Our latest issue out now!Fall 2017
As 2016 gets rolling, we are still cognizant of our pledge to ourselves to eat better. Passing up the usual fast-food suspects is a good start, but where can one go to find healthy food, served quickly? We decided to check out a couple of restaurants that claim to do just that.
Veggie Grill is exactly as advertised – vegetarian food that is served up in a variety of healthy ways. As their website states, Veggie Grill puts the vegetable at the center of everything they do, and they do a lot.
Walking into the space, you are greeted by a warm, modern atmosphere with an attentive staff to match. As the concept of healthy fast food is relatively new, the friendly person taking our order was helpful in navigating our way toward some of the more popular items from their extensive offerings. After ordering, you are provided with a number for your table and food is delivered as it’s ready.
Divided into shareable items, bowls+plates, entrée salads, and sandwiches, don’t look for a scrap of meat, eggs or dairy on this menu. Veggie Grill offers alternative versions of cheese sauce, buffalo wings, and chicken (aka, Chickin’), as well as other veggie-based stand-ins to create familiar items made with healthier ingredients. There is a sense that there is nothing that you could order that would qualify as unhealthy. On top of that, they offer a Mindful Living menu that highlights the healthiest of their menu items, many of which are also gluten-friendly.
Armed with the knowledge that we could do ourselves no harm, we ordered away. We shared crispy portabello mushrooms, as well as crispy cauliflower. Both were excellent appetizers and the red pepper dipping sauce with the portabellos made a great match. While you can pair your food with a selection of beer, cider, and wine selections, we chose to sample the healthy juice and iced tea offerings, all of which touted natural ingredients and offered a variety of flavors.
We moved on to the Quinoa Power Salad, as well as the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’ sandwich. The salad tasted very fresh, and while I’m not usually a big kale fan, the onions, peppers, beans and other tasty ingredients that rounded out this superfood salad might have changed my opinion for good. The Chickin’ sandwich was also tasty. I don’t think anyone will mistake Chickin’ for the real thing, but as a healthy alternative, it had a nice consistency and good seasoning. We substituted the sweet potato fries for the Yukon Gold fries and they were also quite good and obviously freshly cooked.
There are many more items yet to be tested at Veggie Grill, but our experience underscored the restaurant’s commitment to healthy vegetarian eating as a philosophy, not just a marketing ploy. I’d prefer that vegetarian items stood on their own merits, rather than be made to mimic their meat-based counterparts, since these items are good in their own right, but I certainly can appreciate the strategy to win more customers. Just as bacon can be the gateway meat, perhaps Veggie Grill will be the gateway vegetarian restaurant for many looking to eat healthier this year.
27321 La Paz Road, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677
Irvine Spectrum Center
81 Fortune Drive, Irvine, CA 92618
This up-and-coming player in the fresh and healthy food space has a relatively new spot in the Irvine Spectrum. Like other restaurants emerging in the healthy category, ordering is also done at a counter. Reviewing the menu prior to getting to the counter is highly recommended, or you’ll end up making snap decisions or gazing wonderingly at the menu while people huff and puff impatiently behind you.
At Tender Greens, meat is very much on the menu. In fact, ordering begins with the selection of one of five different meat options, as well as a roasted vegetable option. You can then select whether you’d like your choice as a sandwich, a hot plate with mashed potatoes, or on a simple salad. Other choices include about a dozen different big salads, as well as several soups. The staff met the required perkiness for a healthy restaurant and helped point out some of the more popular items.
We opted for the Backyard Steak salad, and the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken as a sandwich. Sweet potato fries and roasted brussel sprouts rounded out the entrees, along with a bowl of the recommended roasted roma tomato soup.
As you move toward the register to pay for and pick up your meal, you can look directly into the area where the food is prepared. Many items are prepared in advance so they can be served quickly, but it was apparent that nothing sits for long in order to maintain freshness. Tender Greens takes a farm-to-fork approach to sourcing their ingredients and has a strong relationship with Scarborough Farms in Oxnard, CA for most of their greens, filling in any gaps with produce from other small, local farms. The albacore tuna is wild caught in the Pacific Ocean and the chicken and beef are humanely raised and free of antibiotics and hormones.
After picking up your meal at the register, you can choose from two main seating areas – one outdoor area with plenty of plants and wood accents that remove you somewhat from the Spectrum hubbub, the other indoors with a variety of seating options. The décor is a blend of modern and warm, and the stated goal is to use eco-friendly material wherever feasible. I found the smaller tables to be almost too small, but once you ditch your food tray, you can fit everything more easily on the table.
I sampled the soup first – nice and hot, as it should be, and full of fresh flavors. The beef in Backyard Steak salad was cooked perfectly and lived up to the lofty expectations set by the restaurant. The greens tasted very fresh, as advertised, and the horseradish dressing was a great match with the beef. The chicken sandwich was also nicely done, with a fresh-tasting bun and just enough barbecue sauce to add moisture and flavor to the whole affair. As expected, beverage options include slightly eclectic teas and other non-alcoholic beverages, but also wine and a few taps of craft beer. Several desserts are available.
Tender Greens has experienced chefs running each of their restaurants and that approach, combined with the stated goal of sourcing the freshest, healthiest ingredients produces great-tasting food. The fact that it is fairly priced and can be served quickly make this a go-to option for those that want to eat better food, but don’t have time for a true, sit-down dining experience. It also benefits from offering meat and fish options for those that need more than an all-veggie dining experience.
530 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, CA 92618
So if eating better is on your list of resolutions for this year, you can take comfort in the growing number of options for high-quality, seasonal ingredients served in a variety of healthy ways. Both Veggie Grill and Tender Greens have multiple locations in Orange County and beyond, and serve as the standard-bearers for a burgeoning healthy-served-quickly market segment.