611 B Street, San Diego
This is the story of a conversion. See, truth is, I've never really dug salads, 'specially in winter. Point one, it's a cold day, and who wants to eat salad on a cold day? Point two: childhood. My mom always made me eat every last lousy leaf of salad before I got any more meatloaf and mash. The cruelty! Like eating lawn-mower clippings. But salad was the price you paid to get actual food.
So I'm still carrying a heavy mental burden when I pass by this little walk-in on F Street, sandwiched -- as you might say -- between Inhale, the smoke place, and Nail Care and Spa. "Salad Style," the sign says. "Restore Your Body." It does nothing but salads. I have to laugh. Us meat 'n' potato Diegans are gonna buy this? I don't think so.
Except, inside the tiny storefront, it's packed.
Guess I should take a look.
First thing you notice is that this is not a wispy-looking vegan crowd. We're talking business people, kids with boards, East Village condocrats. Actually, seven's a crowd in this space. Must be about 12 feet wide and 30 long. Two little mosaic-inlaid wrought-iron tables make up the eating area (plus a couple of tables outside), but most of that 30 feet is the kitchen. Two men and a woman back there fluff up salad leaves and chop nuts and twigs on cutting boards.
A big poster showing nine salads fills most of the left wall. Specials are written on a small blackboard. Today's are "BBQ Chicken Ranch Wrap" ($9.50) and "Seafood chowder" ($3.50 or $5.00). Hmm. Doesn't sound too salady.
A couple comes to the counter.
"You guys order online?" says the gal in a black-and-white striped apron.
"Be just a couple of minutes."
"What would you like?" she asks me.
I order up a small seafood chowder as a stopgap. Bound to be in a cup, but whatever.
I manage to snaffle the wall table. I must say, those color pix make the salads look totally scrumbo. And I see most have some protein added, like meat, fish, tofu. "Scott's grilled skirt steak" shows an arty pile of salad of "organic greens, oven-dried tomatoes, cremini mushrooms, hearts of palm, crumbled blue cheese" with red slabs of meat all over it. Yes, love those cremini 'shrooms. Smoky, earthy flavor. That'll set you back $10.50. Gotta expect it: the downtown premium. This is the new East Village. But, hey, you can have it as a wrap for a dollar less. Likewise with most of the salads. The ahi tuna and tomato salad has chick-pea bruschetta and marinated olives ($10.50), the soba noodle, vegetable, and chicken salad has veggies, peanuts, and a ginger-sesame dressing ($9.50). The Mexican ($11.00) sounds good and cheesy and black bean--rich, and, wow, when it comes to looks, the Totally Vegan ($7.50), with its goldy-brown volcano of quinoa ("the Mother of Grain") and snow-summit tofu slabs, should be hanging in a gallery. I also like the look of the Moroccan couscous salad, and Maryjo's Chicken Caesar (with romaine, avocado, corn, palm hearts, and cotija cheese).
"That's the one I'm getting," says the latest guy at the counter. "Maryjo's Chicken Caesar. Awesome." He's already ordered online, too. Name's Omed. A programmer from Red Door, a big-deal website-creating outfit nearby. "We did these guys' website. It was a good trade. Salads for websites! You should hear our board meetings. Everybody's munching on salads."
One of the guys, Scott, of the grilled skirt-steak-salad fame, brings out my seafood chowder. And guess what? It's not in a cup; it's in a beautiful little soup plate. With a nice, heavy silver spoon. I start in. Oh. Wow. This is not just delish, it's sumptuous. A beautiful combo of flavors, with chunks of different fish filling every dip of the spoon. I ask for some bread and get angle-cut baguette slices to dip. Perfecto.
"Decided on a salad?"
This is the gal. Maryjo. She and Scott are partners here.
"What would go with this?"
"Moroccan, maybe. You won't get a clash of fishes, at least."
I nod. "Moroccan it is."
While I'm waiting, Maryjo and Scott tell me how they met working at that high-class restaurant on Laurel Street -- Laurel -- back in 2001. Then Maryjo got an invitation to help run a restaurant in a tiny mountain village called Santa Maria in southern Italy. Pretty soon, Scott joined her. "We brought a bit of American zip and ingenuity," says Scott, "but we also learned. Everything came fresh each day. And local. They got their cheeses from the farms outside the village, their cream, their yogurts. Nothing was mass-produced, like here."
So they returned home inspired with the idea of "fresh" and started making inventive salad dishes at farmers' markets in places like Hillcrest. "People loved it. It took off. We knew we had an idea," says Maryjo.
Scott brings out my Moroccan. Jeez. Great. And what's great about it -- apart from the flavors of the organic greens, asparagus, black currants, feta, and toasted almonds -- is the tart lemon vinaigrette. Just gives it all a kick. Look at me now, Ma! I'm eating vegetarian!
And in a blinding flash, I get what's happening here. These guys are the first missionaries of post-fat America. Whereas it's always been meat 'n' taters with a side of salad, here, it's salad with a side of meat 'n' taters. Maybe we're heading for a tipping point. Becoming herbivores again.
Must say, nuts and twigs never tasted better.