafe – Unless you want their one vegan breakfast offering, you’re out of luck.  I had a side of fruit and then made a pb&j after.  If there’s one thing I hate, leaving a meal hungry.