Interim Cafe

Super Food veggie burger

Anti-hero: The Super Food veggie burger

Medicinal: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Kitchen sink optional: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Having passed Interim Cafe countless times when it was closed or about to close (the hours are Monday to Friday till 8 p.m.), we often speculated about what we might find at this apparently health-oriented, veg-friendly Santa Monica spot (530 Wilshire Blvd., at 6th St.). Aside from the temporal limitations, there was something inaccessible here, starting with our uncertainty about the name itself, which we pinned down only with the help of Eco-Vegan Gal (see blogroll for link). The menu too is daunting, a thicket of soups, salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, “hot bowls,” and veggie burgers, with more permutations and descriptions than you can shake a vegan drumstick at; nor does the website offer a mission statement, a history, or anything else, beyond the menu, that might help a customer get a handle on the place. Finally inside tonight, we stood at the counter in a daze until, with help from the proprietor, we settled on white bean soup, the Super Food veggie burger, and the Woodsy Mushroom quesadilla. The soup was not quite what we expected, which is to say we had a hard time locating the white beans. What we found instead was a hearty vegetable broth loaded with everything but the kitchen sink: peas, potato, celery, carrot, spinach, tomato, black beans, quinoa, barley, and several kinds of rice. Though the effect was indeed clean and healthy, an overabundance of fresh dill made the taste almost medicinal; the toasted “health bread” on the side was pleasant enough but still had an off-putting air of virtuous austerity. The Super Food veggie burger, like all its Interim siblings, boasts a house-made patty, which escapes the usual mushiness but still ends up tasting like dry Thanksgiving stuffing, though it is helped along by caramelized onion, avocado, sharp raw cheddar, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island dressing, as well as a crisp but chewy whole wheat bun and a salad of mixed greens, shredded carrot, walnut, and orange. What we really liked, however, was the quesadilla, which, though undoubtedly healthy, made us think less about internal hygiene than the sensual ensemble of tastes and textures: juicy, savory sautéed mushrooms; crisp whole wheat tortillas; hot chilis; sweet fresh corn; cool, silky avocado; and just a little gooey (albeit low-fat) mozzarella. Cut into quarters, the quesadilla was beautifully arrayed around a mixed-green salad with sweet slices of strawberry. We also greatly enjoyed our frozen dessert, Chocolate Salvation, a sugar-free vegan soft-serve that was smooth, creamy, and chocolaty enough to stand on its own merits. If, in fact, the menu were oriented more toward items like the quesadilla, indeed, if the menu were only simpler, we would be more enthusiastic about this unquestionably conscientious eatery. As things stand, however, we can give Interim Cafe only a provisional endorsement.

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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.

Original Thai Dishes

Nice Thai: Pad kee mow, made to order

Nice Thai: Pad kee mow, made to order

Red state: Kang ped

Red state: Kang ped

Latest scoop: Coconut ice cream

Latest scoop: Coconut ice cream

Staying close to home again, we headed to Original Thai Dishes in Santa Monica (1910 Wilshire Blvd., near 19th St.), a longtime favorite. Though we might have kicked off the meal with the greasy-good spring rolls, we kept it light this time and went straight to our entrées, pad kee mow and kang ped. Through trial and error, we have developed our own optimal formulation of the former, a normally spicy dish with mint and green chili, asking for mild (no chili) and substituting vegetables for tofu. The result tonight was a savory, satisfying dish with broad, flat rice noodles in a light brown sauce tossed with broccoli, red and green bell peppers, carrots, onions, scallions, and cabbage, all perfectly cooked, neither mushy nor hard. The kang ped, meanwhile, a slightly funky red coconut-based curry, had just enough heat to warm without burning (we requested mild here too). As with the pad kee mow, we substituted vegetables for tofu and were rewarded with a slightly sweet combination of broccoli, bamboo shoots, peas, carrots, string beans, and mint. We finished with a light, refreshing coconut ice cream (imported from Thailand), in which the coconut did most of the work in flavor and texture, though dairy helped it along. All of this excellent food was ready in a jiffy, astonishingly inexpensive, and served with Buddhist good cheer, bringing to mind a place long ago and far away, NYC’s East Village Thai. Fortunately for us, Thai Dishes is just around the corner, and, for Thai food in this city, we have not yet found a better place to go.