Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Redesigned Menu for Today: Dining at Santa Monica’s Sushi Roku

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Santa Monica's Sushi Roku.

A Redesigned Menu for Today

Dining at Santa Monica’s Sushi Roku

Who goes to Sushi restaurant to eat a vegetarian meal?  

Turns out I do.  

The reason I ended up at Sushi Roku when I am not eating dairy or meat (which for me includes fish, chicken, and red meat) is that the restaurant had recently unveiled a new menu redesign at their Santa Monica location (aka Sushi Roku 2.0).   The new menu at the Sushi Roku at the Santa Monica location followed the Innovative Dining Groups’s (aka IDG the restaurant group who owns a bunch a restaurants around town) reopening of the original Sushi Roku on 3rd Street in October.  

At this point it’s safe to say that Sushi Roku is a Los Angeles fixture.   The original Sushi Roku (Hollywood) opened in 1997.  There are now five Sushi Rokus out there.  Two blossomed in the city of Angeles: Santa Monica, and Pasadena, there’s one in Scottsdale (where Sushi Roku opened at the W Hotel in 2008), and one at the Forum Shops at Caesars in Vegas. 

Redesign it’s an intriguing word.  

We all need transformation.  Everyone wants to transform themselves into something more, to evolve (there’s even talk of the human body just being version 1.0 that someday we’ll be able to upgrade ourselves to a computer mainframe which to me is just super super creepy… Creepy!)  Now 1997 might not seem that long ago but in reality it was almost fifteen years ago (shocking I know!)  So you can understand while the Roku family was ready for some alteration (think about it: would you be caught dead in your outfit choice circa 1997?)  

This new menu at Sushi Roku includes Salmon Sashimi Carpaccio with Black Truffles shaved tableside; Toro Tartare on Japanese Eggplant; Albacore Tacos with Yuzu Guacamole (and in case you haven’t heard Tacos are the new Mini Slider); and the new Ume and Matsu Signature-Style-Sushi plates, featuring six (Ume) or eight (Matsu) pieces of individual Nigiri-style sushi where each fish is complemented by unique accoutrements that enhance the fish’s flavor profile. 

All which sound great. 

And none of which I had.

And why would a someone who loves food and writes about food for a living restrict their diet so much?   The kernel of reason at the start was health by way of vanity.   A couple of months ago I decided to kick a hard core dairy addiction in the form of ice cream and Lattes in an attempt to pinpoint some potential allergies that were showing up in the form of acne.  Two weeks into this adventure it dawned on me that since I had already phased out dairy and I was rarely consuming meat, fowl, or fish I should just remove those items from my diet completely.  

At least for today.  I’ve never been a huge fan of labels so I don’t want to get labeled with the V word: Vegan.    You say the word Vegan and eyes are rolled like no other (less so in Los Angeles than other parts of the country, but still the eyes do roll) but for today I’m not eating dairy or meat.   Tomorrow I will probably make the same choice, but there’s always the chance I might want to pick up a cheeseburger and that’s totally cool.           

But for me there’s good reason not to: from the Engine 2 Diet to Dr. Oz a plant based diet is being advocated to avoid a bucket load of diseases.  Much of these recommendations came by way of the China Study, a research book which documents that animal proteins can accelerate the growth of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. 

Now there’s two ways to perceive the concept of not eating meat.   One is to look at a vegetarian lifestyle and think it’s totally restrictive and you’ll never been able to have great tasting food again: another is to look at as it a full of potential to the artistry of cooking without those ingredients. Luckily Sushi Roku, my dining partners, and myself chose the later perception.  

Which can be pretty cool.   One thing I learned as an improviser at the Upright Citizens Brigade and Improv Olympic is that art actually works better with boundaries (this is especially true for improv but works with any type of creative medium from dance to cooking).  Once you know and recognize the structure you can learn to innovatively play within it.  

But still not eating fish at a Sushi restaurant?  Bet you would think that I would end up resigned to brown rice off the side dish menu.  Which is true at many other places, you’d be surprised how many restaurants don’t carry entrée offerings that are both non-dairy and non meat (other than the ubiquitous garden salad).   Many times during this plant based adventure I have had to order strictly off the side dish part of the menu.

But happily for my taste buds this is not the case at Sushi Roku.  There are items galore for those looking for plant based food at a sushi restaurant. 

