Subway

On the right track:  The veggie patty sandwich

On the right track: The veggie patty sandwich

Though frequent dining at Subway can be a sad thing, we have held on to our grudging affection for this ubiquitous fast-food chain, which has fed us when we might otherwise have gone hungry for want of a meat-free alternative. Subway, to be sure, offers only two vegetarian sandwiches, but the deal is sweetened by the “have it your way” setup, which allows customers a choice of bread, cheese, veggies, and condiments. Tonight one of us picked the Veggie Delite, essentially a salad on a roll, adding a slice of Swiss to this otherwise low-fat, low-calorie option; the other went with the veggie patty sandwich (not on the menu), the same concept as Veggie Delite but with a soy-based (though non-vegan) meat analog to fill out the package. Though the bread is a cipher, even toasted, and the patty is a bit rubbery, both are easily lost amid the other flavors, in this case a honey-mustard spread and a vinaigrette drizzled on a tasty heap of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, pickle, “banana” peppers, hot pepper, red onion, and black olives. Perhaps most important, the two sandwiches plus a 20-ounce bottle of Nestea iced tea came to under $10. It’s certainly not the most elegant way to travel, but when you’re looking for a cheap and convenient route to lunch or dinner, Subway will get you there.

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Coral Tree Cafe

Greens are good: Veggie burger, with salad

Greens are good: Veggie burger, with salad

Fruit of the shroom: Portobello sandwich

Fruit of the shroom: Portobello sandwich

Planning a healthy night at Cafe Rivva, an organic vegetarian eatery in Brentwood, we discovered that the kitchen had closed at 4. Fortunately, the nearby Coral Tree Cafe (11645 San Vicente Blvd., east of Barrington) provided us with an affordable and comfortable, though very likely more fattening, dinner. The experience was similar in many ways to our meal at Panera (see July 5 review) but with a much higher level of quality. We started with the vegan vegetable soup, a mixture of zucchini, onion, carrots, mushrooms, and barley with a bright, peppery flavor, not too sweet or salty, and not utterly dominated by the tomato base like similar versions we have had. Our sandwiches, a house-made veggie burger and a grilled portobello, both came with a simple but elegant salad, fresh mixed greens tossed with a sweet, acidic balsamic vinaigrette; the sandwiches themselves were served on good, toasty house-made ciabatta. The veggie burger, a fried patty made with peas, carrots, black beans, and onions, was golden brown on the outside, albeit dry and mushy on the inside, as house-made veggie burgers tend to be (see June 16 review of Upper West). It nonetheless had a decent flavor, oniony with a sweet undertone from the carrots and peas, and worked well with the accompanying sliced Roma tomatoes, lettuce, and mustardy rémoulade (wisely served on the side). The portobello sandwich was tastier, sporting roasted red peppers, spinach, caramelized onions, basil, and a moderate amount of smelly but flavorful Fontina cheese. Though full, we found room for the staff-recommended coconut cake, three yummy layers of coconut sponge, like a light, fluffy macaroon, frosted with coconut-sprinkled butter cream. In Los Angeles, sandwich-and-salad cafés with tempting desserts are ubiquitous, but it isn’t every day that one finds food like this done so well.

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.

Veggie Grill

Could it be seitan? All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Could it be seitan? Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

In the race to bring veganism to the masses, Veggie Grill may well have the leading edge. This rapidly expanding chain has managed the impressive feat of formulating an uncompromisingly dairy-, egg-, and meat-free menu that nonetheless packs them in day and night at our local branch (2025 Wilshire, at 20th St.). Even allowing for Santa Monica’s hypertrophic health consciousness, we are continually gratified by the size and diversity of the crowds, which range from the tattooed young to the most senior of citizens. What’s more, the testimony of friends and neighbors indicates that many of the customers are in fact meat eaters. But how is the food? If we put team loyalty aside, our candid assessment is that a number of items are delicious, particularly the sandwiches, though some of the side dishes, at least, could use more work. Tonight we ordered our favorite entrées, carne asada and the All-American Stack, both centered on strips of Veggie Grill’s proprietary meat substitute, a combination of proteins derived from soy, wheat, and peas. Though the fake meat does not entirely escape the stereotypical rubberiness, it comes close thanks to a deep, savory marinade. More important, the protein strips have a lot of help from the other ingredients. Indeed, the real triumph of the Veggie Grill sandwich is its meticulous layering of flavors. The carne asada, for example, employs a spiced vegan mayo; caramelized onions; raw red onion; lettuce; tomato; cilantro; and a salty, spicy relish of finely chopped carrots, all piled up on a soft whole wheat roll. The All-American Stack boasts thousand island dressing; sweet pickle slices; lettuce; tomato; the aforementioned relish; and, best of all, crisp fried onion rings. In addition to the chorus of flavors, a Veggie Grill sandwich offers the unexpected sensual pleasure of juicy messiness. (You may well need a stack of napkins.) Still, we fear that the same people who wolf down their sandwiches are liable to leave their ostentatiously healthy side dishes on their trays. The chili has an odd, harsh taste. The kale is merely steamed; the only flavors are pungent ginger and a dash of a salty sesame-based condiment. The sweet potato fries are fine, but be sure to ask for them without seasoning to avoid the weird, funky nutritional yeast with which they will otherwise be sprinkled. Finally, beware of the mac-and-cheese, which pairs a nutritional yeasty sauce with quinoa pasta, another alien dish from Planet Vegan. The desserts and some of the soups are better; we particularly like the carrot cake, a moist, chewy square with a sweet, creamy frosting made from margarine and Tofutti cream cheese. All in all, Veggie Grill promises a great leap forward for the vegan cause, and though we ourselves might prefer to be in Little Ethiopia mopping up a spicy lentil stew with injera, we’ll keep cheering it on.

Update: As of May 2014, Veggie Grill is up to 24 restaurants (16 in Southern California, the rest in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State).