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Jul 25, 2011 08:16 PM

Your favorite healthy or wholesome fast food

My wife and I are avid fans of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. The most recent season had a side story about Jaime trying to upgrade the food at an independent fast food drive thru. Jaime added wheat buns, convinced the owner to use better quality ground beef for the patties and fresh fruit in the shakes (and maybe fro yo instead of ice cream) along with some other changes. The food still wasn't "healthy", but it was certainly better for the human body than before the changes were made. Fast food accounts for a huge percentage of restaurants in America and small changes to make the food more fresh and/or more wholesome would certainly help the obesity epidemic. So can you think of any places that fall in this category. The parameters are fresh ingredients, mostly from-scratch cooking, wholesome food, under $10 and the restaurant follows a fast food business model. Bonus points for places that limit their carbon footprint (buying local, using compostable take-out ware etc). I'll start with a few.

Slow and Gregoire in Berkeley. Two of my favorite Berkeley restaurants. Great sandwiches using artisan breads, homemade spreads, fresh produce and local and sustainably farmed meats. These restaurants make everything from scratch, use great ingredients and still manage to offer a fast lunch under $10.

Cheeseboard Pizza Co-op. Organic veggies, housemade sauce and dough and artisan cheeses. Bonus points for being employee owned. Quality wise, in a league of it's own when it comes to grabbing a slice. It's hard to make this a quick meal because the line is usually very long, but pizza by the slice is classic fast food.

Urbann Turbann. UC Berkeley's little secret. This tiny restaurant with no real sign and small storefront is essentially an Indian Chipotle using naan or whole wheat roti instead of tortillas and loading up wraps or rice bowls (brown rice is an option) with organic produce, housemade chutneys and free range tandoori chicken or grass fed beef kabobs (plus some other fillings including vegan options).

Kasa in SF (and on their food truck). Another assembly line Indian place with curries rolled into fresh whole wheat roti (made with a good amount of butter). The rolls are accompanied with a yogurt sauce and homemade chutneys.

Show dogs in SF. While a hot dog or sausage is rarely going to be healthy, the ones at show dogs are handmade and certainly better than the nitrite/nitrate infused alternatives. Plus homemade condiments and artisan bread.

Any others?

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  1. (Why does it have to follow a fast food business model?)

    Goi cuon, fresh Vietnamese rolls with shrimp, carrots, and sprouts, are low fat, usually under $5 and widely available. They're made to order anywhere decent.

    Kim bap, vegetarian sushi sold at Korean takeout like John's Snack bar. Great food for a flight. Around $5, filling, healthy. Similarly futomaki.

    Better than a burger on a whole wheat bun is not eating a burger, or eating a very small one (3-4 oz max, without cheese or mayo). Vegetarian food that's not slathered in butter is naturally low cholesterol. Skip the butter and cheese and go for vegetables with whole grains. (Sorry, I'll follow Mark Bittman, not Jamie Oliver.)

    Most Japanese and SE Asian food is low in fat and calories. I had a huge bowl of khao soi at Champa Garden yesterday for $6-7.

    I love Kasa, but don't consider it healthy or low in fat because of the ghee.

    The sandwiches at Pal's and Local Mission meet your local/artisan criteria, but they're not low in fat or calories.

    Champa Garden
    2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

    18 Replies
    1. re: Windy

      I chose the fast food model as a topic for discussion because of the bit on the TV program. Also because there have already been many discussions on cheap eats, bargain bites etc. And as you pointed out, there is a plethora of healthful SE Asian options if you're not talking about fast food. Making fresh and wholesome fast food has it's challenges, mostly speed and cost, people want it fast and they don't want to spend a lot. Food quality is often the sacrifice for a low cost and quick meal. But there are some exceptions...right?

      Jaime Oliver also changed the portion sizes of the burgers and changed the condiments. I'm not a follower of Jaime Oliver (or anyone for that matter) I just enjoy the show. I also mentioned the high use of butter in Kasa's food, but it's still a refreshing take on fast food. I shouldn't have used the word healthy in the opening post because it is misleading. Really I just wanted to start a discussion on fast food restaurants that are breaking the traditional fast food mold of using lots of frozen and pre-made foods and adding more vegetables into the mix.

      1. re: JimKlein

        Thanks Jim. It sounds like a business question then, not a food question.

        Who in San Francisco voluntarily eats at Chipotle when there are better tacos and burritos all over?

        Why go to a chicken chain when you can get roasted chicken at Palmyra (fast and healthy)?

        34893 Newark Blvd, Newark, CA 94560

        1. re: Windy

          I asked myself nearly the same question today as I passed by a Subway with a line out the door, not more than one block from The Sentinel (and not much farther than Golden West). I convinced myself it was mostly conventioners from out of town, though I don't think I really believe that.

