1143 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Could this be it?
Cue music: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius…”
I mean, if I was looking for a sign, this sign has to be it. “Organic to Go,” right here in this cluster of sandwicheries, where the B Street high-rise, lunch-rush crowd — bean counters and the secretaries who love them — come blinking into the midday sun.
Organic to Go — but this ain’t no down-from-Dulzura organic-farming couple setting up a naïve, struggling business. No sir. This has the look of Corporate. An official logo on square green umbrellas, and inside, zen-moderne design, with blond wood and a bright sproutsy atmosphere, plants growing in perfect concealed-lighting rows on ledges below the ceiling, the wooden-slat salad bars bursting with greener-than-green forest fodder, and only the girls at the back counter looking a little sallow, the way health-food people often do. Whatever, it’s obviously a moment of big-business enlightenment. Quizno’s meets Johnny Appleseed.
It was an accident, of course. Here I was, country boy fresh off the trolley at Fifth Avenue, sniffing my way up Sixth amid the pubs and teriyaki and taco joints. This place sure is a nice surprise. I pick up a paper napkin. “Proud to be America’s first fast-casual café certified ORGANIC retailer.” They sure say all the right things. I’d better join the line and take the plunge.
“I just love it,” this gal ahead of me is saying to her stiletto-heeled friend as they help themselves to salad by the pound ($7.99). “For the first time, I don’t have to worry about swallowing poisons and wiping tomato skins. I can just eat.”
Must say, it’s not your usual hard-floored, clattery-tabled lunch spot. They’ve set up two areas with comfy couches and low boxy coffee tables, and the place has wireless. So they don’t mind if you dally and post to your blog.
’Course, everyone here’s ordering lunch, going for things like fire-roasted tomato soup ($3.99 small, $6.99 large), mango chutney curry chicken-salad sandwich ($7.49), Mom’s meatloaf sandwich ($7.49), or something vegan, like grilled veggie and balsamic sandwich ($6.49), or a house side salad ($3.69). I’m tempted by the hot toasted sandwiches, like turkey pepperjack ($7.49) or the grilled chicken Caesar wrap ($6.99). But no. I still need breakfast. Hey, you work late, you start late.
Breakfast is a sandwichy affair, apart from a yogurt parfait ($3.29 or $4.29) and oatmeal ($1.99 or $2.29). The main attractions are an egg-white-and-herb burrito ($5.29) — though, uh, what fills that one out? — a bacon and egg salsa burrito ($5.29), a ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich ($5.29), or spinach-and-egg-white breakfast sandwich. Okay. Doesn’t sound like the world’s most exciting choice, but I take the ham, egg, and cheese combo.
And yes, when the chef brings out my sandwich in its paper bag, I’m chomping at the bit. Problem is, there’s only a bit to chomp. No sign of eggs, f’rinstance, so guess I’m getting the whites-only thing. No great sign of cheese either. I mean, with the coffee ($1.50, no refills) and a couple of salsas, it tastes fine, like a Mickey D breakfast sandwich. But, well, nothing you’d cross town for.
But hold your horses, I tell myself. How ’bout a little Appreciation 101? Like, are we considering the Basic Fact here? These Organic to Go people are bustin’ their butts trying to find farms that don’t spray, don’t inject, and treat earthworms with respect. Or this cawfee. It’s good to know some whip-cracking middleman isn’t keeping all the money down there in Colombia, that the farmers are actually getting some of it. And that their kids aren’t getting cancer because their dad has to spray pesticides.
“I come here because it’s so fresh,” Gerry says. He’s chowing down on a salmon salad at the next table. He picked it up himself at the salad bar. Just got in under the pound. Paid $6.50. “The organic thing isn’t a sacrifice,” he says. “It’s just better, tastier.” Turns out he’s an accountant, a bean counter, but very into the environment. Hey — a green bean counter! The other two guys, also accountants, couldn’t care less about green. “Load up and eat,” says DJ. “That’s what it’s about.” He ain’t kidding. He loaded 2 lbs into his cardboard salad box. It’s $7.99 a pound. “I paid $15.95,” he says. Wow. I notice he’s cleaned it all out. His buddy Mark might eat nuts ’n’ twigs a couple of times a month max. Today, he had the roast turkey and dill Havarti cheese sandwich ($7.49).
Turns out “O to Go,” as they call themselves on one piece of signage, started in Seattle, then expanded down into L.A. and Orange County and here. So we’re talking chain, but a chain with the right ideas, at least.
I’m heading out.
“What is that?” I say to a guy eating away at a rich, green plateful of nuts and twigs. He’s at one of the sidewalk tables.
“House green salad with a grilled-chicken topper,” he says. “Cost $5.99, plus $1.69 for the chicken.”
“How is it?”
“Not bad. Fine,” he says. He leans forward. “But these guys are so corporate. They’ve got places in the Merrill Lynch building, Symphony Towers, 101 West Broadway, La Jolla. You want the real thing? O.B., man. There’s a real mom-and-pop organic there that’ll knock your free-range socks off. Roots, think it’s called. Go see.”
Huh. Maybe I will. Starting to get wise to this eco-nosh. Guess you could call me the Sage of Aquarius, heh heh.