Mouthwatering rolls like their Garden Roll made with Cucumber, Asparagus & Mizuna (aka a Japanese lettuce, hey I didn’t know what it was either till the manager told me) with Ginger Soy, Truffled “Renkon Kinpira” Lotus Root (a braised Lotus Root dish that is considered good luck in Japan), Seaweed Salad (made in house so it’s not dyed that crazy neon green color) with Cucumber Sunoman, Shishito Japanese Peppers with Soy Garlic, Miso Eggplant Dengaku, Tofu Steak “Toban – Yaki” with Mushrooms in Citrus Ponzu (a style of cooking that is baked on a ceramic plate, the dish arrived in a delicious bubbling cauldron of gooey yummy tastiness), and the Mack Daddy… Black Truffle Tempura Hand roll with Avocado (positively my favorite served warm with slight kick).   

Who knew?  

Past and present everything off the menu at this LA fixture has always been tasty, both when I was eating sushi and not. So whether you’re looking for Nigiri Sushi or Truffled Lotus Root you have the option for both at Sushi Roku at Santa Monica.    And at the end of the day that to me is the most important part: options.   Options denotes choice and choice denotes consciously thinking.   And if you’re consciously thinking your taste buds are definitely going to be happy.  

Kat Thomas will probably not eat dairy or meat today, but don’t label her a Vegan.  You can see more of her writing at edibleskinny.com

Monday, May 16, 2011

There’s Only Us

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Auh-Mazing Auh-Mazing Father Greg Boyle!!!

There’s Only Us

Father Greg Boyle Speaks at SMC

 “There’s no us and them, there’s only us.   Them is an illusion.”
-- Father Greg Boyle

Fifteen minutes early and I barely make it into the auditorium to see Father Gregory Boyle, aka the Gandhi of Gangs, speak at Santa Monica College at eleven o’clock on a Thursday morning.  With a white beard and a twinkle in his eye it wouldn’t be hard to confuse Father Greg (as the Homies call him) with Santa Claus.   Like Kris Kringle Father Greg has bestowed many gifts upon the children of Los Angeles, just not the gifts you would normally think of: Free Tattoo Removal, GED Classes, Domestic Violence Counseling, Anger Management Classes, Mental Health Counseling, 12 Step Programs … the list is endless.   Father Greg is the Founder and Director of Homeboy Industries and is an acknowledged expert on gangs and gang intervention approaches. 

Luckily for those who get there on time there’s an overflow room.  

It’s very humbling to see Father Greg speak.   Homeboy Industries, now located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, is recognized as the largest gang re-entry program in the county, and has become a national model.  “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” he noted.  “I’m the luckiest man ever.”   States the man who buried his 174th gang member fatality 3 weeks ago.  And yet he still soldiers on. “We’ve backed ourselves into a corner as the largest rehab and gang intervention in the world.   We get over 1,000 people a month. You name it, we do it to help.”

How does this affect us in Santa Monica?   Downtown LA may be only eighteen miles away but it could be India for most of us (minus the occasionally jaunt to one of those hip new restaurants in the revitalized section).  Father Greg emphasized the distance (or lack thereof) between it all. “I had the honor of knowing Cesar Chavez,” explained Father Greg.  “A reporter once said to him, ‘these farm workers love you.’  He responded, ‘it’s mutual.‘”  Father Greg noted how even when you’re helping someone, in the relationship of service provider/service recipient, there’s a distance.   “It’s a distance we need to get rid of.  It’s about mutuality.”  Which can be hard thing to wrap your head around when your waiting for your five dollar Spanish Latte at the Urth Café (which I totally adore!) but something we all desperately need to do.  

Father Greg noted how we needed to follow the work of psychologist and philosopher Alice Miller.   “We’re enlightened witnesses.  We return people to themselves, holding up the mirror and telling the truth.” And how to we do that?   By recognizing that people are people, whether they’re yuppies or gang members.   “We need to dismantle this message of shame.  That I am disgrace,” stated Father Greg.  “You are exactly what God had in mind when he made you!”

After graduating from Loyola High School in Los Angeles in 1972, Father Greg entered the order of the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits) and was ordained a priest in 1984.  He received his BA in English from Gonzaga University; an MA in English from Loyola Marymount University; a Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology; and a Sacred Theology Masters degree from the Jesuit School of Theology.  Father Greg was appointed as Pastor of Dolores Mission Parish in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986 where he served through 1992.

Homeboy Industries traces its roots to “Jobs For A Future” (JFF), a program created in 1988 by Father Greg at Dolores Mission.  Dealing with a geographic location housing the largest public housing west of the Mississippi many of the parish’s residents chose to find sanctuary in one of the eight major gangs available.   In an effort to address the escalating problems and unmet needs of gang-involved youth, Father Greg and the community developed positive alternatives, including establishing a school.  “We needed an alternative school for Junior High students.  I told them, ‘if I found a school would you go?’   ‘Yes.’   So we started a school in the church.  Which is definitely a different version of a church than a hermetically sealed building: good people in and bad people out.”  A day care program and finding legitimate employment for young people followed.   Boyle's motto is “Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job.”  JFF’s success demonstrated the model followed today that many gang members are eager to leave the dangerous and destructive life on the 'streets.'