          1. re: Frosty Melon

            To be fair, Subway is very cheap ($5 for lunch). And not that much worse quality than many deli sandwiches in town. To Subway's credit, they have made disclosing health information part of their campaigns, and have whole wheat buns and low cal options. But with Lee's in the Financial District, there's no reason to go there.

            Sentinel is precious, expensive compared to Subway or Lee's, and can be slow. So not the same target audience.

            FWIW I don't go to Starbucks in San Francisco, but I do in Oregon and in North Carolina.

            I've tried making a bahn mi at home for as little as Saigon Sandwich or Irving Cafe charges and couldn't do it. (Bahn mi should be on this list. A chicken bahn mi with minimal mayo and extra carrots and daikon is pretty good for you and your wallet.)

            But I'm still confused about Jim's question. Aren't all taquerias fast food? A chicken taco with whole beans and salsa fresca and without sour cream is pretty healthy (a carnitas super burrito in a flour tortilla with extra cheese is not). Skip the chips.

            My experience with Chipotle is the food had very little flavor. There's no reason to eat bad tasting tacos in California.

            You could definitely construct a healthy diet eating out in the Bay Area, as long as you carefully watched salt, grease, and especially portion size. That seems like a worthy goal, without worrying about whether it will scale to America's Test Kitchen, which seems devoted to macaroni and cheese with bacon and fried chicken....

            Saigon Sandwich Shop
            560 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102

            34893 Newark Blvd, Newark, CA 94560

            1. re: Windy

              I'm no expert on Vietnamese cuisine, but Bahn Mi does seem like a a good fit here. A new restaurant recently opened in North Berkeley called the Pho Bar, and the Bahn Mi is delicioius and has a nice ratio of crisp veggies to grilled meat. Plus their menu says they use humanely farmed meats and local and organic produce (when possible).

              1. re: JimKlein

                That "organic & sustainable whenever possible" disclaimer seems bogus to me. These days, in Berkeley, what ingredient a restaurant might need is not reliably available from organic and sustainable sources? Isn't that precisely what they're charging twice the price for?

                They don't say anything about local or humane.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I agree on the "whenever possible" clause on lots of menus being an easy way to put organic on the menu without actually paying the premium. Some organic produce might not be available out of season, or at least available in such short supply that pricing would not make it practical. In fact I've seen some menus say "...used when practical". Tomatoes would be a good example.

                  Indeed they claim to use "all-natural" meat and not humanely raised or local.

              2. re: Windy

                I find it a wonder that Chipotle can grow and expand in the Bay Area considering that within a mile's radius of any Chipotle, there is likely a local tacqueria that can make a better burrito and taco. (I find the food at Chipotle incredibly bland).

                34893 Newark Blvd, Newark, CA 94560

            2. re: Windy

              Hi windy,

              I'm not just talking about chains, none of the restaurants I mentioned above are chains. A large part of my fascination with the good small indie fast food restaurants is the way they run their businesses. Cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients, sourcing local products, valuing employees and being eco-conscious, all while keeping prices pretty cheap and serving food very quickly. So maybe it is a business question. We generally associate fast food with unhealthy chains, but there are other restaurants that serve up good fast food. Lots of people, and especially lots of children, eat lots of fast food. Maybe one day one of these restaurants could expand nationally and become the model fast food restaurant instead McDonalds or KFC.

              Maybe the idea in my head isn't being expressed so well here in writing or maybe it just doesn't really make any sense, so I'm sorry if my rambling thoughts aren't being presented clearly.

              Oh, and while I agree that there are better options, just based on my experiences downtown, plenty of people are willfully eating Chipotle.

              34893 Newark Blvd, Newark, CA 94560

          2. re: Windy

            Better than a burger on a bun is a burger with no bun or wrapped in lettuce. Fat is not the enemy, refined carbs and sugar are.

            1. re: MandalayVA

              It really depends on what your health issue is in terms of what the "enemy" is. Animal fat is a significant issue for people with elevated cholesterol.

              1. re: Windy

                ...or sodium if you suffer from hypertension and high blood pressure. Typical fast food is loaded with sodium.

                1. re: JimKlein

                  As is most restaurant food that makes use of Sysco products or canned tomatoes, broths, etc.

                  1. re: Windy

                    There's nothing inherently unhealthy about canned tomatoes or broth. Pomi is 100% tomato with no additives and tastes better than any tomatoes you can get most of the year.

                    And conversely, many restaurants that use all natural everything and do it all from scratch use more salt than people who are into avoiding it would think proper.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Salt is the issue. Canned tomatoes typically have a whole day's sodium allotment in a serving. Ditto for most canned broths and soups.

