Restaurant Review #158: Organic To Go, Museum Square

Roasted Veggie Sandwich

This review is a little different from my others in that I was invited to try Organic To Go by their PR firm and they paid for my meal. Despite this, you can still count on Foodie Universe to stand by our policy of providing unbiased reviews--I explained to them that I would only do the review if I could maintain my usual standards, and they agreed.

My order was placed for me via Organic To Go's convenient online ordering system. When my assistant picked our food up first thing the following morning, she waited no more than two minutes for them to locate the huge bag of food. If you stop by in the morning, (they open at 7:00am), parking will be a snap, there won't be any crowds, and you probably won't even have to wait in line to pay. Because of the way the food is prepared and packaged, you can easily stick it in your fridge until lunchtime. It also travels well--not a single item spilled, leaked, or made any sort of mess in the car. While the store has a few tables, their food is designed to be taken away or delivered. They also specialize in catering business lunches and casual events (make sure to plan in advance, because their same-day menu is shorter than their regular menu).

Cranberry almond muffin with lemon icing

For breakfast, we tried two muffins. The cranberry almond muffin was a bit dry and crumbled easily, but on the other hand, it wasn't greasy or heavy like some muffins. It came packed in a small plastic container, which kept it from getting stale or picking up the flavor of plastic wrap. My favorite part was the lemon icing, which also added some moisture to the top part of the muffin.

Chocolate muffin

I wasn't sure I could handle chocolate in the morning, but the chocolate muffin was neither too sweet nor too chocolatey. Like the cranberry almond muffin, it was also a little dry, but again, not at all heavy. I recommend heating up the muffins.

The muffins were part of a well-balanced breakfast-to-go package that also contained bottled water, Wallaby organic yogurt (my favorite), and sliced apples ($7 total). I think it's great that out of all the available options, Organic To Go has chosen a bottled water company committed to finding a cure for breast cancer.

I don't know Tree Top to produce organic apples, and nothing on the package indicated that these were organic. Sure, it says "natural," but that word doesn't really mean anything in this context. The apple slices were crisp, but the preservative used to maintain freshness gave them a bitter taste.

Rainbow Salad

For lunch, I tried the rainbow salad, a vegan mixed green salad with red pepper strips, cabbage, cucumber slices, and julienned carrots. It was indeed colorful, and I was pleased to find that the lettuce had real flavor, almost as good as the lettuce I buy from Maggie's Farm at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, and definitely better than most bagged grocery store lettuce, which tends to be flavorless. The container of ginger miso dressing was the perfect amount to lightly coat each leaf of lettuce and had a creamy mouthfeel, but it wasn't heavy like most creamy dressings. It tasted more like ginger than miso, but not too much like either one--if I hadn't known what it was, I would have just described it as sweet and tangy. The salad also comes with peanuts in a separate container, which I appreciated since I don't care for nuts, and I'm sure people with nut allergies would appreciate as well. The croutons, also in a separate container, didn't seem to have any butter, so I'm pretty sure they were vegan as well. They were very flavorful, but a bit dry and about half were getting stale. Overall, though I couldn't pinpoint it, I thought the salad lacked something--maybe I just wanted something more filling. Everything about it was basically good, but I think I would try a different salad next time.

Santa Fe Chicken Wrap

The Santa Fe Chicken Wrap
contains grilled natural chicken, lettuce, black bean and corn salsa, and a smokey BBQ ranch dressing. The chicken in the wrap was very soft and was cut into small pieces that made the wrap easy to eat without making a mess. I would have liked to taste more of the bbq ranch dressing, and including it in a separate container would have kept the tortilla from getting a bit soggy. Of course, putting the sauce on the side would make the sandwich more difficult to eat, so it's a trade off. We ate the wrap cold, and I think I would have enjoyed it more had I heated it up. Organic To Go will heat up your food for you if you ask.

