‘Salad’s the way to flat-belly health,” says Hank. “And I know the perfect place to make that happen.”
1810 Main Court, Chula Vista Crossings, Chula Vista
Half an hour later, we’re in line with a zillion other people, waiting to pick up our plates. This is at Souplantation, in Chula Vista Crossings, on Main, east of the 805.
“But this is a chain, isn’t it?” I say to Hank.
“Yeah, but it’s a San Diego chain. They’re a San Diego invention, dude. All U Can Eat Nuts and Twigs! If you’re going to overeat, overeat healthy. Brilliant!”
He says Souplantation started up about 40 years ago near where he used to live. “I was a kid. My mom took us there. Mission Gorge Road. And it was all from a dream this barman Dennis Jay literally had. He worked a bar in El Cajon. And didn’t he just catch the health wave perfectly!”
Jay and a couple of buddies started up one restaurant, then two. Four decades later, there are nearly 100 restaurants.
“They had this huge expansion,” says Hank, “but they didn’t move their headquarters, like the Chargers did.”
“Welcome! We’re glad you’re here,” says a sign where the rows of food start. “We want to let you know an approximate wait time until you have built your salad, are seated, and eating.”
Big inserted numbers say “30 minutes.”
I mean, this is Sunday, and the place is still totally jammed. “It’s always like this?” I ask.
“Every time I’ve been,” Hank says. “But it often takes less time than that estimate.”
So we hang in.
“Just remember, they put the items that are cheap and take up a lot of space first,” says Hank, “so go chary on the lettuce.”
Another hanging sign says, “Unlimited salad, soup and more, $10.49.” That’s for lunch. After four it becomes dinner, $12.99.
“And you can come back for more?”
“You can come back for more.”
Before us, this double row of tubs sits loaded with a array of salads, pasta, fruit such as fresh berry salad, rotini rainbow pasta, “ancient grains” quinoa, olives, kidney beans, mushrooms, beets, little tomatoes, spinach, raw onions, curried eggs, nuts of all kinds, cheeses, cauliflower, broccoli, every possible sauce.
“I mean, this is insanely generous, when you think about it,” I say. ’Cause we’re running out of space now that we’ve added the raw broccoli and cauliflower and garbanzo beans, peas, cheese, and chia seeds. The mountain’s beginning to wobble.
“Grab a second plate,” says Hank. “It’s okay. They prefer that to spills. And we’ve still got to get soup and baked potatoes.”
Lord. One soup is Asian ginger broth. And the thing is, you can add items like mushrooms, wontons, tofu, spinach, whatever to it. Or they have shrimp bisque, or orecchiette (“small ears”), a pasta soup with chicken breast. Or Yankee Clipper clam chowder with bacon. Still part of that $10.49 price.
And when we finally sit down and start lunging into these crazy-big piles, a cheery server named Monse comes up. At first I think she’s going to haul us off to management for abusing house rules. But no. She’s just asking if there’s anything else we need. “Well, since you’re asking,” I say, “do you have any bread?”
She comes back with two slices of good peasant stuff and plenty of butter. Flat belly? Not sure. But honestly, I kick myself for not coming here before.
So you wonder how smaller restaurants can compete. Really, they can’t, but a few days later — I have been sticking to salads, and hey! Down to 206.8 lbs — I’m on J Street by the downtown ballpark in East Village. I pop into a place I’ve noticed for years. Cafe de l’Opera. Used to be up around A Avenue. A French chef and antique dealer teamed up. It had such atmosphere, and the best croissants in town. This new version’s only four years old, but it still feels old-school European. ABBA’s singing “Winner Takes It All,” but in French.
910 J Street #1, East Village
They have a big salad section listed on their sidewalk menu. Like the vegan — and gluten-free — Green Goddess, packed with organic quinoa, hummus, avocado, cucumber, tomato, cranberries, pickled beets, hemp, pumpkin and sesame seeds, kale and mixed greens, and a basil-tahini vinaigrette. Costs $9.50.
But Caitlin, who’s managing the counter, says to go for the “Salade des Alps.” ($8.99.) And who am I to disobey? It’s “gluten-free, vegetarian, and anti-inflammatory.” But it’s the mixing in of sweet fruits and savory cheese that makes it luscious, a kind of mountain mixture of blueberries, strawberries, goat cheese, avo, walnuts, and baby spinach with a berry vinaigrette.
Have to say, I’m coming round to this nuts and twigs thing, specially when the owner, Alina, throws in such generous amounts of blueberries and strawbs and avo slices and goat cheese to give you relief from rabbit food. And I realize: this is perfect hot weather eating. I swear it actually cools you off.
Of course, it’s not unlimited nosh like at Souplantation. On the other hand, there’s plenty, and somebody (okay, Alina) is doing the expert work of creating original combos of salad tastes for you. And hey, with this place’s lime green and orange tables and French atmosphere, it dawns on you this is a soulmate to that cafe Vincent Van Gogh painted, sitting at his Night Cafe in Arles, right?
Guess all you need is a starry starry night.
- The Place: Souplantation, 1810 Main Court, Chula Vista Crossings, 619-216-9843. Also in other San Diego locations
- Hours: 10:30am-9pm, Monday to Thursday; 10:30am-10pm, Friday; 10am-10pm, Saturday; 10am-9pm, Sunday
- Prices: Lunch (10:30am-4pm), $10.49; dinner (4pm-close), $12.99; kids (3-6), $3.99; (7-12), $6.29
- Bus: 704
- Nearest Bus Stop: Auto Park Drive and Oleander Avenue
- The Place: Cafe de l’Opera @ J Street, 910 J Street #1, East Village, 619-647-9676
- Hours: 7:30am-5pm, Monday to Friday; 8am-2:30pm, Saturday; Sunday, closed
- Prices: Lamb sausage sandwich w/bacon, cream cheese, cheddar, eggs, $7.65; Green Goddess salad (quinoa, hummus, avocado, kale, mixed greens), $9.50; Salade des Alps (blueberries, strawberries, goat cheese), $8.99; avocado toast, $8; chèvre and spinach quiche, $6.50; soup and salad, $8; half-chicken panini and soup, $9.50
- Buses: 3, 5, 12, 901
- Nearest Bus Stops: 10th Ave. at Island Ave (12, 901); Park and Market (3, 5, 12)