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!

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Carbivore

WAIT! Before you start folding up the picnic table and packing away the lawn darts, let’s pretend like it’s still summer for just a little bit longer, please? While everyone else rushes to embrace the new pumpkin-infused season, plenty of warm, sunny days remain in the forecast yet, with much of the west coast in particular still due for a solid heatwave soon. Despite what the calendar may tell you, take a look outside before donning that heavy sweater. Let’s party like fall is but a distant concept for later days, concerning only overly cautious weathermen determined to throw shade on our fun.

My encouragement is of course entirely self-serving, but you see, it would be a shame to sit on this great pasta salad for another full year. Inspired by a trip to Baia Pasta, my neighbors in Oakland that I never knew lived next door all along, such incredible noodles need little ornamentation to shine on any table.

These small-batch artisan noodles are making a big splash nationwide thanks to an obsessive level of passion for every detail. Obvious considerations are the specific amounts of protein, moisture, type of flour, but what about the drying temperature and time? Procuring the unique shapes and the obscure dies to extrude them? Determining the types of wheat that can endure such a demanding process without breaking, dissolving, or crumbling under the pressure? That’s to say nothing of the unconventional seasonings blended into some of the more colorful pastas, giving rise to a full rainbow of bright, bold flavors.

Organic durum, whole durum, spelt, whole spelt, and whole khorasan wheat are the foundations of each charming twist, twirl, and tube. Pale, limp spaghetti strands are no where to be seen here, and you’d never miss them in the first place.

To fully celebrate such an exquisite yet uncomplicated staple, the greatest (and most challenging) task for the cook is to simply not mess with perfection. It’s already great as is- What more could one add?

In this case, my inclusions are more like additional refrains of the chorus, echoing and underscoring what already got the crowd off their feet to sing. Beautiful Organic Durum Wheat Flavored Soup Radiatori (Dynamos) are infused with beets, spinach, and tomatoes, which are exactly the same guests I invited to harmonize. Yes, that’s why it’s the BeST pasta salad, but for more than that cute pun alone. Accented with an invigorating punch of fresh basil, savory yet subtle white miso, and a light kiss of buttery avocado oil, it might very well be best dish of the season altogether, if we can sneak this last ode to summer in, right under the wire.

Smothering any of the superlative pastas from Baia with a heavy sauce seemed a crime, though I’ll readily admit, later experiments with mac and cheese were a stunning success…

But that can wait for colder days. For now, let’s revel in the fading sunlight, the last call of summer, until we reach the very bottom of the bowl.

BeST Pasta Salad

2 Cups Grape or Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 Medium Gold Beet, Peeled and Spiralized
8 Ounces Rainbow Radiatori Pasta, Cooked, Rinsed in Cold Water, and Thoroughly Drained
4 Cups Baby Spinach
3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 Clove Garlic, Very Finely Minced
1/4 Cup Avocado Oil
3 Tablespoons Sherry Vinegar
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, Roughly Chopped
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

As you might imagine, this pasta salad comes together very quickly and easily. If you’ve gone through the trouble of prepping the ingredients as listed, you probably aren’t even reading this instruction right now. That’s okay; I wouldn’t bother either. Simply toss everything together until well blended, and either enjoy immediately, or chill for up to 4 hours. Savor a taste of summer all over again.

Makes 4 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

Smoke and Mirrors

Cascading down the hills and clouding city streets, this was not the usual fog rolling in from the bay. This was smoke, thick and acrid, obscuring our vision, tearing at our throats. Fires burned just beyond eye shot, but the devastation knew no bounds. We all felt the pain of a hundred thousand trees incinerated in an afternoon, reduced to ash and deposited without ceremony upon cars and buildings miles away, like a deathly snow in the summertime blaze.

Escape from this unseen monster is impossible; it hunts you, haunts you through homes and offices. It lingers in the stale air underground across BART tracks. It condenses inside closed windows. It stays within your lungs long after you exhale. It suffocates from the outside in, and the inside out.

This is not a dystopian vision of the future. This living hell is the new normal.

