Mac and cheese as a sandwich
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Lemonade

3958 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest

On its website, Los Angeles based fast-casual chain Lemonade describes its menu as “a colorful bounty of seasonal comfort food in a bright cafeteria setting” with a “rotating daily spread of deliciousness.” It goes on from there, with more marketing language. (Check this page to see what the chain means by “conscious eating,” whether it involves cauliflower or cupcakes.)

It’s a lot to digest, so I thought it would be easier just to visit the recently opened Hillcrest shop and see for myself. It wasn’t easier.

Lemonade

Lemonade

Contemporary cafeteria style

Contemporary cafeteria style

So many side dishes

So many side dishes

The first choice that greeted me at the glassed cafeteria counter was the “Marketplace,” a lineup of 18 side salads. I hadn’t even thought about an entrée yet, and already the enthusiastic staff on the other side of the counter was offering me samples of those 18 salad items such as tandoori-spiced carrots, spaghetti squash with pomegranate, and the kale-mushroom kumquat — making it literally a lot to digest.

Overwhelmed by indecision, I skipped ahead. I saw other categories: Flatbreads, Hot Market Veggies (think brussels sprouts or mashed potatoes), and a section called Land & Sea that ranged from slices of buttermilk-baked chicken to an artsy-looking tuna, chickpea, and avocado crudo.

Further along, there were Braises, a variety of stewed meats such as BBQ brisket, plus a couple kinds each chili and mac and cheese. The idea is that you choose the individual “portions” you want and build your own meal. I bounced back and forth along the line trying everything. Had there been a crowd I would have disrupted the entire lunch flow, trying to choose between the three or four dozen options at $3 to $9 apiece.

I finally landed in the Right Size Sandwiches section, which I interpreted to mean “small enough that you should get a couple sides with it.” While model examples of the smallish turkey club, caprese, and other cold sandwiches were available for viewing, I didn’t immediately understand what the menu meant by Pot Roast sandwiches.

Turns out, that includes ingredients from the Braises section placed between halves of a rustic sourdough roll. For example, I was told, I could get a sandwich of red miso braised short rib topped by truffle mac and cheese. If they’d told me that when I walked in, we could have saved a lot of time.

The short rib was warm and tender, with the truffle mac and bread balancing its richness. I paired it with two sides: a mushy broccoli with ricotta and champagne vinaigrette and a salad of bresaola, shaved pear, fennel, black kale, goat cheese, and hazelnut. This was great — the cured beef and disparate ingredients proved unusual and satisfying. But one side would have been enough.

My last choice was a $3 lemonade. There are eight of those to choose from. Fatigued, I shut my eyes and pointed: hibiscus.

Lemonade isn’t kidding about the colorful bounty. Order wisely and you’ll eat well. Get caught up in the freedom of choice, and lunch could wind up being a lot of work.

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