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!

In Loving Memory

Talk about a turbulent year. 2017 has generated more sensational headlines than the past decade altogether, and even with mere hours left on the clock, I wouldn’t count it out for churning up some new controversy yet. Eager to move ahead straight into the new year without looking back, leaving those lackluster memories far in the past, it’s essential to hit pause, resisting the relentless push forward, to reflect on just those low points. For perspective, we can better appreciate when things are genuinely good, and for knowledge, to prevent those same mistakes from being repeated once again.

In this case, I wanted to take a moment and say a final farewell to some of the dearly departed vegan establishments that we’ve lost in San Francisco in the short span of 12 months. While it’s a grueling industry where failure is much more common that success, especially in the long term, it feels particularly poignant to see so many personal favorites close their doors, despite the immense talent, support, and passion in the kitchen.

Encuentro is the establishment I find hardest to let go of. If you had asked me before, I would have easily placed it on my list of top three restaurants in the bay area, if not first place to begin with. Few fine dining establishments exist for those that eschew meat, dairy, and eggs, but you would never even consider what wasn’t present on the plate here. Execution was on par with that of any Michelin-starred restaurant, in my opinion, but without the pretension that goes along with such a lofty award. Fancy but not fussy, I can’t recall a single bad meal here. Generous platters of tender sweet potato gnocchi and dark, devilish chocolate cake will forever haunt my memory. The dream is not yet dead, though, as the otherwise vacant store front still plays host to periodic pop-up events.

No No Burger shocked fans when they announced the end of their glorious but shockingly brief run. After transitioning from an infrequent pop-up to a daily staple at the SoMa StrEat Food Park, the future seemed bright, especially considering the nearly universal rave reviews for their juicy meatless patties and decadent toppings, deeply savory and indulgent enough to satisfy the cravings of even the most staunch omnivores. Many considered their burger to be the bright spot in a dark, murky landscape of mediocre vegetable-based hockey pucks, leaving a gaping hole in the dining scene between the ultra meaty Impossible Burger and old-school bean burgers.

Photo from Elyse T. via Yelp

RAW – A Juice Company was so much more than just juice, contrary to the name. Offering a rainbow of produce painstakingly crafted into living cuisine, you couldn’t go wrong with a plate of raw lasagna or an abundant acai bowl. Judging by the active Facebook page, though, we may just see the next chapter to this story taking place in the topical islands of Hawaii. Only time will tell when, or if, these fresh finds will resurface.

Seed + Salt had a whole lot of heart for such a tiny place. Wedged into a storefront the size of a bread box in the Marina, not even the limited seating could detract from the experience of eating in. Fully gluten-free in addition to being vegan, eaters of all stripes could find sweet and savory treats to enjoy. The chickpea frittata, served solo, in a breakfast sandwich, or sliced atop a bountiful plant-based Cobb salad, was always hard for me to resist. It’s a simple yet satisfying entree that has inspired many attempts at replication by myself and others in the know.

The Plant Cafe, while still an apparently thriving business with no less than six bustling outposts under its belt, including one in the highly desirable SFO Terminal 2 space, has shuttered both the Burlingame and waterfront Embarcadero establishments. Citing the usual battery of labor shortages and skyrocketing rents, it’s just a relief that their light, healthy fare will still be available for visitors and locals alike. Their impeccably well-balanced grapefruit and avocado salad remains the highlight of any trip that necessitates a stop at the airport. If you find yourself at any of other sit-down cafes that offer a full menu of brunch choices on the weekends, you can’t go wrong with the pesto tofu scramble, either.

Photo by Celiac Community

3 Potato 4, once a small franchise with three locations scattered about the bay, has slowly been shuttering those outposts one by one. The last holdout was in the Pleasanton Stoneridge Shopping Center, but without any warning or confirmation, that store seems to have gone dark mere weeks ago. Dedicated to spreading the spud love, their simple menu offered an array of baked fries and sauce, with seasonal soups, plus soft serve to finish on a sweet note. For comfort food without all the grease and guilt, it was hard to beat this accessible, affordable option. Here’s hoping that the tides turn and this outage is but a brief blip in business as usual.