2018 California Wildfires

My Milkshake Brings All the Vegans to the Yard

And they’re like,
It’s better than green juice.
Damn right it’s better than pond scum.
I can teach you,
But we have to get takeout.

While I can appreciate a tall glass of savory vegetable juice every now and then, I never got into the juice cleanse craze and still bristle slightly at the suggestion. As the summer heat intensifies along with a powerful thirst, I look to the offerings at local cafes with equal parts lust and skepticism. Whenever I see those emerald brews, freshly pressed, full of verdant vitality, I project my own true desire on that glass: Mint. All I crave on the hottest of days is a creamy, cool, mint chip milkshake. Thus, the swampy melange I end up with is inevitably disappointing, more often tasting of apple than anything else, leafy or otherwise.

Milkshakes are the easiest things to make at home, but real luxury is being able to get them on the town, prefab and instantly gratifying. Besides, if I have ice cream in the freezer, it’s a hard sacrifice to plop a scoop into the blender when I could just eat it straight. When in the bay area, there are a wide range of options to get that satisfying minty-fresh fix.

Elixiria‘s Last Samurai Shake is my gold (or more accurately, green) standard for mint chip milkshakes. Cashew-based and tinted pastel green with a touch of matcha, it’s sweetened with coconut sugar and is infused with peppermint essential oil for a bright, bold flavor. Cacao nibs add crunch, without a ton of chocolate taste, granted, but the texture gets the point across sufficiently. This formula was actually the essential inspiration for my Cashew Milkshakes in Real Food, Really Fast, for anyone else who can’t just pop into the shop.

For a superfood fix, I’m impossibly addicted to Mint Cacao Chip at Urban Remedy. I can rationalize the indulgence because it employs pea protein powder and really does drink like a meal. On busy days when I can’t stop to sit down for a proper lunch, you can bet this is my first choice for refueling. Although it’s not quite the same as what you’ll find in the refrigerated cases, Urban Remedy also offers a homemade solution that approximates the refreshing experience.

Incredibly similar to the previous pick, Project Juice is also slinging a bottled Mint Chip Shake, but ranks ever so slightly lower by employing dates for an earthier sweetness, and quite frankly, not enough of them. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve snuck in packets of raw sugar on occasion to spike my drink.

Moving on to a no-holds-barred, full-throttle dessert indulgence, Saturn Cafe has you covered. The Thin Mint Milkshake was a limited edition special to coincide with the annual girl scout cookie inundation, but a simpler mint chocolate variation is available all year round. Locally made Double Rainbow non-dairy ice cream provides the thick, rich base, which always exceeds the generous old-fashioned soda fountain glasses, filling much of the metal mixing cup which is provided on the side, as if one mountainous milkshake wasn’t enough. Whipped cream, cookie chunks, and chocolate syrup complete the drinkable dessert. Better yet, Saturn is open late everyday, with a full menu of hot food available, which means you can get my all-time favorite milkshake pairing: French fries, hot, extra crispy, and lavishly salted.

Next Level Burger deserves a shout-out for the effort, but truth be told, this isn’t a blend worthy of a repeat order. Where was the mint? Where were the chips? All I could taste was syrupy sweetness; not even a modest hint of vanilla came to the fore. It’s cool and refreshing, fine pairing for a burger, but you’re better off opting for a different, stronger flavor.

Finally, one more runner up to add to the list is CREAM, with multiple locations scattered across the bay area. Vegan options are limited to just two soy-based ice creams, but as luck would have it, one is the illustrious mint chocolate chip of my dreams. Milkshakes are available, and I’ve been promised there’s non-dairy milk behind the bar as well, although that’s as far as my inquires have gone. Let’s be honest: When you’re offered chocolate fudge cookies and rainbow glitter sprinkles as garnishes, what rational person could really order otherwise?

Plenty of other competent milkshake makers are blending up the goods on a daily basis across the bay, but no one else seems to have a minty melange on the regular. Given such superlative options already, it’s hard to branch out beyond this crave-worthy sip, but do tell- What’s your favorite milkshake flavor, and more importantly, does it bring all the vegans to the yard, too?