The Roasted Veggie Sandwich (lead photo) contains red peppers, zucchini, red onion and a feta cheese spread and comes on a large panino roll. The roll is dry and sticks to the roof of your mouth if you eat the sandwich cold, but if you put it in the toaster oven, the roll becomes crispy and its dryness ceases to be an issue. The sandwich wasn't messy, though it could have been (roasted veggies like to slide around), and the feta cheese spread was rich and tangy. I'd definitely order this sandwich again--just make sure to heat it up.

Adobe Chicken Chowder

The adobe chicken chowder, which contains organic chicken, sweet toasted corn, roasted green chiles, and red peppers, tasted like a creamy version of a tortilla soup and was hearty enough to be a meal on its own. Its rich flavor reminded me of the soups I enjoyed in college on cold winter days. Yes, my college actually served good food. The soup came with thick, buttery, crunchy organic crackers. I would definitely order this soup again.

Mango Yogurt Parfait

O to Go's yogurt parfaits come in three flavors--strawberry, blackberry, and mango--and consist of a layer of real fruit on the bottom, plain yogurt in the middle, and granola on top. The granola was sweet and not excessively crunchy, though since I waited several hours to eat the parfait, a lot of the granola had actually become soft. Putting it in a separate container might be a good idea. The yogurt was excellent--very smooth and pleasing, unlike some yogurts that have gloppy thickeners added to them. I didn't really care for the mango--I only like fresh mango, and this mango clearly came from a jar. How can you tell? It's less sweet, more sour, and has a mushier texture. I probably would have enjoyed the strawberry flavor more, but I wanted to try something that you don't come across every day.

Chocolate mousse pyramid

The menu describes the chocolate mousse pyramid as "a light chocolate mousse enrobed in chocolate ganache with a layer of hazelnut praline wafer crust." It didn't quite match its description, but otherwise it was nearly flawless. The problem with many sandwich shop desserts is that they taste like display case--when you put a bunch of different desserts in the same enclosed area, they all pick up a little bit of flavor from each other, which interferes with the real flavor of the dessert. Since Organic To Go's desserts are stored in individual containers, they taste just like they're supposed to. I thought the crumbly chocolate topping was a strange counterpart for the smooth layers of mousse, ganache, and crust, plus I didn't notice any hazelnut flavor and the dessert didn't resemble a pyramid in any way. Calling it a chocolate mousse bar might be a better idea. $5 a pop might be on the expensive side, but since it's organic and it's a restaurant (not a grocery store) the price makes sense. Most desserts at Whole Foods will run you $4, after all.

Lemon bars are one of my favorite desserts, though they are forever letting me down by tasting too little like lemon (and too much like egg) or too much like lemon (and making my throat hurt). This lemon square's filling avoided both common problems. The bar was dense and took me more than one sitting to polish off. Yum.

At least the bags are biodegradable

I always like to see how new restaurants live up to their promises. O to Go promises generous serving sizes. Generous is relative, and in America, sizes are often measured by Cheesecake Factory proportions. Most of Organic To Go's portions are just average by those standards, so I'm not sure that's a good claim to make. I was very happy with the portion sizes, but my appetite tends to be smaller than most.

Aside from that, I'm very pleased with what the company is doing. Organic To Go uses certified organic ingredients wherever possible, and even offers a list on their website of which ingredients are organic (since it's sometimes impossible to get everything organic), which indicates that they're serious about their claims. Their food is also natural, meaning that you can easily identify everything on the short ingredient lists--a big plus in my book. Once you go organic, food with preservatives and other chemicals tends to taste funny. And when so many foods out there don't have all those additives, I have to wonder why I would choose to put them into my body. The menu changes seasonally, and is currently undergoing frequent changes, which appears to be due to both seasonality and newness.

Organic to Go also uses biodegradable plastics in much of their packaging, and has plans to convert more of their containers to the eco-friendly stuff in the future. I can't prove this one, since the biodegradable containers look stunningly like their more polluting counterparts (as I also observed at a Santa Monica Public Library on Farmers' Markets), but it sounds good to me.