To these fallen friends that we leave behind in 2017, I’d like to raise a toast- Piled high with avocado, of course- And wish their proprietors all the best on their next big idea. May they find this fork in the road ultimately as fulfilling as the meals they once shared.

I ♥ Nalo

Some things never change, like the soothing rhythm of the ocean, day in and day out, as waves lap against the shores of Oahu. Every visit seems to pick up right where the last left off, as if the whole island had been put on pause in my absence. There’s a timeless quality about the majestic rain forests; the towering mountains and their plunging craters; the flora and fauna buzzing, chirping, and making merry throughout it all. There’s a certain comfort knowing that no matter how long it takes me to return, Hawaii will remain as enchanting a place as the day I first met it.

And yet, in my heart, I know that this is a consolatory lie. Imperceptibly, without conscious intention, everything changes. You can never truly go home again if you’re expecting “home” to align with questionably maintained memories. However, in the case of Honolulu’s evolving food scene, this is a very good thing indeed. One of the newest and most buzzed about establishments to take root in the past six months is Ai Love Nalo, an unassuming outpost on the far-flung coast of Waimanalo. Housed in a former gas station, it would be easy to drive right on by without a second thought, as nothing from the outside hints at the culinary treasures within.

Despite the fact that it’s a considerably trek for city-dwellers, factoring either traffic or bus schedules into the equation, or both if you’re particularly unlucky, it’s a journey always worth taking. Hit Hanauma Bay along the way and make it a day trip; the only way to top those dazzling sights is to follow them with a stellar meal.

Boasting a menu composed of locally-sourced produce and entirely vegan options, you’ll want to take a number of friends for the best experience. Heck, get out there and make some new friends! Join one of the long communal picnic tables out back and introduce yourself; there are no friendlier folks on earth than those living in paradise, as far as I’ve seen.

That said, if there was only one dish to order, it would have to be the Oh WOW Laulau. Wow, indeed! No where else on earth have I found vegan laulau, let alone such a stellar rendition. Traditionally consisting of fatty pork and/or fish steamed in taro leaves, this version eschews the meat in favor of hearty root vegetables, adding creamy coconut into the mix for richness. Not to be overlooked is the Tofu Poke provided on the side, claiming to be spicy but really bearing just enough warmth to taste perfectly balanced. This was easily my personal favorite from the small sampling of dishes provided, but it’s a close call when all the options are so good.

Another front runner is the BBQ Portobello Sandwich. Mushrooms marinated in a bright, smoky barbecue sauce practically sing between two whole wheat buns. Coconut slaw tops off the assemblage with just the right amount of subtle sweetness to contrast the deeply savory flavors within.

Simpler but no less spectacular dishes include the Roasted Veg Platter and Roasted Veg Avocado Sandwich. The way that the vegetables are treated with respect, from the moment they’re harvested from nearby farms to the care taken when they reach the kitchen is evident with every bite. Cooked with care and proffered generously with each serving, even the basics make the trek out here worthwhile. I’m still trying to recreate that impossibly umami gravy offered on the side. It’s one of those things that are so astoundingly, inconceivably delicious, it’s impossible to deconstruct.

Each entree promises an ideal amount of food; satisfying diners without over-stuffing them. That said, you’ll still want to make room for dessert, especially when you see the towering bowls full of Outta This Swirled Soft Serve. Cool, naturally sweet spirals of banana-based soft serve are dressed to the nines with cacao sauce that hardens much like magic shell, granola and coconut flakes tumbling down the mountainous terrain, and fresh fruits that vary based on local availability- Expect papaya always to be in ample supply, based on the thriving papaya trees on premise. Each order is abundant enough to be a considered a full meal in and of itself.

Although it’s foolish to imagine that anything would remain impervious to the inevitable current of change touching all corners of modern life, Ai Love Nalo is one thing I hope will still dazzle in the same place, in the same ways, next time I come back.