Winter 2016 California

10 Days in California in 2016

Day 0: New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles visiting the California Science Center

It was significantly less expensive to fly out on NYE than any other nearby date, so we arrived in the morning of the 31st in L.A.

The first stop after the long morning was Ramen Hood at Grand Central Market. Ramen Hood is an all vegan ramen fast casual restaurant inside the market (where there are several other restaurants). This is absolutely the best vegan ramen around. The king oyster mushrooms were a highlight, as well as the succulent imitation tonkotsu broth.


Next stop was the California Science Center, where they had a special exhibition on the Endeavor mission, and the Endeavor shuttle on display. The featured IMAX movie was “Journey to Space,” narrated by Patrick Stewart. The permanent exhibits were good, but Endeavor was certainly the highlight.

Dinner was at Shojin in Culver City, which easily became my favorite restaurant. The food, service, atmosphere, everything was perfect. The dishes were creative with excellent balance of flavors, textures, and complementary sauces. They had a New Year’s Eve sampler special, so we got to try several rolls. My favorite was the “Baked Scallop Roll,” which is torched at the table. “Green Forest” and “Pumpkin Castle” rolls were runners up. They also had a special dessert sampler with a green tea cake, creme brulee, and ice cream with mochi (which was my favorite part; that was the best vegan ice cream I’ve ever had).

Day 1: Rahel Ethiopian, Shoreline Aquatic Park, Donut Friend

After spending the night in the lovely Oxford Inn and Suites in Lancaster (with Beautyrest mattress!), the first stop of the day was Rahel Ethiopian for their vegan lunch buffet. Nothing quite like all you can eat Ethiopian food!

Next stop was Shoreline Aquatic Park in Long Beach. It was nice, but not someplace I’d go out of my way to go to. It was quite crowded and since it’s adjacent to a shopping area (much like our outlets by Disney), it felt more like a mall than a park. We saw the Queen Mary and enjoyed walking along the rocky shoreline and viewing the cruise and other ships in the harbor, in addition to spotting a twin of the Grand Floridian. We considered a whale watching tour, but the boat had a large max capacity (that, as I was told, usually sells out) and all the smokers in line indicated a likely unpleasant ride.

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Back in L.A., we sampled a few dishes at two places in Studio City: Sun Cafe and Vegetable. The raw Lettuce Leaf Tacos at Sun Cafe were delicious (I loved the SunChorizo), but must not have been following good food combining practices (tomato mixed with too many fats, etc.), because they gave me indigestion. The BBQ Cauliflower appetizer was inedible. It was drowned in an overpowering sauce with conflicting flavors. However, the mashed potatoes and gravy were very tasty. From Vegetable, I tried the Cheesy Fingerling Potatoes, which were tasty but a little too spicy (I think I might have enjoyed them more if my stomach hadn’t already been a little upset from Sun Cafe, but can’t say for sure).

The day was concluded with a visit to Donut Friend, home of the best vegan Donuts anywhere. Light, fluffy, delicious donuts available with a plethora of topping and filling options. They were also kind enough to share with me the brand of vegan shipped cream they use (it’s BakeSense for those curious).

Day 2: Drive to Mariposa (near Yosemite) through Fresno

This day was mostly a driving day to get us from Lancaster up to Mariposa, where we’d stay the night before taking the bus into Yosemite the next morning. Along the way, we stopped at Chef’s Choice Noodle Bar in Bakersfield, where they have a fantastic (and large!) veggie and tofu soup in a shoyu broth (just substitute the egg noddles for rice noodles). For dinner, we got takeout from Casa de Tamales in Fresno at their new location on Olive Ave. The tamales were not quite as good after riding with us in the car for a couple hours as they were the first time we had them, so I’ll be sure to dine in next time I go there.


When we arrived in Mariposa, there were several hotel options, but none of them proved ideal. Most that I looked at had overly pungent air fresheners. Our first stop was Mariposa Lodge, but the smell was too overwhelming that I couldn’t stay. The Best Western Plus wasn’t too smelly and it had the standard non-pillowtop hard mattress, but it was one of the more expensive rooms we looked at. Less expensive, but more smelly, was Monarch Inn. Lastly, we stopped at Miner’s Inn, where a friendly girl at the front desk gave us a room rate offer we couldn’t refuse. It was a bit smellier than I’d like, but not as bad as the worst. Unfortunately, the bed turned out to be possibly the worst I’ve (not) slept in. One of their two buildings was undergoing renovations at the time. I looked at those rooms and the bed there seemed fantastic; however, because of the renovations, there was a strong smell of paint throughout the building, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in those rooms. They may be a good option in the future because of the new beds, but if they keep the funky air freshener, then they still won’t be great.

