R: If one were on a quest to find the city in Southern California with the most raw vegan restaurants, Santa Monica would be way out front of any other local community. As we write this review, there are three raw eateries in this 8.26 square mile city with a few others in neighboring areas. Vegan diners now welcome the newest raw sprout, Better Life Cuisine that opened its doors on August 23, 2009, and does raw proud.
Z: Its contemporary, yet informal, ambience instantly relays the message that diners will find the cuisine as fresh and dynamic as its uncluttered, warm and comfortable environment. Its small wooden tables finished in highly polished resin are perfect for two diners but can be easily moved to accommodate larger groups. The floors offer an earthy foundation of stone tiles, while the walls beam with warm shades of pumpkin and lime green. A colossal chocolate brown shelving unit completely covers one wall and holds small Buddha statues and packages of raw crackers diners can purchase. Leafy plants cascade downward from the top shelf.
R: The service counter at the far corner of the room is where a small crowd gathers to place orders, check out the selection of side salads in the deli case below, and ogle the gorgeous dessert offerings of the day. The wall behind the counter features a giant blackboard with colorful menu listings.
Z: Efren, the young, personable, guy Friday behind the counter, takes orders, delivers them to the tables, and busses dishes. He is impressively knowledgeable about the menu ingredients because he helps to prepare some of the items.
R: Better Life Cuisine offers the tastiest water we've ever sipped. Sitting on the counter is a large water vat with colorful slices of fresh oranges, strawberries, and pineapple accented with mint leaves. Not only appealing to look at, its contents also hold very flavorful water that encourages one to chug-a-lug with gusto.
Z: On our first visit we came with our friends Eric and Diana and ordered the Fiesta Platter with Kale Side Salad, Manicotti and the Chili Beans Soup special of the day, Supreme Tacos with Gaspacho on the side, Caesar Salad, and a Beet Salad. The Chili Beans Soup, which we all tasted, was nicely spiced, well seasoned, and decked out in a garnish of cashew-based sour cream and alfalfa sprouts. Then we sampled the side salads beginning with the Beet Salad, a blushing red combo of shredded beets, apples, and raisins that was tastefully dressed with a delicately sweetened topping.
R: Another positive nod went to the Coleslaw with its minced parsley, chopped cucumbers, and long shreds of carrots in a similar lightly sweet dressing. The brilliant green, chopped Kale Salad was tastefully accented with shredded carrots and red cabbage and deliciously tossed in a well-seasoned cashew-based dressing.
Z: Efren served our entrees on giant platters heaping with more than enough food to feed all four of us. The Fiesta Platter displayed a dazzling array of colorful mini mountains of mock tuna, mock salmon, and fried beans, each beautifully crafted raw imitations of familiar foods but made from a base of nuts and seeds. Garnishing the platter were guacamole and two varieties of flax crackers topped with either pico de gallo or pesto.
R: I was thoroughly appreciating the Manicotti and thought it had one of the most attractive presentations I've seen. The platter held five manicottis, made of super thin slices of zucchini wrapped around tasty raw ricotta made from cashews. Each one was topped with chopped, seasoned tomatoes and homemade Parmesan and garnished with alfalfa sprouts.
Z: Another dynamic platter held the Supreme Tacos featuring three tacos filled with fried beans that are not beans at all, but a delicious blend of seasoned sunflower seeds. The beans were attractively topped with shredded romaine lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo.
R: Also shared was the bountiful platter of Caesar Salad with the traditional romaine lettuce, along with tomatoes and raw Caesar Dressing made of soaked cashews. Garnishes featured the tasty homemade Parmesan and sunflower sprouts.
Z: Ending with a sweet note, we indulged ourselves with shared pieces of Strawberry Pie and Pumpkin Pie. Like many items on this creative menu, their names are not to be taken literally. As example, their Pumpkin Pie contained no pumpkin at all, but, instead, was made with carrots. Laced with flavorful spices, it tasted like pumpkin pie. The delicious, deep brown crust of both pies was a blend of gogi berries, nuts, and raw cacao.
R: Our second visit found us dining with our friend Chef AJ. On this eating adventure we were curious about the Curry Croquette Salad and the Pizza, an item not on the take-out menu but listed on the blackboard. Both platters were jumbo size and masterfully seasoned.
Z: Salad fanciers will definitely fall in love with the Curry Croquette Salad that features a lush bed of mixed lettuces, plus radicchio. Nestled into the center were three flavorful croquettes topped with a golden splash of spicy cashew-based curry dressing. The garnishes made this dish a pleasing presentation--(sliced tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, marinated onions, and long strips of cucumber).
R: For me, the pièce de résistance was the Pizza that actually looked more like one of those artisinal, haute cuisine presentations of daringly stacked foods. Supporting the nearly three-inch-tall pizza was the crunchy base of flax crackers spread with pesto. Over the pesto was a thick filling of ricotta made from soaked, seasoned cashews followed by thin layers of zucchini and tomatoes. The exceptional topping was a slab of "mozzarella," topped with tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, Parmesan, and chopped fresh basil.
Z: It was genuinely dazzling though we did find it a bit challenging to cut neatly through all the layers and into the crust. Barring that challenge, the Italian delicacy was a blast, every bite bursting with flavor. Totally unique was that half-inch thick layer of "mozzarella" made of soaked cashews. It was the soft, creamy smooth texture that made the "mozzarella" exceptional enough to label this creation a cutting-edge raw offering.
R: Looking into the deli case for a sweet treat, we were drawn to the Cinnamon Roll that Efren said other diners likened to Cinnabon. And, yes, it was rich beyond belief. Sweetened with dates and layered with crushed pecans, the cinnamon roll enfolded a satin-smooth, vanilla-enhanced cashew cream inside and over the top. The three of us shared this blissful moment of sweet nirvana.
R: Owners and chefs Gil and Janet Martinez deserve gastronomic halos for providing such a delectable array of exceptional raw offerings. They've demonstrated their raw expertise, mastered the art of seasoning, and display a flair for dressing the platters in brilliant colors. Both our dining experiences surpassed our expectations.
Z: The menu is varied with sufficient choices to entice diners to visit regularly. Though we truly appreciated the fruit infused water, next time we might choose something from the juice section that ranges from $3 to $7.25. Smoothies are priced from $6.95 to $8.75. Wraps that can be made with raw tortilla or collard greens are $10.50 to $11.75. Entrees are priced from $10.55 to $11.55. Salads range from $9.75 to $10.95. Soups are $5.75 for a cup and $6.95 for a bowl. Desserts are $4.75 for a serving of the pies.
717 Broadway Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90401
Reviewed November 2009