Health food sucks.
When Americans hear “health food,” we think of a sad, hollow-cheeked waif model nibbling a solitary rice cake—which is essentially bubble wrap made of grain, properly eaten with a grim frown and/or suicide note. Or we think of salad, a responsible lunch option whose main crime is not being a juicy cheeseburger. Or we groan about the never-ending list of “super” foods lining our neighborhood hippie grocery—which are expensive enough to make us feel cheap and confusing enough to make us feel brain injured.
Our vegetarian friends annoy us. Our vegan friends are lucky that they’re not in our trunk, gagged with a floppy brick of seitan. Health food culture has long been one of deprivation we’re scolded into, not celebration we volunteer for. It’s Well, I guess I’ll eat this because some guy with nice hair and teeth on Dr. Oz told me I should, as opposed to Hell yes ancient grains!
“PUT THE FRIES IN THE SHAKE!” is our battle cry.
“WRAP THE BACON AROUND THE BACON!” reads our cardboard sign on the Jumbotron.
Ours is not a culture based on virtue porn. It’s driven by food porn. A high-def close-up of braised kale on Instagram does not stoke the tongue libido quite like an aerial shot of a fried chicken thigh. Bacon is our Betty Paige. Pastry cases are our red light district. We eat an apple because it keeps the doctor away, not because it arouses us.
We all know how heavy, creamy, buttered-and-oiled, deep-fried foods are going to make us feel. Like we’ve pissed off gravity, and it’s revenging. Like our very souls have narcolepsy. We feel stuffed, bloated, greasy and guilty. (Or you’re immune to any of that, in which case congratulations you’re a robot.)
Unfortunately, as Americans we don’t have many warm, fuzzy taste memories of healthy food. Sprouted lentils do not have an entry in our Mental Rolodex of Yes. It’s filled with cheeseburgers and fries. Especially generations X and Y, who grew up eating at restaurants (or the front seat of the minivan) more often than home. Those generations had the twin-income family structure, meaning both parents came home physically and psychologically drained. Cooking dinner (which means also cleaning dishes) sounded much less appealing than microwaving a ready-to-eat “meal” (in a ready-to-trash plastic serving box) while wearing boxer shorts.
Health food also doesn’t get the branding boost. There aren’t any multi-national corporations using video, graphics and music to make carrots look Beyonce-sexy. Coke, though? You bet. That bubbly liquid candy has basically gotten the Steven Spielberg treatment. We’ve been trained through media and lights and colors and sounds that Coke is the most desirable drink on the planet next to beer. No matter how miserable and Dilbert-ian your life, you’re one cold, refreshing Coke away from a joy only known by the freshly sexed or heavily medicated.
Even if you grew up in one of those families where cooking was a thing—most of them were frying chicken, putting cheese on pasta, grilling steaks, building tacos, molding burger patties, sour creaming and buttering the crap out of everything just so their kids would eat it. Because we have to feed our kids. That’s part of the deal.
I just Googled “comfort food.” And whoa, look there, it’s an avocado spruced up with lemon juice and a touch of EVOO. No, it’s not. It’s a cast-iron pan overflowing with enough mac ‘n’ cheese to clog an o-ring, let alone one of your dainty arteries. Next photo is a burger. Then fried chicken. Meatballs. Doughnuts. Lasagna. A Reuben. Wait, there’s some chicken noodle soup—with white bread and butter.
It’s both a tragedy and counterintuitive that health food is not our idea of comfort. Because diabetes is not comforting. No one has ever described gout as “a Snuggy for your insides!” But our immediate pleasuregasm rules over long-game vivacity.
Blame it, too, on evolution. Our bodies evolved millions of years ago when food was scarce. You weren’t sure when you’d be able to bludgeon the next saber tooth tiger. Lots of our hairy ancestors starved to death. So our bodies programmed themselves to crave excess calories. When we eat foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, the brain gives us a standing ovation in the form of an endorphin rush (which we also experience during a “runners high” or by doing cocaine). It’s a storage instinct. A rainy day instinct. On a cellular level, we are calorie hoarders. As this New York Times article points out, our willpower may not be strong enough to resist fatty, sugary, salty foods.
