Panera

Daily bread: Tomato and mozzarella panini, with Greek salad and chips

Daily bread: Tomato and mozzarella panini, with Greek salad and chips

Feta-ish: Mediterranean Veggie sandwich, with creamy tomato soup

Feta-ish: Mediterranean Veggie sandwich, with creamy tomato soup

In budget mode again tonight, we visited our local Panera (501 Wilshire Blvd., at 5th St., in Santa Monica) and took advantage of the You Pick Two option, which offers a half sandwich and soup with bread, potato chips, or an apple plus dessert, all for under $9. Of our two sandwiches, the tomato and mozzarella panini on ciabatta was the more flavorful (and caloric) choice, combining roasted and fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomato pesto, and fresh basil with gooey melted cheese on crisp, pleasingly oily pressed bread. Though the second sandwich, Mediterranean Veggie on tomato basil, had piquant hot peppers, we were not as glad to see a thick layer of feta cheese, which dominated the other ingredients, including cucumbers, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and “cilantro hummus” (the tomato basil bread itself was chewy, bland, and not very far removed from a supermarket white). For our soups, we went with black bean, which was hearty and mildly spicy, perhaps the best part of the meal, and Creamy Tomato, which fell short of its more austere companion despite its deployment of cream, butter, and several types of cheese. The accompanying potato chips, which came prepackaged, boasting of their sunflower oil, were acceptable, but the crisp, sweet apple was better. Our lemonade and iced green tea, apparently made from a concentrate, were just too sugary. As for the desserts, they were passable if underwhelming, including a disk of corn bread and a moist, chewy pumpkin muffin that tasted mostly of cinnamon. At Panera, we concluded, a vegetarian can get an acceptably tasty and relatively healthful meal for very little money. We didn’t love the food but didn’t dislike it either, and all things considered, we thought it provided a satisfying return on so modest an investment.

Update: On a second visit (July 30), we liked both the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich and the Creamy Tomato soup better than before. The soup seemed lighter and brighter; and with less feta cheese in the sandwich, the other, more appealing flavors came through, especially the spicy peppers. We can now also recommend the Greek salad, a flavorful blend of romaine, red onion, and black olives, with a light vinaigrette and a reasonable amount of feta, and the black-cherry smoothie, which was thick, fruity, and not too sweet, with a subtle yogurt tang. Once again, we found that Panera offered a more than satisfactory meal for very little money.

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