If you visit the Museum Square location, to avoid getting lost in the parking garage maze, just turn around and go out the way you came in, rather than following the exit signs--most of those will lead you through the garage and to card swipe only exits for monthly permit holders. The lot seems to have ample visitor parking, as well as special parking spots for picking up to-go orders, but spots could be hard to snag at lunch time. You can have your food delivered, but with a hefty $7.95 delivery fee, you might want to go in on an order with your co-workers.

Overall, I'm very pleased with Organic To Go. Compared with the other available lunch options (especially the ones at Museum Square: Baja Fresh and Koo Koo Roo), they offer a superior product if you value freshness, your health, and the environment.

Organic To Go
5757 Wilshire Blvd (Museum Square)
Suite 106
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Organic To Go Website
Hours: Mon-Fri 7am-4pm
Sat 10am-4pm

Other Los Angeles locations:

555 W. 5th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

350 S. Grand Ave
Suite D6
Los Angeles, CA 90071

Also in Orange County, Seattle, and Bellevue.
Organic To Go on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #157: Mezbaan Indian Cuisine, Pasadena

Mixed tandoori grill

You're in Pasadena and you can't stand the thought of waiting for two hours until the Cheesecake Factory's plastic buzzer goes off, inducing simultaneous panic and joy with its spastic flashing and buzzing. Staring at Buca di Beppo's cluttered walls is bound to worsen your hunger headache. You're so over paying $7 for a roll at Sushi Roku. Ingesting miniscule portions of cheese-cooked meat over the course of three hours at The Melting Pot will never fill you up. You want to get away from crowded Colorado Boulevard and enjoy a quiet, delicious meal. Citysearch is, as always, next to useless. Where do you go?


Tucked away on slightly-less-crowded Fair Oaks, this gem of a restaurant has been wowing diners for close to twenty five years with its attentive service and a great selection of flavorful dishes. On Friday and Saturday nights, they even have live Indian music, and the low lighting and tablecloths make the restaurant nice enough for a date. The reasonably priced wine list is extensive and designed to pair nicely with curries, and beer lovers can choose from several Indian brews.


Mezbaan offers several combination plates for those who like to try multiple dishes. We tried the mixed tandoori grill, which contains chicken tikka, lamb tikka, tandoori chicken, fish kabab, and seekh kabab. Though I ordered it spicy, it definitely didn't make my lips tingle. At first I thought that perhaps spice-rubbed meat was difficult to make truly spicy, but then I remembered the fiery lamb chops I ate in San Francisco and decided I had been given the white girl special once again. Lack of searing heat aside, the meat was tasty.

Two of us ordered the vegetarian combination, but they didn't give us each our own dishes, which was a bit of a problem for three reasons: one, I didn't know the person I was sharing them with; two, it makes taking home leftovers problematic, since lots of us regularly dine with people we don't live with; and three, she wanted her food mild, and I wanted mine spicy. The waiter only asked her how spicy she wanted the food, and didn't explain the serving method ahead of time. I was foiled again--my veggies weren't terribly spicy, either. Lesson: if you order the same dish as someone else at your table and you want your very own custom spiced dish, make sure to ask for it.

Palak paneer

Troubles with spiciness aside, the palaak paneer in particular was excellent--perhaps the best I've ever had. Maybe that was because it was rich with tomatoes, which many recipes aren't. The baigan bhartha's long-simmered eggplant pieces had seemingly completely dissolved into the sauce. This is great for people who don't normally like eggplant, because the dish isn't slimy or squishy at all. However, if you're an eggplant lover, you might be disappointed, and if you don't like onions, you should definitely avoid this dish--the onions seem more plentiful than the eggplant.

I don't usually like dal, because most recipes seem to use overwhelming amounts of turmeric and/or another acrid spice that dries out my tongue and leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It's too bad Mezbaan has a set list for the vegetarian combo, rather than letting you choose your own dishes. All of the combination plates come with warm, fluffy rice and fresh, chewy naan.