Day 3: Bus Ride to Yosemite and SNOW

One of the best parts of travelling to Yosemite is the YARTS bus that relieves the hassle of driving a car through the snow-covered mountain roads. It has an ample schedule of departure times and affordable rates. Before departing on the bus, we got sandwiches from Happy Burger, a little diner that lists vegan options on their menu, and even has vegan mayo! I got the veggie sub, which was a little lackluster (they had better options that I tried on our second visit).

The bus ride was lovely with great views. As we got close to Yosemite Valley, I finally began to spot specs of snow, which transformed along the drive to a snow-covered forest that reminded me of Narnia. We stayed in the Yosemite Lodge (now the Yosemite Valley Lodge). The room was lovely and warm with a nice, modern bathroom and plenty hot water. The bed was rough, but manageable. The balcony had a view of snow and trees–perfect!

There was much to do around the lodge. The Vistor Center, Indian Cultural Exhibits, and trails were great. We went on a “Ranger Walk” about bears. They really focused on conservation in the talk, and reminded people not to feed them (for the bears’ safety!), which I enjoyed.

I had dinner at the Mountain Room, which was challenging but turned out okay. The server was at a loss of what to do, but with polite insistence, I managed to get beluga black lentils, roasted root vegetables, and another vegetable I can’t remember. I enjoyed the ingredients I got and the simple preparation of the veggies, but I could have used a slightly larger portion for dinner. They essentially gave me 3 small sides (and charged accordingly, at least).

Day 4: Badger Pass

Yosemite has several internal buses throughout the Valley, and also one that runs a couple times a day to Badger Pass, the ski area. We spent most of the day at Badger Pass snowboarding. The highlight for me, though, was when it snowed while we were up there! The counter service restaurant at Badger Pass had a very good veggie burger for lunch.

At the end of the day, we rode the YART back to Mariposa, where we had dinner at Happy Burger. The mushroom sandwich was good, as well as the refried beans, but the rice wasn’t the best. I also had a nice side of veggies (that I’d ask for oil-free next time).

We drove from Mariposa that night down to Fresno where we stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn (great room and bed!).

Day 5: Drive to Anaheim from Fresno

Before leaving Fresno, we stopped at Kogetsu-Do for mochi. The cherry was the best

After the first experience at Shojin, I knew I wanted to go back one more time before leaving California. This time we tried the Downtown L.A. location. It was another exceptional experience. I got the miso soup, and tried two new rolls in addition to the perfection that is the Baked Scallop roll.

We stayed in Anaheim that night at the Hyatt, where we were able to see the Disneyland Diamond Anniversary fireworks from the room. The rooms there are excellent, and the beds are very good (but not perfect).


Day 6: Grand Californian, World of Color Winter Dreams and Celebrate

The Grand Californian is my favorite hotel, and lives up to being the flagship hotel of Disneyland. Gorgeous architecture and grounds, fantastic service, and incredibly comfortable rooms (and beds!) make for a perfect stay.

This time, we stayed in a theme park view room at the Grand Californian. The room itself was the same as our previous standard view room, but the view was fantastic! We actually stayed in two different rooms with different views because we had extremely noisy neighbors around the first room, and the staff kindly moved us for the remainder of our stay. This gave us a chance to check out both of the view options.

The first room was in the original building, and looked out over Grizzly River Run and Soarin’, with a view of the city and mountains in the distance, and a partial view of Disneyland’s fireworks. If viewing the fireworks from your room are a priority, then you’d be better off with another resort. Our room’s TV played the music for the fireworks, but we had to stand out on the balcony (and turn perpendicular from our view of California Adventure) to see them. So, parts of the Grand Californian buildings obstructed some of them, and we couldn’t hear the music since we were outside.

The second room was in the building that was added along with the Vacation Club wing in 2009. This view was of the Paradise Pier side of the park, with our room directly across from Goofy’s Sky School and a view of Car’s Land in the distance. We were so close to the Sky School that we were waving to people on the ride from our balcony! And they were waving back! That was pretty fun. That area of the park is very impressive at night with all the lights, and because of the theming of the area, it really felt like we were inside a theme park from our room (in contrast to the natural, relaxing, woodsy feel of Grizzly Peak).

