My birthday weekend: The food edition

Salad with edible flowers, coconut bacon & roasted chickpeasMy birthday was last weekend, and it was pitch perfect. Usually we go out of town for my birthday, but this year we stayed closer to home. (More details on the whys of that later!) However, there were still many highlights.

On the day before my birthday, a package arrived from Los Angeles from my friend, Kristy. She shipped me some vegan treats – coconut bacon, Cocomels, and best of all, injera from my all-time favorite restaurant, Rahel.

Farmers market haulSalad with roasted chickpeas, coconut bacon & edible flowersAt the farmers market the next day, I couldn’t resist these edible flowers, and I had a big salad with roasted chickpeas, cashew dressing, and handfuls of coconut bacon. (FYI: The flowers don’t have much of a flavor, but they sure are pretty!) I’d been out of coconut bacon for months, and I was happy for it to reunite with my tongue once again. We broke into the injera a day or two later for a homemade Ethiopian feast. Rahel’s injera is noticeably tangier and more pronounced in flavor than other injera I’ve tried. David and I were mmm-ing a little extra with every bite. It was so terrifically sweet of Kristy and Chris to think of me on my birthday.

Our friends, Ashley and Adam, came over for a bit, and I was talking about how before I went vegan, I’d always get pink champagne cake on my birthday. In Des Moines, Barbara’s Bake Shop specialized in it, and it was something I looked forward to having every year. The champagne flavor adds a really lovely background to the lightly sweet cake. But since I went vegan 7 years ago, I hadn’t had it.

Pink Champagne CupcakeThe next day (on my actual birthday) we had a surprise visitor – Ashley with homemade pink champagne cupcakes! She looked up this recipe on Vegan Fling.   The cupcakes were frosted with a delicious strawberry buttercream frosting and had those wonderful undertones of champagne that I have missed all these years. Plus, the next morning I got to have coffee & champagne cake for breakfast! It doesn’t get much better than that.

For my birthday dinner, we ventured to Davenport to eat at Exotic Thai. I’ve written about Exotic Thai before in my post on my favorite Vegan Options in the Quad Cities. The weather was pleasant, and the patio was open. So we sat outside next to their miniature herb garden, which they use for their dishes. (It doesn’t get much more local than that!)

Tsing Tao BeerDavid ordered a beer.

Strawberry Basil MojitoI had a strawberry basil mojito.

Spicy Basil Noodles - Exotic Thai - Davenport, IowaFor dinner, I almost always get the exact same thing – Spicy Basil Noodles with veggie chicken. (You have to ask them to omit the egg to make it vegan.) The portions are really generous, and so this was 2 ½ meals. It was particularly spicy this night, and so I wasn’t able to use the hot sauce tray. I really should start asking them to make it mild, just so that I can pile on lots of crunchy, house-made jalapeno slices once it arrives.

Curry - Exotic Thai - Davenport, IowaDavid had their curry special with coconut milk, summer squash, zucchini, and eggplant made with tofu instead of chicken.

After dinner, we walked along the Mississippi River and relaxed on a bench while the sun went down. A lovely end to the day!

My Favorite Restaurant: Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine in Los Angeles

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesIf I had to name my very favorite restaurant anywhere, it would be Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine in Los Angeles.  Rahel was the first restaurant where I ever tried Ethiopian fare, and it set the bar very high.   They introduced me to slow cooked stews called wots and spongy, sour bread made from protein-rich teff flour called injera.  It was there that I discovered the joys of using that pancake-style bread as a utensil, scooping up each bite of stew from a large shared platter, using a torn bit of bread to encase it.

The platters of wots are reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting with loud splashes of colors.  The bright trays give a glimpse into the array of flavors that lay across the trays with chickpeas, collard greens, lentils and split peas, dashes of turmeric, and sautéed ginger and garlic.   Each stew has complex layered flavors and nuance with none of the oiliness that can easily dominate when infused oil (niter kibbeh) provides so much of the flavor.

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesOver the years, I’ve made many wonderful memories at Rahel.  When I lived in Los Angeles, it was a regular stop for birthdays, anniversaries, or Valentine’s Day.  Even though Ethiopian cuisine wasn’t something that I ate growing up, it’s now very much comfort food to me.  A plate of soft injera and warm, enveloping stews feels like going home.  Plus, there’s something very intimate about eating from the same platter with a significant other or group of close friends.  So obviously I couldn’t go to the West Coast and not eat at Rahel.  I invited some friends to join me, picked up a couple of bottles of wine from Trader Joe’s, and made sure to leave plenty of room in my stomach for the deliciousness that awaited.

To drink, they offer juice, tea, and coffee.  They don’t serve liquor.  However, you can bring in your own bottle(s) of wine or beer, and they will bring you an opener and glasses.  They don’t have a corkage fee.

Menu Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesOn the walls there are large, dramatic black and white photographs, giving the restaurant a clean, open feel.  There’s a mixture of standard tables on one side of the room, and on the other, traditional Ethiopian tables are available with basket-like messob and short, low-backed chairs.  Because of the size of our group, we ate at one of the standard restaurant tables.  However, if our group had been a little smaller, it would have been fun to eat in the one semi-private hut that is available.

Before the meal, a server comes to the table with a pitcher and basin to rinse guests’ hands since dinner will be eaten from shared platters and without utensils.  (Although, plates and forks are available upon request if you’re feeling squeamish about a shared dinner or if you’re nursing a cold that you don’t want to give anyone.)

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesWe usually order one of the combination dishes to get a mixture of flavors, and the Hudade Special Combo is my favorite since it doesn’t include an appetizer.  (Their lentil-stuffed sambussa appetizers are very good, but I always walk away from Rahel stuffed to the maximum.  Instead of getting full right away, I want to keep as much appetite as I can for devouring their wots with injera.)  Gluten-free injera is available upon request.

We ordered two large platters for our group, and everyone walked away satisfied with even a bit remaining for leftovers.

Rahel Ethiopian Cuisine Los AngelesThe Hudade Special Combo comes with:

  • Shiro wot & Yeshimbra assa – two different chickpea stews
  • Yemisir kik wot – a spicy lentil stew
  • Yeatkilt stew – a mild dish made with potatoes and carrots that is wonderfully earthy
  • Yeater Alica – a homey, mushy yellow split pea stew with onions and garlic
  • Yefasolia wot – a mixed vegetable dish with soft string beans and carrots
  • Yebagela siljo – broad beans paste
  • A green salad
  • Sunflower mixed with injera
  • And my favorite of the bunch – greens that have been slow cooked until tender and seasoned with garlic

All of the wots are packed with spices but not spicy hot.  However, they do have trays of hot sauces if, like me, you prefer things on the mouth tingling side.

Rahel To go WrapsAs I mentioned in my post about Viva La Vegan, David and I also picked up a couple of Rahel injera wraps when we were at that all vegan grocery store for the plane ride home.  It was such a delightful treat eating a Rahel wrap while flying over Nevada.  We both chose the wrap with yellow split peas.  (The one with greens is my favorite, but they didn’t have any of that type at Viva La Vegan when we were there.)

Rahel To Go WrapsThe wraps are made with gluten-free injera and were filling without being overly heavy.  When you’re flying, it’s nice to have something that feels healthy and substantive.  On the label, the ingredients for the filling are listed as yellow peas, olive oil, sea salt, turmeric, onion and ginger.  For the injera wrap, the ingredients are teff, buckwheat, and water.  It is amazing what they are able to do in terms of flavor with a few simple ingredients.

If you should ever find yourself in the Little Ethiopia neighborhood of Los Angeles, I can’t recommend a trip to Rahel highly enough.