Pickles and mango chutney are an extra $3. I always find mango chutney overly sweet, like jam, but I adored the pickles and ate half a jar of them. Some pickles are so sour they make you cringe, too spicy, or so salty that you get an entire week's worth of sodium in two bites. Mezbaan's pickles were perfect. If you've never tried Indian pickles before, I highly recommend them--they are an intense experience not to be missed. Indian pickles come in all forms, including carrots, limes, and green beans. Mezbaan serves a mixture of all of these. Watch out for the chiles.

Baigan bhartha

On Fridays and Saturdays from 7-10pm, Mezbaan has live traditional Indian music. I was worried that it might be too loud and take away from the social aspect of our dinner, but the music blended in with the atmosphere perfectly, contributing to our meal without banging its fist on our table and demanding attention.

Entrees are around $12 and combination plates are around $18. If you want to spend less, hit the lunch buffet. While Mezbaan's prices are on the high side for Indian food, they're very reasonable considering the excellent quality of the food, service, and atmosphere. It's very rare that a restaurant shines in all three of these areas, but it's easy to see why Mezbaan has been open since 1982. Though I had some issues with my food not being spicy enough, it shouldn't be too hard to make sure they don't skimp on the scovilles next time. I can't wait to go back.

80 North Fair Oaks Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91103

Dinner 5pm-10pm daily
Lunch buffet Mon-Fri 11am-2:30pm
Champagne brunch Sun 12pm-3pm

Mezbaan website (with menu)
Mezbann Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #156: Taqueria Emanuel, Van Nuys

Carnitas tacos

Taqueria Emanuel is currently my favorite taco shop. Not only is the food delicious and cheap (tacos are just $1, and a burrito with the works is only $5), the service is excellent as well. They take the time to make sure they have your order just right, no matter how convoluted it may be. The restaurant is very small, but it's also very clean and brightly colored. If you want to dine in, there are a few tightly packed tables. For a tiny taco shop, the menu is quite extensive--you can order quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, and more.

Carne asada tacos

I recommend the carne asada, al pastor, and carnitas tacos, all of which are very moist and flavorful. The chicken, while good quality meat, is too dry. Like all tacos, these come on a double corn torilla and are topped with onions, cilantro, and salsa. If you prefer flour tortillas, you can substitute them for a few cents extra. At the salsa bar, you can add pico de gallo and pick up as many containers of pinto beans, salsa, and spicy carrots as you like. By the time you finish filling containers of salsa, your food will be ready--the meat is cooked ahead of time, but it all still tastes very fresh.


Taqueria Emanuel offers four kinds of salsa: a creamy green salsa, which is good for moistening a chicken taco but otherwise doesn't taste like much; a spicy green tomatillo salsa whose true heat reveals itself in the aftertaste; the same smokey, hot red salsa that comes on the tacos; and a mild version of the red salsa. If you love salsa like I do, you'll get more flavor by dipping your taco into the salsa before each bite. If you pour it onto the taco, a lot of the salsa soaks into the tortilla and the flavor isn't as strong.

Since the asada burrito uses the same meat as the asada tacos, it was very flavorful as well. We also tried the horchata. I liked it because it was neither too cinnamony nor too sweet, but some might find it to be on the watery side. It all depends on your taste.

Taqueria Emanuel
6350 Van Nuys Blvd.
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Taqueria Emanuel on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #155: Champagne French Bakery Cafe, West LA

Chicken pesto sandwich

I've never had much interest in trying Champagne--I've always had an attachment to Panera, so on the rare occasion that I'm in the mood for a sandwich, that's where I go. But when you're in a hurry and Champagne is the best and fastest option available, that's where you end up. It had to be better than Baja Fresh or airport food, I figured.