In 1992, the year of the Rodney King beating, in response to the civil unrest in Los Angeles, Father Greg launched the first business (under the organizational banner of JFF and Proyecto Pastoral, separate from Dolores Mission Church): Homeboy Bakery with a mission to create an environment that provided training, work experience, and above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side. The success of the Bakery created the groundwork for additional businesses, thus prompting JFF to become an independent non-profit organization, Homeboy Industries, in 2001. Today Homeboy Industries’ nonprofit economic development enterprises include Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise, and Homegirl Café.  But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.  “Everything worth doing is worth failing at,” noted Father Greg with a chuckle.  “Homeboy Plumbing was a disaster.  Who knew people wouldn’t want gang members in their homes?”  

Along with jobs one of the biggest marks on the community by Homeboy would be the removal of marks.
Homeboy offers free tattoo removal on site with Ya 'Stuvo Tattoo Removal. Tattoo removal is a critical positive step in a long and challenging journey out of gang life and into positive social integration. Ya’Stuvo means, "that’s enough, I’m done with that.” 

“It started with Frank, he wandered out of prison with “F-ck the World” around his chin and he came to me saying, ‘I’m having a hard time finding a job.’  We looked for someone willing to volunteer a laser and time.   In the beginning we got 1 hour every 3 months, soon we had a waitlist of 3,000.”   Frank is now a security guard at a movie studio, with nary an opinion on the world written on his face.   

Ya’Stuvo now has two laser tattoo removal machines in two clinic rooms, a dedicated waiting room, and an office to hold records and data.  In spite of the fact that tattoo removal by laser is known to be painful and takes an average of eight to ten treatments per tattoo, and in some cases up to one year to complete, patient retention is virtually 100%.  A team of twelve volunteer physicians and a physician’s assistant under a supervising medical director perform an average of 350 treatments per month, about 4,000 – 5,000 treatments a year.

In 2010, Father Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, a book recollecting his 20 plus years with the Homies, was published.  It received rave blurbs from many, ranging from human rights activists like Kerry Kennedy to actor Martin Sheen.   It also received the 2010 SCIBA (Southern California Indie Booksellers Association) Non-Fiction Book Award and was named as one of the Best Books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly.  It recently came out in paperback. 

The universe of Homeboy Industries is ever expanding. They recently introduced a line of tortilla chips and salsa at 256 participating Ralphs stores in Southern California.  And for the last four weeks running they were voted the best snack at Ralphs.   “I would have never though I would be worried did we beat Cheetos this week?”

But surprises turn up, that’s what happens when you keep striving.   “We’re all imagining something different for our world,” noted Father Greg.  “All of us want something different.   That vision still has its time.  And if it delays, wait for it.”

Kat Thomas is a writer is Santa Monica who was humbled beyond words by Father Greg.   You can find out more about her at edibleskinny.com

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Los Angeles' largest aquaponic farm EvoFarm.

Evo Farm

As we approach the halfway mark of 2011 it can be noted that one of the most pressing food trends is the reclaiming control of our food sources.

Whether it’s Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity to Mark Zuckerberg recent admission that his year long goal is that he’s only eating meat that he’s slaughtered (and thus eating a mainly vegetarian diet the rest of the time), more and more people are realizing that factory farming and over-processed food aren’t the healthiest and humane ways to get the job done.  But how to stop the cycle and reclaim our food sources?  Well, it’s simple: one of the easiest ways to take control is to grow (or kill) it yourself.   

Which leads us to EvoFarm in Mar Vista.  

Didn’t know there was a farm in Mar Vista?  Well it’s not surprising considering it has only been there for a few months and is the size of a two-car garage.    But what’s more surprising is that considering its size the farm has the potential to produce 15,000 plants a year. 

Nestled next to a suburban home off of Venice Boulevard EvoFarm is only a prototype, but even so at this point it is the largest aquaponics system of its kind in Los Angeles.  Aqua-What-ics?  Maybe that large unusual word is throwing you off.   So maybe, just maybe, you’ve heard of hydroponics (growing plants in water and liquid fertilizer without soil… probably when referring to the growing of marijuana), or maybe you’ve heard of aquaculture aka aquafarming (the farming of aquatic animals like fish and crustaceans in netted off coves or in tanks), or maybe you haven’t heard of either of them (which could totally be the case, and absolutely no judgments).  

Well aquaponics takes these two ideas and smashes them together to create a food production method that has the highest crop yields while using the least amount of water with no waste.   It is the most sustainable method of food production and exceeds organic certification standards (while most soil farms require 3 years to obtain organic certification, aquaponics farms can obtain it in a few months).  

