2400 Historic Decatur Road, San Diego
"Why did you choose this restaurant?" asked my friend Mark en route to Tender Greens. A fair question, to be sure, since I'm scarcely one of those Hollywood/Park Avenue size-two types who lunch on a single lettuce leaf and dine on a carrot stick. Initially, I wasn't all that keen to try a menu so virtuous that it's dominated by salads, even if the salads are made of local organic produce. In fact, based on its remarkably modest prices (everything is $10 or less), I meant to talk Ed-Bed into reviewing it as a Tin Fork place. Let Ed eat rabbit food!
But lately, people are looking for cheaper good restaurants, and my Boss of All Bosses has strongly hinted to me that he'd like me to join that search. I've actually been reading some of the financial news, however boring and scary it all is, and now I want to share with you my own profound analytical insights into how we have come to this dreadful pass that makes me eat rabbit food: In classical capitalism, financial institutions would lend money to presumably worthy new enterprises needing fresh dough to produce something real and presumably valuable. Lately, the richly paid execs at those same august institutions have switched to borrowing ginormous sums of money from each other and China to gamble wildly on the Tooth Fairy. Voilà! Suddenly everybody's hurting and hunting for cheap eats.
I gave Mark the more immediate answer to his question: "I got a completely unexpected email," I said, "from Hans-Trevor Gossman, who used to be the chef at the Brasserie downtown, before it was downgraded into Lou & Mickey's. Now he's working for Hamilton Meats, and he's become the meat maven to the stars — a lot of top local chefs have been raving about him. And out of the blue, he wrote me to recommend Tender Greens. When I get culinary advice from a source like that, I have to follow it."
Tender Greens is the second location of a new, deeply green mini-chain that began in Culver City and is about to expand to West Hollywood. Not only is most of the food literally green, but the restaurants use solar power and ecologically benign cleansers, the napkins are soft, brown recycled paper, the plastic-looking doggie-boxes are compostable, and the staffers' uniforms consist of organic cotton T-shirts. The co-owners of our local branch are a pair of former Point Loma High School buddies, Pete Balistreri and Ryan Brandenburg, who invested nearly $1 million to create the restaurant. The food sources here feature vegetables from Crow's Pass Farm in Temecula and bread from Con Pane Rustic Bakery in Point Loma. The menu, however, is the same at all locations, devised by the executive chef–owners of the Culver City original, Matt Lyman and Erik Oberholzer. Daily specials and desserts (by Brandenburg's mom) are the only food creations specific to our branch.
Located in the charming sandy-pink enclave of Liberty Station (where Mark did boot camp, but which is now rapidly becoming a culinary center), the restaurant is a spacious high-ceilinged room with hardwood and tile floors, bare wooden tables made of wood recycled from a demolished barn, with wooden chairs, softer banquets, and huge cylindrical lamp shades. There's a pleasant heated patio in back if you'd rather escape the inevitable noise borne of such hard-edged decor.
You place your order at a booth a few feet from the entrance. Then you proceed past a long, glass-walled kitchen, working up an appetite at the sight of all the beautiful food, until you reach an open counter at the end, where as your order is assembled on cafeteria trays, you can add a beverage. Pay up, schlep your tray to the table of your choice. Staffers roam around to check, "Is everything all right?," furnish more water or napkins, and bring doggie boxes when you're done. If you have a lot to go, ask for a bag, and you'll receive a capacious shopping tote made partly of recycled plastic, partly of biodegradable corn-based "plastic." (Now, there's a better use for corn than high-fructose corn syrup!)
We began with all three available soups, served in deep, wide cups. (If only you could add a piece of bread à la carte, any of these would make a fulfilling simple supper.) The "rustic chicken soup" is a work of art — yes, it really is better than Mom's, even if your mother is Jewish or Chinese. It's a greaseless, deeply chicken-flavored broth loaded with carrots, noodles, and plentiful chunks of tender fowl, which are faintly smoky from the mesquite-fueled grill. I didn't even miss the matzo balls (or the wontons). Roasted Roma tomato bread soup with basil oil was less satisfying. The thick purée was not just tangy but sour. The day's special soup, butternut squash, was rich, sweet, autumnal, hinting of the holidays to come.
Hans-Trevor had singled out the tuna Niçoise salad for praise. It wasn't the classic "composed salad" that any of us expected. It had all the standard elements of the dish, but they were awash in a sea of excellent but excessive "tender greenery" that, frankly, I'd like less of. Almost masked by all the foliage were slim green beans, halved cherry tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and tiny halved hard-boiled eggs, probably quail. The tuna was a slab of tender line-caught local albacore, cooked very rare to our order. It was the Lynnester who confessed first: "You know, I really like Niçoise better with canned tuna." "Me, too," I admitted, "with really good canned tuna from Italy or Spain." "Packed in olive oil," said Inta, enthusiastically making a trio in the confessional.