Our stay was during the tail end of the winter holiday decorations and attractions. The gingerbread house in the lobby was still up for the beginning of our stay, but was taken down by the end. Our first night at the hotel was the last day of World of Color: Winter Dreams, and we watched it from the terrace of the Grand Californian. That’s another perk to staying at the Grand. The show is lovely from above, and you can really appreciate how high those fountains go when you’re on the 6th floor. You can’t really see the projections on the water screens (you’re at too much of an angle), but you can see all the lights and water jets, and hear the music loud and clear.

For dinner, we ate at Native Foods in Costa Mesa, which is about 20 minutes from Disneyland. It’s your standard vegan junk food fare. I like the chili cheese fries, but nothing that I’ve tried there has been impressive.

Days 7 and 8: Disneyland and California Adventure

Another perk to staying at the Grand Californian is the back entrance to California Adventure, which is especially convenient added with the Extra Magic Hour benefit. My favorite attraction this trip was the Haunted Mansion with the Nightmare Before Christmas holiday overlay. The extra lights on Small World at night were beautiful, and Cars Land was fun and captivating as always. Mickey’s Magical Map was a highlight both times I’ve been to DLR; it’s a must see show for sure.

Since this trip was during the Diamond Celebration, Sleeping Beauty Castle still had its sparkly decorations, plus World of Color: Celebrate, Disneyland Forever fireworks, and Paint the Night parade were still performing. I’ll have to admit, compared to my favorite Wishes at Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Forever was somewhat disappointing. The projections were impressive, but there were so few fireworks compared to Wishes. It’s still a great show, but don’t expect WDW-style fireworks, even for the anniversary celebration in California. However, I am grateful that I had the chance to see these limited run fireworks and celebrate the 60th anniversary at Disneyland! World of Color: Celebrate, on the other hand, took me by surprise with how perfect it was. I loved the clips, the music, the dancing fountains, and Neil Patrick Harris did a fantastic job singing Celebrate the Magic (which is fondly familiar to me since it’s part of my home park’s nighttime spectaculars).

Food at DLR:

My favorite meal at DLR is the bean burrito (mod no dairy) at Rancho Del Zocalo in Disneyland. The chili cones at Cozy Cone (no cheese) in California Adventure and the vegetarian gumbo in a bread bowl at Cafe Orleans in DL are also yummy. The treat I most look forward to having on my next trip is the berry sorbet dipped in dark chocolate at Clarabelle’s in DCA.

I had the worst pizza of my life at Napolini at Downtown Disney. They were able to do a cheeseless pizza, but it was dry and flavorless–and expensive! I regret going there, so please don’t make the same mistake I did.

Day 9: Last day in California

We had to check out of the Grand fairly early to catch our flight and have time to get food on the way. Of course another visit to Donut Friend was necessary before flying 2,500 miles away from the best vegan doughnuts. We stopped at Flore Vegan Cafe for a takeout breakfast that we ate in the airport while waiting to board. Unfortunately, they forgot the gravy that was supposed to go with my biscuits and gravy, so the dish was inedibly dry. The breakfast “sausage” had a good flavor, and the breakfast potatoes were okay, but the gravy would have improved everything. The flight was mostly uneventful, except on the 2nd leg, we ended up without a 3rd person in our row, so we had the 3 seats to our 2 selves, which was much more comfortable than coach flights usually are.

Ordering a Vegan Cake

Most Disney enthusiasts know that you can have a cake delivered to your table at a table service restaurant or to your Disney hotel room.

For non-vegans, they have the 6-inch “celebration” cake that does not need to be ordered in advance, and more elaborate cakes can be special ordered.

If you want a vegan cake delivered, you must order through Disney’s Cake Hotline (407-927-2253) with at least 72 hours’ notice.

An alternative to a Disney cake is a cake from vegan bakery Erin McKenna’s NYC at Disney Springs. Their cake specialist can be reached at 407-938-9044, Monday through Friday, 9 AM-5 PM. Like the Cake Hotline, they also require at least 72 hours’ notice. Erin McKenna’s has a higher starting price and a delivery fee (there’s no added delivery fee for the Disney cakes). They also will not decorate the cakes at all. However, if you prefer the taste of Erin McKenna’s baked goods and are going more for taste than presentation, then that is certainly an option to consider.

When you contact the Disney Cake Hotline, you need a confirmation number for a reservation at a table service restaurant to attach to your cake order. Disney will do all the work of delivering your cake to the restaurant and bringing it out when you request.

Disney’s Cake Hotline will certainly make you feel like you’re creating something for a special occasion. You’ll get in contact with a cake specialist who will work with you on flavors and appearance.

jenn tara bear cake

Vegan cake with screen printing

jenn cake side

Inside of vegan cake; chocolate cake with chocolate frosting

Disney’s vegan cake is an allergen-friendly cake, which means that it’s free of most common allergens, including gluten.