“Even though 80% of population of America lives in a city there are a few places where commercial urban farming is possible (from a logistics standpoint).  Fortunately in LA you can run a business in your backyard selling land off the land,” explains EvoFarm owner Rosenstein.  “Aquaponics is really cool urban farming, but it’s a path.  I believed in this enough to take the plunge. I’m a full time farmer!”

In a nutshell, fish (at EvoFarm: Tilapia) are raised in water tanks and eat a diet of plant protein (non-soy).  The byproduct of this is highly fertilized water that is then transferred to growing beds that grow a variety of non-creeping fruits and veggies (such as tomatoes, lettuce, kale, leeks, cilantro, etc).  Due to the richness of the water the plants easily grow two to three times faster than it would in the ground, with far greater planting density, and are full of flavor (something that those plants grown with hydroponic fertilizers have been know to lack).   “There’s nothing like it with standard growing,” notes Rosenstein.  “There’s so much life in that water, you can get 12 planting cycles per year.”

Before he became an exuberant urban farmer Rosenstein was working full time for a company that made documentaries for PBS.  It was during this time working as a producer on such films as “America’s Family Farms” and “Growing a Greener School” that Rosenstein became interested in managing one’s own food source. “In the end you can’t control the world, you can only control how you spend your life.” 

Then his wife signed up for a class on aquaponics.  Turns out the person teaching the class claimed to be an expert.  He wasn’t.  But through that experience the Rosenstein family started to visit aquaponics farms and study successful systems.  Most modern methodology comes from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) created by Dr. James Rakocy.  This system later evolved in Hawaii.  “This system later evolved in Hawaii with Tom and Suzanne Man of Friendly Aquaponics on the Big Island in Hawaii. They have been the people who influenced me the most.  They created a LD (or Low Density) system.”  An aquaponics system, which runs on one-tenth the electricity of the original UVI systems, and still generates the same amount of vegetable production.

So with that information in hand Rosenstein went to good old Google Earth looking for open land within a few blocks from his condo and contacted his neighbors about starting a farm in their backyard.  Turns out one of them was interested.   “The greatest accomplishment of this urban farming adventure is building a community.  Peter Graef and his family are a great inspiration.   Now I know a ton of his family members, their friends, and neighbors.”

It’s definitely been a lifestyle shift.   “It’s not a film, it’s a farm,” explains Rosenstein.  “Farms grow all year long, it’s in our face.  It tells a story through a living breathing example.” “That being said there is so much to learn.  There are all the levels to Aquaponics and the farming components.  I also need to learn all about the entrepreneurial side, launching a business.“

There’s been no money exchanged on this adventure just the idea of growing food to feed both the Graef and Rosenstein families with the excess being sold in a community CSA (community supported agriculture aka boxes of locally grown food (usually organic) you can pick up once a week).  “Food can bring us all together, and in reality everyone needs to eat.”

Perhaps you might be wondering if it’s possible to actually sell food grown in your backyard (that it wouldn’t be restricted by yards and yards of bureaucrat Red Tape...).  Turns out that in 2010 the city of Los Angeles passed the Food, Freedom, and Flowers Act, which allows for commercial backyard farms. 

This all came about because in 2003 by Tara Kolla of wanted to grow flowers out of her backyard.  So she created SilverLake Farms, a ½ acre garden farm in her backyard with the goal being able to sell her flowers seasonally at local farmers’ markets on the Eastside (it’s hard to find organic, local flowers. Most of them are flown in from abroad and/or covered in pesticides.) 

But after six years at market Kolla was told to stop.   The LA City’s Department of Building & Safety ordered her to stop selling her flowers or pay a fine/serve six months in jail. Apparently selling homegrown flowers was illegal because it was not considered "Truck Gardening."   Truck Gardening is a farm where vegetables are grown for market.  It was allowed in LA City residential zones but City Planning’s codebook manual didn’t have any information on what Truck Gardening so officials consulted Webster’s Dictionary for a definition of the term. Because Webster’s definition of Truck Gardening only mentioned vegetables, City Planning interpreted this to mean that it’s illegal to sell anything grown in residential gardens unless it’s a vegetable, this included fruit and flowers.  So Kolla started growing vegetables and went to City Hall.  “They raised Hell and amended the law to make it legal that you can run a business in from your backyard,” notes Rosenstein.  “They’re one of our local heroes. They’re a big part of the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

And that’s what EvoFarm, it’s the next evolution from the result of the Food, Freedom, and Flowers Act.   Allowing us to the reclaiming control of our food sources. “That’s why I chose the name EvoFarm,” explains Rosenstein.  “Like all of life it’s moving forward, evolving towards our next step.”