R: Downtown Los Angeles just became a more delicious destination for vegans who look forward to a DTLA evening of dining and entertainment. With the January 2016 opening of Eko Eats, vegans can now add another great place to feast. This clean and cozy, attractive Korean café puts the vegan spin on a number of traditional Korean specialties prepared with the caring hands of chef-owner Judy Han.
Z: Nestled in a terrific location on West 6th Street at Grand Avenue, Eko Eats café is within walking distance to the Disney Hall, the Music Center, the Broad Museum, MOCA, and the Colburn School of Music.
R: While the café menu is not totally vegan, it IS super friendly to the plant-based message with more than 50% of the offerings bearing a prominent "V." Chef Judy's previous seven years experience working and developing recipes at Mendocino Farms awakened her to the many benefits of vegan cuisine as well as making eco-conscious decisions with her other menu items. She is the creator of their popular vegan banh mi sandwich.
Z: The slick, modern look of the café is informal with a giant chalkboard menu on the right wall leading customers to the order counter. Attractive light wood tables are heavily coated with resin while black chairs offer comfortable seating. The large floor-to-ceiling window facing West 6th Street. is decked out with a high counter and tall chairs that accommodate more diners.
R: The restaurant space has a bright, cheerful feel and allows diners to peer into the ultra-clean open kitchen. Though Chef Judy serves both vegan and non-vegan foods, she felt it important to equip her kitchen with a separate deep fryer to keep the vegan foods from cross contamination, an admirable consideration few restaurants adopt.
Z: We ordered the Korean Fried Tofu Bibimbap and Korean Tofu Salad and chose a table close to the kitchen. We were about to sit down when I felt a warm pair of arms embrace my shoulders from behind and turned to discover Chef Ito and assistant Johnny from Au Lac, a nearby vegan restaurant. They had also come to dine, making our delicious dinner more pleasurable by sharing warm conversation with Chef Ito, his style.
Z: It was definitely an eye-dazzler and divinely flavorful. But to perk up the spice, we added a spoonful of sambal, a condiment provided at the table along with Sriracha. The glass noodles have a compelling texture and are a welcome diversion from rice so prevalent in Asian cuisine.
R: The Korean Fried Tofu Bibimbap was the shining star at our table with ten alluring vegetables vying for position over the bed of steamed rice. Arranged in neat sections were sesame seed seaweed, marinated dried radish, and kale steamed and sautéed with onions and garlic oil.
Z: Impressive was that each vegetable was given special preparation, including blanched and seasoned bean sprouts with garlic and onion puree, carrots given the same garlic-onion treatment, shredded burdock braised in a Tamari glaze, sautéed red bell pepper, and yuchoi blanched and seared with sesame oil.
R: And that's not all! There were slices of zucchini dehydrated and sautéed with charred mushrooms. Providing the elegant garnish that graced the top were two slices of lotus root fried in sesame oil and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. What a gorgeous presentation! Accompanying this brimming bowl of veggies was a tiny condiment bowl of kochujang, a highly seasoned, slightly sweet, robustly spiced, glazed pepper sauce. We were encouraged to add a spoonful or two of the glaze, and then, toss the veggies and rice together to distribute the glaze throughout. Delicious to the core, the bibimbap could be eaten with a fork or chop sticks!
Z: When we learned that bibimbap is the Korean term for "mixed up," we agreed the dish was aptly named. OMG! It was irresistibly delicious with all those varied flavors and multiple textures!
R: Served with the vegan Bibimbap was a dish of Fried Tofu. Though we've certainly had many versions of fried tofu before, none have touched these long fingers of crispy fried tofu that stood out in a category of its own! Chef Judy shared her kitchen secret. These long strips of tofu are first dehydrated at 135 degrees F. to eliminate excess moisture, then, they are dipped in a seasoned batter of cornstarch, rice flour, and all purpose flour and deep fried until pleasingly crisp, yet still moist and pliable. Finally, they're doused with the sweet-salty sambal and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.
Z: My first thought was that each of these menu items was rather labor intensive for a restaurant kitchen, yet the staff did manage quite well.
R: Our final dish was one of the hippest salads we'd ever eaten--the Korean Fried Tofu Salad, a delightful bowl of healthy greens consisting of romaine, napa cabbage, spinach, and kale. Also in the mix were shreds of carrots, scallions, and steamed brown rice. The dramatic garnish featured paper-thin slices of lotus root crisply fried and sprinkled with paprika. These were so amazing I could have nibbled on a ton of them. The finishing touch was two long fingers of that delicious batter-fried tofu. Giving the salad its tasty flavor was the creamy scallion dressing with hints of rice vinegar, lemon, and garlic.
Z: This was a hearty meal, even for those with a robust appetite. Just when we thought we had finished, Chef Judy brought us each a cup of Bone Broth, a warmed vegetable stock enhanced with cashew butter, aminos, and sliced scallions--a fabulous finish! If vegans react to the name "bone broth," they will soon appreciate that a cup of this veggie broth feels so comforting--all the way down to the bones!!!!
R: While vegans focus attention on animal-free foods, omnivores will appreciate that the chicken and eggs in the non-vegan dishes are sourced from GoneStraw Farms where the chickens are humanely raised. Niman Ranch, known for its pasture-raised, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free cows provides the beef used in the restaurant.
Z: Diners will appreciate good value for their money. Both the Bibimbap and the hearty Korean Fried Tofu Salad were $11.85 each, Kimchi Fried Rice and Bibimbap can be ordered in two sizes at $7.95 or $9.95.
R: Because we had taken the Metro, we had no worries about parking. However, there are parking lots on West 6th St, South Grand Ave., and West Temple St. for those who brave the freeways. While we've been coming downtown for many years, we are keenly aware of and delighted to see all the redevelopment that is making the area a go-to destination. Vegan dining downtown is a rewarding smorgasbord of flavors for the curious palate.