The 3900 block of Walnut Street just may be the perfect embodiment of 21st-century culinary branding. From the vaguely Mexicanish food of Chipotle to the technicolored Bobby’s Burger Palace, this block has, for a while now, been a destination for the university set in search of decent, familiar food at prices that won’t slice into their weekend boozing budget.
Recently, these accommodating, not-terribly-challenging outposts have been joined by the growing D.C.-based chain sweetgreen, a salad-and-wrap spot focused on the language of contemporary American consumerism as much as it does the food.
As for the former, sweetgreen pulls no punches in letting you know where it intends to fall on the eco-friendly continuum: I cannot imagine Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann stopping by this airy, wood-and-concrete cafeteria on any potential campaign swings through the area. The menu opens with a mission statement of sorts: “sweetgreen is a place where you can get fun, fashionable food that’s both healthy for you and aligned with your values ...”
Aside from the alarms that sound anytime anyone mentions values and fashionableness (especially in the context of food), it’s good to know they aren’t just paying lip-service: They compost; they source locally and organically where they can; even the building materials are environmentally thoughtful.
The food, in general, is several steps up from what you’d expect at a chain, and a nice nod in the direction of greater attention being paid to ingredients and pedigree. Hand-prepared salads and wraps are raised from the realm of the huddled mass-produced masses by nothing fancier than fresh components.
When these are brought together well, the results are a treat, especially given the stereotypical college diet. At $10, the Santorini salad isn’t cheap, but you get a lot for your money. All the familiar Greeky components are here—grapes, feta, forgettably bland chickpeas—and few of the pitfalls I worried about. The dressing, a cucumber basil yogurt stiffened with with a generous hit of lemon juice, was well-balanced. And the shrimp had been roasted and seasoned with care: There were nearly a dozen of them throughout, curled up like pretty pink apostrophes against their chalkboard-green background.
Named-with-a-wink, the “curry gold” salad worked much better as an assembled whole than it did on a component-by-component basis. Moist, velvet-textured chicken was perhaps a bit too curried, the raw beets too toothsome. The curry pineapple yogurt dressing, like the chicken, was half a step too aggressive. But taken all together, these disparate parts actually functioned well, each taking the edge off the other.
The Sabzi salad was less impressive, and failed to rise above its inherent blandness despite the back-of-throat tingle of spicy quinoa and carrot chili vinaigrette. Maybe it was the mealy white beans, or ho-hum raw beets. Local, seasonal “baby ganoush” salad fared better, anchored by lovely little jewel-sized pieces of autumn-toned roasted eggplant.
The selection of ingredients for custom-created salads is broad, but this range also taps into the potential for failure. It’s kind of like an overstocked omelet station at a nice buffet. Approach it with caution. Still, if you compose it with thought, you’ll be rewarded. The bacon, though not terribly crunchy, has a nice smoky seam that will anchor the other flavors. Sweet-seasoned croutons reminded me, in the best possible sense, of childhood afternoons on the couch snacking from a box of them.
There are more than four dozen items to choose from, with a specific amount from each category allotted. Choose freely: Though the industrial corn was particularly depressing in the heart of the season, most of the other options hit their targets.
All of the salads are available as wraps, rolled up in a hearty tortilla the approximate diameter of a basketball, and make a nice lunch alongside a cup of pleasant, workhorse gazpacho.
It may not be the flashiest food in the neighborhood, but it’s a necessary, pleasant, earnest addition to it. It’s a good indication that, these days, even chains can have a conscience. What an unexpected turn of events. ■
3925 Walnut St. 215.386.1365. sweetgreen.com
Cuisine: Environmentally conscientious salads and wraps.
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm.
Price range: $2.50-$10.
Atmosphere: Airy, greeny, and buzzing with the conversation of local students.
Dinner with Luke Palladino