"Oh, something else," I added. "I always drape a few anchovies over the tuna, and I miss them. The menu says there are supposed to be capers and oil-cured black olives. They'd have the big bold flavor hits that I'm missing, but I haven't run into a one of them." Indeed, they were all on the lam, hiding under the lettuces at the bottom of the bowl, undiscovered until I ravaged the doggie box two days later. By that time, the tuna had absorbed the sherry vinaigrette dressing and become much more complex and savory than when eaten fresh. It had changed from merely healthy to delectable — different from but equal to oily-yummy Ventresca belly-tuna from a can. The restaurant could speed the process along by providing a quarter of a lemon to squeeze on — or better yet, by marinating the fish in the dressing.
The Cobb, too, is not quite the traditional chopped salad but a huge green explosion that includes heaps of crisp romaine along with tons of grilled chicken chunks from a "Rocky Junior," a pampered, semi-free-range Northern California bird, plus chunks of fine heritage bacon, hard-cooked egg, Point Reyes bleu cheese, a little avocado (more, please!), cherry tomatoes, and a creamy dressing. We all liked it a lot. Good bacon enchants anything it touches.
"I think that next time I'll get the grilled-veggie salad," said Lynne, who sometimes golfs on the nine-hole course here, so is likely to make many repeat visits. We'd eyed the seasonal grilled veggies through the kitchen's glass walls, and they were beautiful: eggplants, zucchini, mushrooms, and also small brussels sprouts (which Lynne likes). (Can you ask them to "hold the sprouts"?)
The entrée salads come with a small, grilled, herbed slab of ciabatta bread from Point Loma's Con Pane bakery. Once we'd tasted it, we wished we'd ordered at least one sandwich. Those come with your choice of proteins or grilled veggies, dressed with roasted red peppers and aioli on that very bread.
Instead, we tried a couple of "hot plates," which consist of your choice of grilled item, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, and your choice of a small salad. The Angus flank steak, beautifully rare (to order), was remarkably tender for a flank, but I thought it needed a sauce. "This isn't a well-marbled luxury-grade steak that can stand on its own," I said when Mark asked what I thought of it. "It's just dead cow. I want a sauce — any sauce, even herbed butter." I passed him the plate and he agreed. We all approved the simple, honest mashed potatoes of Yukon Golds with cream and butter. But if I had to do it over again, I'd order the beef as a sandwich, to get some aioli and red peppers on it. We also tried a hot plate with the chicken, also simply done — a good chicken, grilled skin-on, albeit breast only, as far as I could tell. With mash and salad, if it were broiled instead of grilled, it would be my mom's most frequent entrée — the difference being that, like the chickens of my earliest pre-factory-farm childhood, the Rocky Junior might have taken a walk in the yard and snacked on a bug or two. It tastes like old-time chicken, not like factory- protein.
Hot entrées come with small salads of your choice. We had the butter lettuce with the steak, with a pleasant tarragon dressing, and the much more interesting baby spinach salad with the chicken. That one included goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts in a Cabernet dressing — a group of "grown-up" flavors, each with a touch of the Dark Side and, when combined, a treat.
Desserts, cooked by the mother of a local owner, break out of the chain straitjacket. She is good. The lemon cupcake is lovable. Mark nailed it when he noticed that the texture resembled cornbread — a little grainy and coarse, with character. The lemon icing is really lemony and not disgustingly sweet. A special of cheesecake topped with caramelized apple slices resembled apple pie filling over cheesecake with a tender, crumbly graham crust. The cake was sensual, moist and custardy, the apples succulently semi-firm, the caramel very sweet. Mom's gone a bit decadent with this twist on apple pie, heading for the Dark Side as she beckons to you in her pink apron with a slightly wicked grin.
Judging by the Friday-night crowd, Tender Greens obviously has enormous appeal besides it price point. There was a constant influx of families with kids (especially the three-to-six set). The kids were all well behaved and must've liked the food, since we didn't see a single tantrum. (But then they hadn't yet turned into conformist school-age brats demanding McNuggets and fries.) And the food is not only wholesome but good-tasting. It takes no forethought (or reservations) to eat here, and portions are large enough to make potentially two meals, especially if you start with one of the soups. Hans-Trevor was right: This is high-quality food all the way, and quite amazing for the price — satisfying even if you've long since given up hope of ever shrinking to a size two. You need not be a rabbit — an omnivorous raccoon (or, dare I say it? a heritage hog) can enjoy it too.
- Liberty Station, 2400 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma, 619-226-6254, tendergreensfood.com
- HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday until 10:00 p.m.
- PRICES: Soups, $4; small salads, $5; sandwiches, hot plates, entrée salads (including those with animal proteins), $10; desserts, $3.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Local organic produce, with or without mesquite-grilled beef, free-range chicken, or local tuna, in a variety of soups, salads, simple hot entrées, or sandwiches. Limited, inexpensive international wine selection; craft beers and ales; aguas frescas and house-made lemonade.
- PICK HITS: Rustic chicken soup, grilled chicken Cobb, baby spinach salad, lemon cupcake. Other good bets: ciabatta sandwich, e.g. with grilled Angus beef; grilled vegetable salad, seasonal dessert, and soup specials.
- NEED TO KNOW: Modified cafeteria-style service; no reservations normally taken or needed. Outdoor dining patio. Rather noisy inside. Three lacto-vegetarian and two vegan main-course salads. Family friendly with kiddie menu available.