                      1. re: Windy

                        And who set the number for sodium? It's totally arbitrary, as is everything on the food pyramid/My Plate/whatever. Numbers pulled out of the air. In other words, BS.

                  2. re: JimKlein

                    Fortunately, salt may not actually cause heart disease (says the latest study).

                    I predict that salt is going to be the "eggs" of this decade. There have never been any definitive studies concluding that salt is bad, just weak correlations. Doctors and the media are notorious for misusing studies.

                    Also, sugar/carbs may be a bigger factor in high cholesterol now than animal fat.

                    My point is that we don't really know what is really healthy, so this is really hard to define.

                    1. re: lrealml

                      We know pretty definitely that a diet based mostly on unprocessed grains, vegetables (excluding potatoes), fruits, and nuts is healthy.

                      That's pretty much the opposite of fast food such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza, which get most of their calories from animal fat and processed grains (flour). Making those in house or using to grass-fed beef, whole-wheat flour, or local or organic ingredients doesn't make them significantly healthier.

            2. How exactly are you defining fast food? I'd hardly call Cheeseboard or Gregoire fast when there are lines. From a conventional definition I wouldn't call either fast food. They are healthier given ingredients but I'm not sure a Gregoire fried chicken sandwich is going to be that much healthier then the same hing at a traditional industrial fast food joint. Of course taste is a consideration.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ML8000

                Gregoire might be a stretch because the prep time on orders can get upwards of 10 minutes depending on what you order and how busy it is, but I still consider it a better version of Togo's or maybe panera, both of which I consider fast food. Cheeseboard is definitely fast food, you wait in line, order, pay and get your slice almost instantly. I've waited in an In'N'Out drive thru for 15 minutes in San Ramon, but I still consider it fast food.

                Now I suppose there is a difference between fast food and fast casual, and I guess I'm blending the two together here. But I am defining fast food as order at a counter, pay and receive your food quickly thereafter.

              2. Seems like a false premise to me. I don't believe there are significant nutritional differences between a slice of Cheese Board Pizza and a veggie slice from Arinell's, or between Gregoire's hamburger and one from In-N-Out or Nation's, or between a Show Dogs hot dog and one from Top Dog (which kicks What's Up Dog's ass, by the way).

                1. While the $10 constraint limits it somewhat, the "glorified food court" at the SF Ferry Building certainly meets the sustainability and quality criteria, especially the salads at Cane Rosso or Delica. The timing is important, though, for it to qualify as fast; during the Saturday farmer's market or at peak lunchtime the waits on line to order, then to fulfill the order, can exceed 15 minutes.

                  1 Ferry Bldg, San Francisco, CA

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: foodeye

                    A relatively expensive salad from Cane Rosso or Delica won't be significantly healthier than a cheaper one from a supermarket or wherever.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      It is significantly healthier and more wholesome, if you value the fact that it was made from organically grown produce and sustainably raised animals, etc. and it is made right before your eyes by actual people you can speak with, but depends on your values.

                      1. re: foodeye

                        How healthy food is depends on its nutritional value and your overall diet and lifestyle, not on what you think or feel about it.

                        A cheap Safeway salad made from conventional produce is healthier than a Gregoire cheeseburger, in the sense that it would be good for you to eat such a salad three times a day but bad for you to eat even one cheeseburger a day.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          This is getting a little off-track, as the OP's request was for more than optimal nutritional value, and included a broader concept of what is healthy or wholesome, including sustainability.

                          1. re: foodeye

                            Well, yeah, I'm complaining about the premise. JimKlein is explicitly talking about foods that are "better for the human body."

                            Objectively, that means items that, if eaten in place of average fast food, make it less likely you'll suffer from diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and cancer.

                            I'd pick a Gregoire burger over one from In-N-Out, but that choice is a wash as far as my cardiologist is concerned.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Healthy fast food (in the conventional definition) is an oxymoron.

                              1. re: ML8000

                                If you define fast food as burgers, fries, hot dogs, and pizza, yes.

                                Certain Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian fast foods are considerably healthier than those.

                                1. re: ML8000


                                  While conventional fast food is among the most unhealthy dining option people can make, the purpose of starting this thread was to identify restaurants that are changing the way we look at fast food, or are at least scratching the surface of the potential options of affordable quickly prepared food that can be eaten on the go.

                                  1. re: JimKlein

                                    If you wrote "affordable quickly prepared healthy food to go" that would be more descriptive. If you want to change the dialogue, changing the key term is a good start and helpful. Fast food is a loaded term, healthy or not. This isn't just marketing.

