Fast Food for the Healthy Set

Local restaurants offer fast meals that are also good for you

At Aqui Cal-Mex in Willow Glen, executive chef Rob Francis ponders a few of his favorite dishes: an organic tofu tostada, flourless chocolate cake, and Southwest Caesar salad with salmon.

Photographs by Lane Johnson

Healthy fast food may sound like an oxymoron, but a growing number of restaurants are meeting the demand for nutrition-packed meals that are served quickly. Their mission: to break the stereotype that fast and affordable food can’t be healthy. At these four pay-at-the-counter South Bay hot spots, you can raise a fork to your good health.

LYFE Kitchen
LYFE Kitchen, which opened in Palo Alto in October, is the hipster go-to spot for three healthy squares. Looking smartly high-tech, with its white walls, stainless steel chairs, pumpkin-orange upholstery, and bamboo flooring, LYFE Kitchen’s decor manages to walk the line between industrial and homey. A multi-tiered herb garden, capped by a wooden façade made from recycled bleachers from San Francisco State University, marks the entrance to the restaurant. A black-and-white photographic mural of Salinas Valley lettuce fields lines one wall.

LYFE’s food, too, is a mix of chic and rustic. At lunch, black-shirted servers stream out of the kitchen carrying plates of grilled mahi tacos and barbecue chicken flatbreads. A popular dinner entrée is the “unfried chicken” with roasted winter squash, brussels sprouts, and dried cranberries, dressed in a dijon vinaigrette. Breakfast includes whole grain buttermilk pancakes, an egg white frittata, and a tofu breakfast wrap.

Butter, cream, and high-fructose corn syrup are banned from LYFE Kitchen. The sweet potato fries are oven-baked. Although meat-based entrees are found on the menu, vegetarians and vegans have many options, including dishes made with Gardein meatless patties. All meals are priced at $6 to $12. Calorie and sodium counts are listed on the menu, and no entrée tops 600 calories, although portions are a bit small compared to typical American meals.

LYFE, which stands for “love your food every day,” was the brainchild of Mike Roberts, former president and Chief Operations Officer of McDonald’s, and several partners including Mike Donahue, also a former McDonald’s executive.

Donahue says that he and his partners saw fast-and-healthy dining as “one of the biggest unmet consumer needs in America.” Palo Alto’s LYFE Kitchen is the company’s flagship; the partners plan to open 250 restaurants nationwide.

Two celebrity chefs helped to create the menu—Art Smith, best known as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef; and Tal Ronnen, a vegan chef and author who has worked at some of America’s top vegan restaurants.

LYFE Kitchen gets the majority of the ingredients for its food from local farmers and producers. “We’re supporting all local growers,” Donahue says. “We have a priority on sustainability and environmental responsibility.”

To that end, the restaurant is lit with LEED-certified lighting; dining furniture is made of recycled products; and tables are cleaned with an “ionator,” a spray that only uses water.

Customer Melanie DewBerry, who comes to Palo Alto a few times a week and regularly eats at LYFE Kitchen, says the restaurant “fits in with the high-end feel without being high-end. It feels like a nice way to indulge myself without spending a lot of money.”
Palo Alto: 167 N. Hamilton Ave.,

Aqui Cal-Mex
Legions of devoted fans come to Aqui Cal-Mex for its industrial-strength margaritas and colorful “swirls”—blended alcoholic drinks that deliver a knockout punch—so it’s a bit surprising that healthy food is also a priority at Aqui. But the restaurant’s four South Bay locations serve creative food with a nutritious bent.

Aqui’s fusion of flavors from the Southwest, Asia, California, and Latin America produces a menu that includes a Sonoma goat cheese quesadilla, Thai chicken burrito, and Cuban pork enchiladas.

“I think there is soul in our food,” says Aqui’s executive chef Rob Francis. “We take good, wholesome ingredients and try not to mess around too much. We’re not trying to be authentic Mexican. We steal from different types of cultures.”

Many ingredients are organic, from the salad greens to the Angus beef. The chips are made with whole-grain, non-GMO corn masa. Eco-conscious “to-go” eaters appreciate the recyclable takeout containers, biodegradable utensils, and biodegradable bio-plastic bags.

On nice days, customers vie for seats on the outdoor patios, which are warmed with heat lamps on chilly evenings. One negative is Aqui’s popularity, which at peak times can result in lines out the door, but waiting gives customers the chance to view the restaurants’ colorful original art. Everything on the menu is less than $12.

In addition to lunch and dinner, Aqui serves breakfast on weekends ($6 to $9). Try the blue corn pancakes.
Willow Glen: 1145 Lincoln Ave.,
Blossom Valley: 5679 Snell Ave.,
Campbell: 201 E. Campbell Ave.,
Cupertino: 10630 S. De Anza Blvd.,

Picky eaters, rejoice. Pluto’s is the place for create-your-own salads and sandwiches. As the architect of your own meal, you get to tell the chef exactly what you want. No matter what you put on your masterpiece, you’ll pay only about $8.

For first-timers, the process can be a bit daunting. You grab an order ticket, check the boxes to select your ingredients, and make your way to a food station where a server prepares your food.

Salad eaters choose the type of salad greens (spinach, romaine, mixed greens), meat (chicken, turkey, tri-tip, sausage), dressing (several vinaigrettes and a low-fat honey mustard), and seven additional toppings that include chopped raw vegetables, grilled fennel, crumbled blue cheese, or sweet walnuts.

Sandwich eaters select from a Portobello mushroom or a variety of hand-carved meats, then choose their bread. The decisions get more difficult when it comes down to the condiments and “extras,” which include basil pesto, cranberry sauce, caramelized onions, and a host of cheeses. If you’re indecisive, narrow your choices to a handful of suggested sandwich combos.

With several locations in San Francisco and Sacramento, plus two in the South Bay, Pluto’s trademark is quick service. “We’ll get it out faster than you can get your latte at Starbucks,” says Louis Kimball, who started Pluto’s 17 years ago with friend Gerry Bugas. Today, the pair are salad and sandwich magnates, but back when they started they were just two guys in search of fresh, simple, affordable meals.
San Jose: 3055 Olin Ave., Santana Row,
Palo Alto: 482 University Ave.,

Loving Hut
Loving Hut bills itself as “the fastest growing vegan chain in the world,” with locations in Milpitas, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, Florida, and Georgia. Each location has its own menu, but an Asian-vegan theme is common to all. Dishes are prepared without meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk, or MSG.

Sunny Mueller, who runs Loving Hut’s Palo Alto location, says vegan eating is gaining popularity worldwide. “I think people are starting to realize that our planet is starting to face a global emergency,” he says. “The single most effective thing we can do is to eat a vegan diet.”

Mueller says the avocado BLT made with tempeh is popular, as well as the Asian-inspired soups and curries. Some customers come in just for the spring rolls, which are filled with cucumber, carrot, rice noodles, arugula, and mint, and served with a peanut dipping sauce. Menu items range from $6 to $13.

Ambience doesn’t play much of a role at the South Bay Loving Hut locations—the restaurants are almost sterile in their cleanliness, with hard, easy-to-clean surfaces, modern furniture, and bright lights. But nobody comes here for the atmosphere; it’s all about the food.
San Jose: 925 Blossom Hill Road, Oakridge Mall,
Milpitas: 516 Barber Lane,
Palo Alto: 165 University Ave.,