Dining Review: Keeping the food real

Real Food Daily is a bit of an oasis in Pasadena. At the busy corner of Del Mar and Lake, the restaurant offers a sanctuary with wooden walls, soothing colors and a menu that just might help your body cope with the stressors of a busy life.

The vegan restaurant is the sister of two others in Santa Monica and West Hollywood. It is the brainchild of Ann Gentry, a Tennessee native who served as personal chef to actor Danny DeVito after coming to Los Angeles in the 1980s. She started Real Food Daily as a home delivery service soon after and opened the Santa Monica restaurant in 1993. The Pasadena shop opened last year, continuing with a menu of organic and mostly locally grown produce and no animal products. The restaurant cooks with water that’s been run through a reverse-osmosis filtration system and uses only non-GMO organic oils.

All this purity doesn’t come cheap, but it tastes so much better than you might think it would. And to get a brimming glass of fresh fruit and vegetable juice, as anyone with a stainless steel juicer gathering dust in a corner cabinet knows, you have to use pounds and pounds of produce. So the $6.75 for a gorgeous ruby red glass of beet, carrot, celery and apple juice isn’t such a shocker. The shocker, however, comes if you agree to add a “ginger boost.” People at other tables may think your dining partner has just whispered something scandalous, but only you will know that your flushed face is purely due to the ginger-intensity of the first sip.

Salads are uniformly good, with the house salad coming with a staggering choice of house-made dressings. The wasabi dressing adds a sweet touch, with only a trace of heat. The Caesar salad’s dressing is creamy (go figure), and it’s topped with addictive wheat-free blue corn croutons. RFD could sell these by the bag. The Mexicali chop is a meal of romaine lettuce, pinto beans, flawless avocado, tomato and corn kernels, with baked tortilla strips and a zesty lime-cilantro dressing. Great salad. It’s one of those you’d like to imagine yourself making in your own kitchen, but who are we kidding? But the name Mexicali chop? Maybe I’ve read too many stories on drug cartel violence since moving out of Mexico, but seeing that on the menu made me shudder.

Real Food Daily has the go-to sandwiches and wraps that you’ll find in many vegan or vegetarian joints — the tempeh patty burger, the grilled veggie wrap — but it also offers a spicy BLT. The B is tempeh bacon and is used on the sandwich almost as a condiment, with the lettuce, tomato and plentiful avocado taking the main stage, with a welcome spicy aioli spread on sprouted whole grain bread. The tempeh bacon is salty and crisp and needs a bigger showing.

The supreme burrito at RFD, served dry or with a mild ranchero sauce, is filled with rice, black beans, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, bits of tempeh bacon, tofu sour cream and cashew cheese. If you’re jonesing for a grease-dripping carnitas burrito, this is just not going to do it for you. But if you’re on a vegan diet or just trying to live a little healthier, it’s a tasty option.

Better, however, is the “papas ’n’ beer” main course — enchiladas filled with potatoes and wonderfully spicy seitan sausage and green tomatillo salsa. Served with Spanish rice, sweet slabs of grilled plantains, this meal may be the one your table fights over. This could stand up to a lot of meat-filled enchiladas.

Some of the best meals at Real Food Daily are the simplest. Under the “basics” section of the menu, diners are given the option of choosing two to five items from veggies, beans and grains, and plain proteins (various iterations of tempeh tofu and seitan), with one protein per plate. If there was an RFD near my office I’d be in for several lunches a week for the frilly kale sautéed with garlic and a creamy scoop of mashed potatoes with gravy. I don’t know how they make the gravy taste like it was whisked to life from turkey drippings and I don’t care. This would work on any Thanksgiving table. If RFD would just move downtown, I’d grab a seat at the counter bar and watch the espresso- and juice-making operations while maintaining pristine arteries.

A glass display case tempts with desserts such as fruit crisps, cookies, chocolate cake and “fauxstess cupcakes.” The rocky road brownies, made with walnuts and vegan marshmallows, are particularly interesting, served with a chocolate sauce. But the surprise sweet has to be the shakes. The strawberry shake, made with vanilla coconut ice cream, is a wonder. Tart, ridiculously creamy and bursting with berry flavor, it’s as good as any cream concoction you’ll try.

What: Real Food Daily

Where: 899 E. Del Mar Blvd., Pasadena

Prices: Soups and starters, $2.25 to $10.95; salads, sandwiches and wraps, $4.50 to $13.95; main dishes $11.95 to $15.95; Real Food basic combos $7.95 to $13.95; juices, smoothies and shakes, $6.95.

Info: (626) 844-8900, realfood.com

REBECCA BRYANT is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, Caribbean Travel & Life and other publications.

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