I tried the garlic chicken panini and the hot chicken pesto sandwich. I really enjoyed the panini--it was served very hot, it was the right size for my mouth, and it wasn't too messy. All of the ingredients made sense together, the bread-to-filling ratio was perfect, and there was nothing sketchy about the chicken.

The chicken pesto sandwich was dry though. Our fries were cold, and they didn't get my order right (I asked for salad on the side, not fries). Since I was the last customer of the night, arriving just 10 minutes before closing, I wasn't surprised--the place was completely empty, and they'd probably already cleaned up the salad prep station and cooked the last of the fries.

Garlic chicken panini and fries

Champagne is, in many ways, a direct competitor with Panera--both are chains that share the fast-casual concept and have similar menu items. One area in which Champagne may have an advantage over Panera is that they serve hot breakfast plates like crepes and French toast, while Panera's breakfast choices consist almost entirely of bagels. At lunchtime, you can get French fries--another food Panera does not offer. However, Champagne does not offer an equivalent of Panera's popular "You Pick Two" combo. While they do offer several combos that are a good deal, they don't offer as much flexibility--you can only get a cold sandwich with their deal, while at Panera, any sandwich, any soup, and any salad are up for grabs. On the other hand, Champagne also offers the option of getting all three-soup, salad, and half sandwich--which you can't do at Panera. So rather than trying to pit the two against each other, I think it's best to say that while Panera and Champagne are similar in their fast-casual sandwich concept, the two have enough differences to keep things interesting.

Champagne French Bakery Cafe
2202 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Champagne Website
Champagne Menu

Champagne French Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon


Restaurant Review #154: Mi Casita Salvadorena, Van Nuys


Salvadoran food is not very familiar to me--I've only had it one other time, at La Curva in east LA. At La Curva, I got an introduction to the types of seafood dishes that are commonly eaten on the coast, but I had yet to try the most well-known of Salvadoran dishes--the pupusa.

Our meal started with thick, crispy tortilla chips and a rather bland salsa, but I didn't despair over the salsa. I had a good feeling about the place, and I tend to agree with Meyers-Briggs' opinion that I'm rather intuitive.

Mi Casita Salvadorena is very low budget. The all-brown decor hasn't been updated since the seventies, but at least the savings get passed along to the customer: a meal for two here will only run you about $20 including tax and tip. It's a good thing, too, since they only take cash. The sunlight that streams in through the windows and a wall of trophies help brighten the otherwise drab interior.

Unlike so many Los Angeles restaurants, Mi Casita Salvadorena's ample tables are comfortably spaced--just one of the Valley's many unsung benefits. You seat yourself, but it's probably a good idea to alert a server to your presence when you arrive. Service is a little slow, but in that made-to-order food kind of way.

The beef empanadas were unlike the Argentinian empanadas I've eaten (and definitely unlike the Oaxacan variety) in the consistency of the dough. These were very deep fried and extra crispy on the outside. The beef filling was tender, moist, and richly flavored. While many places engage in the ridiculous practice of charging extra for avocado, Mi Casita Salvadorena included a generous chunk along with with the other veggies that came on the side of this dish.

Sweet white corn tamales with sour cream

I usually don't care for tamales, but these sweet corn tamales are the best I've ever had. The tang of the accompanying sour cream was a perfect match that prevented the dish from being excessively sweet. The dishes don't match at this restaurant, but it's kind of charming.


Having never eaten or even seen a pupusa before, much like Pam of Daily Gluttony, I went into this experience with no expectations. I tried the cheese pupusa with flor de izote and the beef pupusa. Pupusas are sort of like a cross between a tortilla and pita bread. They contain a filling and are mysteriously sealed up so that you can't tell how the filling got into the dough. They're also a great deal at just a little over a dollar each and offer a better quantity to price ratio than even some tacos. I love saving money.