                                    That said, while this food exists, I think it runs into the old adage..."Good, fast, cheap...pick two....but instead it's good, fast, HEALTHY, cheap...pick three."

                                    1. re: ML8000

                                      Fast, healthy, and cheap isn't hard, lots of Asian food meets those criteria.

                                      Throw in grass-fed pastured animals, now you're standing in line in a parking lot paying $7 for a banh mi.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Many people equate healthy with organic, grass fed, etc. It's how you define healthy. Many people don't define that with Asian food using cheap ingredients.

                                        To me a banh mi isn't any healthier then a "regular" sandwich except less meat is often used and different veggies garnish.

                                        I changed my first post to pick three. Regardless the principal remains essentially the same.

                                2. re: Robert Lauriston


                                  JimKlein has admitted repeatedly on this thread that there are issues with the original premise. But when looking for a healthier fast food option at Gregoire, why jump straight to the burger. What about the salads at Gregoire that you won't find at In'N'Out, or the use of fish (that is not fried).

                                  1. re: JimKlein

                                    I mentioned Gregoire's burger because your original post said sandwiches, and because salads aren't what people usually mean when they say fast food, but rather a healthier alternative to fast food.

                                    You can get a salad at McDonald's or at any supermarket. Does paying twice as much at Gregoire or any of the other fancy takeout places get you healthier food? Tastier, certainly, more ecologically sensitive, maybe, but nutritionally, it's a wash.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      I will disagree that a McDonalds salad is just as healthy as one with lean protein, a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit and an EVOO based homemade dressing. And taste is most certainly a consideration. I wouldn't have posted the original topic on Chowhound if taste wasn't also a consideration.

                                      1. re: JimKlein

                                        McDonald's salad with grilled chicken and Newman's dressing is in terms of ingredients not very different from Gregoire's. The choice of the latter is easy if you want tastier food made from the finest ingredients and are willing to spend more to get it.

                                        But, honestly, who goes to Gregoire's for salad? The dishes people rave about here are all about piling saturated fat on top of saturated fat: the deep-fried potato puffs (full of butter), the pork patty sandwich with bacon and cheese, the blue cheeseburger, the cheese steak. I'd bet that if we could get the nutritional information for those items they'd make McDonald's look vegan.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          This is silly. If you don't think that the food at Gregoire or the food from similar restaurants that try to use good ingredients and cook from scratch are even remotely better for you than McDonalds, then this just isn't the right thread for you. I'm not saying that you are wrong, we simply disagree (as do health experts) and as a result this thread has gotten way off topic.

                                          I was just looking for places that people thought were changing, or could change, the way we look at fast food by using better ingredients and making it more healthy/wholesome. I wasn't looking for a debate on nutrition. I wasn't trying to come up with a universal definition of healthy. It was simply a question (perhaps a poorly phrased question) that I thought hadn't been explored here on this board before and that people could have fun with since the Bay Area does have a good number of fast food type restaurants that are raising the bar on food quality. If you don't like or understand or agree with the original premise, focus your attention on other threads that can benefit from your culinary and restaurant knowledge.

                            2. re: foodeye

                              food eye,

                              This is what I was originally tried to identify. Restaurants with a fast food model that serve food "made from organically grown produce and sustainably raised animals, etc. and it is made right before your eyes by actual people you can speak with". In addition, I think that restaurants that offer brown rice, breads made from whole grains and provide a balanced meal with fresh vegetables minimal preservatives, or at least natural preservatives like vinegar, salt sugar etc. Real food and not chemicals.

                              Another mistake I made when starting this post is assuming that people have the same culinary values as me, I do think it is healthier to eat fresh foods that don't rely on preservatives. A fresh baked roll (preferably whole grain) as opposed to a frozen burger bun. Sure it's healthier to not eat a burger at all, but that's not to say all burgers are created equal.

                        2. When I used to work downtown, I always liked SF Soup Company. Definitely a fast food model. Under $10 unless you get all the extras, they have salads, sandwiches, cookies, drinks, etc. I am evidently not alone because the lines at lunch time can get long, but service is streamlined and the lines move pretty quickly. Minimal seating at most locations so most customers are doing take out.

                          They usually have many soup choices and label each soup with low-fat, dairy-free, vegan and other flags.

                          Of course, some items are lower cal than others, but all nutritional info is on their website. I am not sure, but it seems like they do mostly from scratch cooking, maybe in a central commissary?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: pamf

                            I think this is a good example of the fast food I'm talking about. The soups are wholesome and made from scratch. And while they do have some heavier cream based soups, they also have lighter options.

                            Mixt Greens downtown is another good one.

                            Mixt Greens
                            114 Sansome St Ste 120, San Francisco, CA 94104