As recently as July 2015, their standard vegan offering is the gluten-free mix. It may be possible with enough advance notice, and insistence, to get a gluten-full vegan cake, but it is certainly not readily available.

The basic 6-inch undecorated vegan cake is $29. If you want simple writing like “Happy Birthday,” that will add a few dollars. If you want something more elaborate, screen printing starts at $15 (and the smallest size they’ll generally screen print is an 8-inch cake).

The screen printing is totally worth it, in my opinion. It is great quality and personalizes the cake like nothing else. You can choose from a variety of Disney characters to have printed on your cake. Mention your ideas to your cake specialist and they’ll give you plenty of options.

I will be honest and say that Disney’s cake is not the best cake I’ve ever had. I’m also hard to please when it comes to cake (and other desserts), so take that with a grain of salt. Since it’s gluten-free, it is much more dense (like a brownie) versus being a fluffy cake. There was also a mild undertaste from the GF-mix. Plus, there was way more frosting than I prefer in a cake (as seen in the picture above), and the frosting was quite dense, grainy, and very sweet.

All that said, though, having a customized cake delivered to your table with all the fanfare that comes with it (planning the cake with your specialist, secretly signaling to you server to bring it out, and, of course, surprising the recipient) is a fun and worthwhile experience.

Trail’s End Breakfast (with Chef TJ!)

Chef TJ does not normally work during breakfast hours. So when I heard that he was going to be working a couple of breakfast shifts, I had to make a reservation. This was definitely the best (and biggest!) breakfast I’ve ever had.

We were started off with towers of Mickey Waffles! Not only is his food great, but his presentation can’t be beat! We also got a couple samosas with the waffles, and they were incredible; great flavor and spices with just enough heat.

Mickey Waffles and Samosas

Mickey Waffles and Samosas

Next, he brought us the most beautiful tofu scramble with spinach and grilled asparagus and topped with, of course, a delicious sauce (Chef TJ is known for his delightful sauces). Our second main course was an entire plate filled with vegetables seasoned and sauced to perfection. Just look at all those veggies! That’s how you do a veggie plate!

Tofu scramble with spinach and asparagus

Tofu scramble with spinach and asparagus

The scramble had great texture and flavor. The charred asparagus was a nice touch.

The mixed vegetable plate tasted as great as it looked. It was all so good, we managed to eat every last bite.

Mixed vegetables

Mixed vegetables

Chef TJ knows I’m a little bit obsessed with his tempura, especially this truly epic dessert, so he surprised us with a special dessert for breakfast. And, yes, even after our full meal, we managed to eat every last savory, fluffy, piece of tempura’d goodness.

Tempura bananas and cookies topped with chocolate Tofutti, chocolate sauce, and strawberries!

Tempura bananas and cookies topped with chocolate Tofutti, chocolate sauce, and strawberries!

Chef TJ is a culinary genius and such a kind soul. While you can’t usually catch him during breakfast hours, I highly suggest finding him during dinnertime to enjoy his creations!

Akershus 2015

Akershus is a Princess dining experience at EPCOT. The Princesses can change, but when we were there, it was Belle greeting guests at the entrance (with a PhotoPass photographer) and Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora, and Ariel visiting tables. Having so many Princesses was very fun, but our food was disappointing. I have read reports of other vegans getting good meals, so be sure to take pictures of their food as examples of what you’d like so you don’t end up with what we got.

The restaurant is wonderfully themed inside with rich wood beam ceilings and folk-inspired art and design touches. We got a fantastic window table with a view out to the waterfall in the courtyard.

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The princesses were all very fun (especially Ariel!). I brought a crochet Flounder, and Ariel made some great comments about how Eric has lots of statues dedicated to him, but Flounder didn’t have any, so he’d be happy he has one now. She asked if Jacob was a sailor, and I said “kind of, since we live on a lake (although our boats are kayaks!).”

Our server was as much of a character as the princesses, and the chef was able to readily point out what we could have from the salad bar and took our entree orders.

There were many things we could have on the buffet. As the chef said, there weren’t many hidden animal products (she even mentioned that there’s no honey in the salad dressings, which I thought was great). Even the breads were egg/dairy-free! Only the beet salad (that contained dairy) and one other salad were off limits (in addition to the obvious meats and cheeses).

I particularly enjoyed the quinoa salad with walnuts and berries. Other highlights were the potato salad, pear and apple salad, and asparagus.