Flor de izote is the national flower of El Salvador and grows on yucca plants. It's supposed to have a slightly bitter taste and maintain a slight crunch even after being cooked, but I didn't really notice it in the pupusa at all. I found both pupusas to be too salty, and after having spent a considerable amount of time in Spain I must say that my salt tolerance is very high. Overall I really like the pupusa concept--their warm, soft consistency makes for great comfort food. I think they may be meant for dipping in salsa or topping with curtido, but I'm not sure--they easily stand on their own.


Curtido looks like coleslaw, but I greatly prefer it to American slaw due to its lack of mayonnaise. Turns out it's spicy pickled cabbage. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it, though--was it a condiment? A salad?

You're not here for the decor

A plethora of televisions and a few happy hour specials make Mi Casita Salvadorena a promising place to watch a game. I felt a little out of place as the only white customer, but no one at the restaurant made an issue of it. The restaurant is almost too quiet at times, but those times are a welcome respite from the much-too-loud jukebox (I wasn't even sitting near a speaker).

Finding an undiscovered gem in Los Angeles seems like an impossible mission, and one at which I have failed on several occasions. This time, though, I think I'm on to something. Though the restaurant was nearly empty, the tamales and empanadas were excellent and the prices were low. A slow, but steady stream of customers trickled in and out while we ate. They even have a parking lot. I would definitely go here again, though I'd prefer to take my food with me and eat it in my non-brown living room.

Mi Casita Salvadorena
14860 Vanowen Street
Van Nuys, CA 91405
Mi Casita Salvadorena on Urbanspoon


Visiting Restaurants Multiple Times

If I were a "real" food critic, there is no way I would write a review of a restaurant after only visiting it once. "Real" food critics, or those who by enough good fortune or groveling have found their way into printed publications, are compelled to try a restaurant at least twice (if not three times) to make sure they're able to give a restaurant a fair assessment.

The thing is, most people in the real world won't go back to a restaurant they're trying for the first time if they have one bad experience, be it hostile service, shoddy ambiance, or subpar food. Several people have told me I am wrong about Hurry Curry, for example, but when I ate there, the food was so bad that I can't justify a return visit, especially when there are so many Indian restaurants I haven't tried yet and so many places that have proven themselves to be good. In Los Angeles, competition is stiff. Didn't like Matsuhisa? You can go to Nobu Malibu. Didn't like Spago? Wolfgang has plenty of other restaurants. Didn't like Asahi? Kinchan's, Chabuya, and Ramenya are just footsteps away.

Sometimes, however, I will revisit a restaurant that I didn't care for on the first visit, be pleasantly surprised by my second visit, and then feel like a jackass. Or I'll visit a place that was great, like The Hump, only to be ignored for most of my meal and wonder if I'm eating at the same restaurant. When this happens, I generally rewrite the review to reflect both experiences. I'll also rewrite old reviews to add new photos and additional impressions from subsequent visits, or because my style has changed quite a bit since I first started Foodie Universe and I want my writing style to be more consistent throughout the site. With as many articles as I have, though, that process won't be finished anytime soon.

What are your thoughts on visiting restaurants multiple times? How often are you willing to give a place a second or even third chance? Is it reasonable to expect a restaurant to put its best foot forward each and every night, for each and every patron? Let me know what you think.


Restaurant Review #153: Donuts and Delites, Van Nuys

Donuts and Delites sells the best donuts I have ever eaten. While their ordinary donuts are nothing to get excited about, the ridged donuts you see here taste like they're made from a completely different batter. Either the batter or the shape of this donut is responsible for a treat that is more moist, more gooey, and somehow simultaneously both denser and lighter than an ordinary donut. Take your pick of chocolate, strawberry, maple, or white icing. I like the white icing best because it's not as sickeningly sweet as strawberry and because, well, chocolate and maple aren't my thing. Cost for a dozen donuts and two 16 ounce bottles of milk? A reasonable $8.

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention all these years, but I've never seen a donut like this before. I'm in love.

Donuts and Delites
14350 Victory Blvd. #1
Van Nuys, CA 91401
Donuts & Delites on Urbanspoon