If the idea of veggie proteins gets your mouth watering, have I got the place for you. Tempeh, soy and seitan may not usually elicit cries of "Give me more!," but Veggie Grill is using these ingredients in fresh and creative ways that may change your mind about a vegan diet.
The menu features fish tacos, crab cakes, cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, sausage and Buffalo wings, but the catch is that all these options are plant-based and free of dairy, eggs, cholesterol, antibiotics and transfats. That means no butter, milk or cheese -- and definitely no meat. The "chicken" and "steak" are made of soybeans, wheat and peas; the nachos are composed of seitan, a vegetarian wheat protein. Seitan and tempeh, chewy patties of fermented soybeans and rice, absorb flavors when cooked, making them versatile inredients in vegetarian cooking.
The first Veggie Grill opened in 2006 and there are now more than 20 locations in California, Washington and Oregon, including Walnut Creek and Santana Row in San Jose. Based on the lunch crowds, it looks like there's plenty of room for more outposts in the Bay Area.
The latest version of the Santa Monica-based chain opened six months ago in the revamped Village at San Antonio shopping center in Mountain View. The decor is bright and modern, a distinct change from the casual hippie atmosphere often associated with alternative dining establishments. A stand by the door lets you peruse the menu before walking up to the counter to place your order and pay. Explanations and advice are offered by extremely friendly and helpful staff working at the registers. At one visit, we got a perky "Right on!" after we made our selections.
The menu is broken up into snacks, entree salads, bowls and plates and sandwiches, with separate listings for kids' meals and desserts. Beverages include lemonade and natural fruit teas free of high-fructose corn syrup (that means no soda), as well as beer and wine. Prices are extremely reasonable and portions are generous, with nothing on the menu costing more than $11.
We tried the Bombay bowl ($8.95), a mix of steamed kale, cannellini beans, vegetables and the restaurant's trademark "supergrains:" a blend of millet, buckwheat, quinoa and brown rice, topped with a coconut milk-based green curry sauce. This Asian-inspired dish was tasty, and the serving was large enough to bring half of it home for lunch the next day. The bowl is one of several gluten-free options, and the restaurant also highlights selections that are soy- and nut-free.
The Baja "fish" tacos ($9.95) featured three tortillas piled high with cabbage; too much cabbage, actually, making the tacos almost impossible to fold and eat without spilling greens all over. The "fish," made of seitan, were bland and needed a heavy hand with hot sauce to pull the plate together. The "Papa's Portobello" ($8.95) was more successful. It's a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich loaded with tomato, caramelized onion and lettuce, accented with herbs and soy chipotle ranch sauce, with a generous side of crispy French fries. All sandwiches -- many of which can be made as a wrap -- come with your choice of skin-on, seasoned Yukon Gold fries (also available as a snack for $3.50), Southwestern chili or coleslaw.
We also sampled several side dishes as a meal. The soup of the season ($3.25 for a cup) was a thick creamy asparagus base in a potato stock that was served with triangles of seeded pita. The char-grilled street corn ($3.95) was a winner: an ear of perfectly grilled sweet corn with the husks pulled back to use as a handle. Flavored with soy Parmesan cheese, cilantro and a squiggle of Southwestern mayo, it was lovely to look at and bursting with fresh flavor. Sweetheart fries ($4.50) were also delectable -- crispy, perfectly seasoned, addictive sweet potatoes with ranch dressing for dipping.
Crispy cauliflower ($5.95) is bites of cauliflower rolled in panko crumbs and then deep-fried. The texture of crunchy coating with a soft interior is enticing, though the dish needs its sweet-and-spicy orange sauce to carry much flavor. The same problem arises with the herb-roasted vegetables ($3.95): a small bowl of zucchini, carrots, onions and one sad-looking broccoli floret. The herbs were virtually undetectable, making for a bland combination that most people could probably make just as well (or better) at home.
Though nothing on the menu contains cholesterol or transfat and sugar is kept to a minimum, be aware that eating vegetarian does not necessarily mean it's diet food. Buffalo wings clock in at 460 calories -- half of those from fat -- and a whopping 1,590 mg of sodium. A bowl of quinoa power salad has 690 calories.
Overall, Veggie Grill does a great job of making vegan alternatives to traditional comfort food. Most dishes are tasty and accessible to those who may be skeptical about forgoing meat and dairy.
San Antonio Shopping Center
565 San Antonio Road
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Adjacent lot
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Average
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent