A Fresh Approach to Fast Casual

Chain restaurants have come to represent the slow erosion of all that is held dear by discerning diners the world over. Homogenized, mass-produced, oversimplified menus designed for consistency and volume proliferate, muting bold flavors in favor of simplicity. Quality isn’t the first, nor second or third, consideration, with more focus placed on cost than true value. Small businesses are edged out, putting the endangered mom and pop shop around the corner at even greater risk than ever.

Surely you’ve heard this tale of woe before. It’s not a new story, and no happy ending seems to lie ahead in the yet unwritten pages. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Franchise” doesn’t have to be a dirty word when it represents the spread of better corporate values. Veggie Grill is bucking the trend as the largest 100% vegan chain in the country, bringing real food that “celebrates the veggie, the fruit, the grain, and the nut” to the people. Veggie Grill has over 30 locations spread across the west coast and is soon to begin their east coast invasion, taking root in Cambridge, MA before spreading to NYC in 2019. If you haven’t yet heard about their infamous B-Wing Salad or sat down to a towering Beyond Burger, you’re in for a treat.

My first taste of Veggie Grill was many years ago when it was still a fledgling eatery based in Portland, OR. Although I’ve dabbled with the bay area locations once a year or so, they still remained just a bit beyond easy access… Until now. Planting themselves right in the heart of downtown Berkeley, it’s dangerously easy to pop in whenever the craving for Tempura Green Beans strikes, or worse yet, simply order $1 delivery through the app.

Meatless mains feature prominently through partnerships with Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hodo, appealing to the staunch omnivore and old-school vegan alike. Many reviews come from confused patrons who realize only after plowing through their entree that it was entirely plant-based. This is exactly the kind of accessibility that the industry needs now; not dumbed-down flavors, but a level playing field to unite eaters of all stripes. You can still get your spicy Buffalo Wings with creamy ranch dressing; your soulful Southern Fried Chicken plate piled high with mashed potatoes and gravy; your bright and zesty Mediterranean Super greens Salad, if you so choose.

My personal favorite of the moment is the Rustic Farm Bowl for its deeply umami grilled mushrooms, roasted yams, braised white beans, broccoli pesto, roasted tomatoes, and red pepper sauce. Every element would be a fine bite by itself, but in concert, creates a symphony of carefully tuned tastes, in perfect proportion. It’s a grounding meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied, energized rather than weighed down, easy to grab and just keep going. That’s what fast casual dining should really be about, right? Fuss-free, wholly satisfying fare that fits into the existing social fabric, rather than tearing a hole through it. If you haven’t yet tried Veggie Grill, prepare yourself. You may just see one opening up near you soon.

Don’t forget to download the app before you go and use my code HannahKa8145 for $5 off when you sign up!

Advertisements

Son of a Butcher

Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.

Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.

Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.

Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.

Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.

Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.

The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704

Best of the Booch

Once referred to in hushed tones, it was the health nut’s moonshine, fermented in dark cellars and secreted away from the general public. Authorities railed against its commercial production as controversies erupted over the surprisingly potent alcohol content conspicuously absent from printed labels. Kombucha, the ancient fermented tea, has finally unshackled itself from overzealous legislation and a litany of misunderstandings, bubbling over into mainstream acceptance. Now touted as a probiotic superpower, this fizzy refreshment has a lot going for it, but as far as I’m concerned, flavor should always come first.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of brands are now agitating to come out on top, and over 50 of those are located in California alone. Even for a place as big as the Golden State, that’s a whole lot of booch! Taking into account all of the restaurants offering up various blends on tap and in bottles, you’d be forgiven for losing count. What’s a thirsty kombucha devotee to do when seeking new watering holes that also serve superlative vegan eats?

It is with great pride that I present the highlights from my adoptive hometown, from the east bay and San Francisco proper, in the Kombucha Hunter‘s Kombucha Guide to California. The very best places to find the most bubbly brews just happen to be some of my favorite restaurants to begin with, so it wasn’t hard to whip up some delicious recommendations to contribute. Uncovering gems up and down the west coast, locals and visitors alike will find a bottomless glass of temptations worth traveling for.

The guide is available for free at Lento Market in Echo Park and can be shipped anywhere in the US for a donation of any amount to Farm Sanctuary. Stay tuned for the digital version, coming soon!