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Unfortunately, our entrees looked great when they came out, but did not taste so great. We had a big plate of potatoes for the table, but they had much too strong of a wasabi and bitter/sour flavor from the mustard sauce for my liking. Our party member who’ll eat just about anything could hardly eat it. When we were offered “vegetables and quinoa” for our entrees, I excitedly agreed, because I was picturing the sauteed broccoli and other veggies that I’d seen other people get. However the only vegetable we got was, I believe, jicama. It, again, was very bitter/sour and not to my liking. It was a very generous portion of quinoa, but I would have preferred more vegetables (which I think would have been cheaper for them too!). I didn’t complain since the effort and thought was there, we just didn’t care for it. Jacob managed to eat all of his to be polite; I, however, couldn’t eat more than a few bites.

???????? Potatoes with lots of mustard seeds????????“Vegetables” and quinoa

If anyone is planning on going here for lunch/dinner, I suggest bringing pictures of meals that other folks have gotten with more vegetables and hopefully that will be better than what we had. However, I really can’t recommend the restaurant, because for the price we paid, we could have eaten like kings at Citricos or Jiko, or Trail’s End with Chef TJ for half the cost. For my money, I’d rather stand in line to meet princesses, and spend the money on a better meal elsewhere.

Flower and Garden and Akershus 2015

I love the Flower and Garden Festival. Not only is Epcot extra pretty with all the floral displays and topiaries, but all the gardening talks and information are so inspiring.

We started the day off at the Festival Center for the Greenhouse Stage presentation. Tom MacCubbin was an engaging speaker with an interactive program. I got chosen to go up on stage to pot some plants, and “won” a pack of greeting cards hand-painted by his wife. It was super fun to be chosen and participate in the show!

Here I am hard at work planting flowers:


After the show, we headed to Noway for our reservations at Akershus.


The princesses were all very fun (especially Ariel!). I brought a crochet Flounder, and Ariel made some great comments about how Eric has lots of statues dedicated to him, but Flounder didn’t have any, so he’d be happy he has one now. She asked if Jacob was a sailor, and I said “kind of, since we live on a lake” (although our boats are kayaks!).



However, we did not enjoy the food at Akershus. My food review can be found here.

After dinner,we rode some rides, and I took little Flounder on The Seas with Nemo. He got to meet some real Nemos, too!


We ended the night watching Illuminations from next to the Bonsai Terrace in Japan. It’s not the best spot (you’re not right on the water), but it is much less crowded than the spots right on the water.




Citricos 2015

Citricos is one of my favorite restaurants at WDW. They never disappoint. Here are some photos from our visit in January 2015.

The soups change seasonally, but almost every time I’ve been there, they’ve been able to veganize a soup for me. This time, it was a most delightful Smoked Wild Mushroom Bisque.


As usual, two of the table breads were vegan; sourdough and olive bread.


I got my usual, favorite entree, the Seared Tofu with roasted mushrooms, lentils, and sun-dried tomato puree. Exceptional!


We had three people in the party, so we asked to get a 3rd entree that wasn’t the tofu dish. (However, the tofu dish really is exceptional, so I highly recommend it, especially on your first visit. We just like to experiment since we’ve been there so many times. But I’ll tell you, I only order the tofu now, because I miss it if I don’t get it! It’s that good.)

The chef suggested that we could get the Cannellini Cassoulet that comes with a meat entree, as it is actually vegan by itself.


I adore their mashed potatoes, so we got a side of those (they have 2 types of mashed potatoes; one type is actually vegan!)


And we got a side of Brussels sprouts. Hooray, veggies!


For dessert, we had apple sorbet with fresh berries. I think the apple sorbet is the best flavor sorbet they have on property!


Universal and Islands of Adventure Table Service At-A-Glance Chart

Vegan At-A-Glance
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure In-Park Table Service

I enjoy Mythos a lot and have found the kitchen to be flexible in preparing vegan options besides what’s offered on the menu. I debated whether or not to put The Leaky Cauldron on here. They *can* do a vegan platter, but it’s essentially a plain salad and some peas. For now, I’m leaving it off because that just doesn’t count as a table service meal to me.

Note: This is subject to change, of course. If you’re allergic to something in addition to being vegan, always get a manager/chef.

Universal Studios
Land Restaurant Options
San Francisco Lombard’s Seafood Grille Mushroom and quinoa dish modified to be vegan
Islands of Adventure
Land Restaurant Options
Lost Continent Mythos Pad Thai on menu; Rosemary herb table bread; modified salads; sauteed vegetables