Blame our restaurants and chefs. Sure, California may be the home of the salad eater. But, stranded and hungry on any suburban street corner in SoCal, it’s still a tough endeavor to find a place with a good salad (not just iceberg with ranch) and/or food that doesn’t caulk your arteries full of lipid spackle. Out of 10 restaurants, I’d say 9 have burgers and fries and mayo-laden sammies. There is a whole nation of people—especially in SoCal—who have to go into Whole Foods if they want a healthy meal.
The point of all this is to say: A drastic change is coming. Over the next five years, you will see an explosion of high-quality, gourmet healthy food options. Not sad compromises. Health food is the new frontier of dining.
We’re already seeing small changes. Avocados (a delicious natural fat replacement) have TV ads. Steven Colbert stumped for pistachios. At restaurants, chains like Chipotle, Corner Bakery and Au Bon Pain are doing better, healthier work. But McDonalds ranks NO. 8 on Health Magazine’s Top 10 healthy fast food operations. Really? That’s like Marlboro ranking in the top ten for air quality.
At this year’s National Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, healthier eating was one of the big topics. According to a National Restaurant Association (NRA) study last year, 71 percent of diners are now trying to eat healthier at restaurants. Applebee’s, CPK and Chipotle have gluten-free menus. Infamous fat-maker Cheesecake Factory and TGI Fridays have low-calorie stuff now. It’s not just shame pressure from angry vegans, either. These companies know it’s good for the bottom line. Public health researchers Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found a 10.9 percent growth in customer traffic when restaurants added healthier menu items.
The number of health-centric concepts is growing. All dishes at Seasons 52 (a concept from Darden, the same people behind bread stick wonderland, Olive Garden) are at 475 calories or less (roughly 20 percent of daily recommended for men, 25 percent for women). True Food Kitchen was designed according to the anti-inflammatory diet of Dr. Andrew Weil, and they hired good chefs like San Diego’s Nathan Coulon. Berkeley has Mission: Heirloom, a Paleo-friendly joint. Lyfe Kitchen from Palo Alto started in 2011 and now has 13 locations, with a plan for 20 more next year. In San Diego, we have places like Tender Greens, Native Foods, Luna Grill, Plumeria, Evolution Fast Food and Curious Fork making a move for healthy dining.
The first restaurateur to do a streamlined, simple, healthy drive-thru with just a handful of excellent items—like an In-N-Out for the Whole Foods generation—will become bazillionaires. In my perfect world, half of the unhealthy fast food operations would be replaced by healthy options in the next 20 years.
The recent opening of vegetarian/vegan restaurant Café Gratitude is, I believe, a marquee moment for the future of healthy dining in San Diego. Healthy options aren’t a fad. Health isn’t a fern bar. It’s a wholesale shift as we look around and realize well crap we’re eating ourselves to death. The scale has been tipped in the direction of the deep fryer for far too long. Better and better chefs are creating healthier and healthier menu items.
And that is the key. It’s one thing to have a glorified line cook or self-trained home cook crank out a few veggie bowls. The key to revolutionizing our restaurant eating patterns is to have real, top-notch chefs and restaurants making healthy dishes that people crave. Only in that way will health food usurp deep-fried Oreos in the mental rolodex of pleasure.
To that end, I’ve asked a few of the better San Diego spots for their healthiest dishes. Healthy dishes that shouldn’t taste like steamed foodwater. You shouldn’t feel like Kate Moss staring at a tiny, inedible amount of calories needed to keep you alive but terribly un-pleasured. In the right hands, health food is good food.
P.S. I just ate a Twix bar.
Golden tomato gazpacho and Maine lobster with watermelon, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, mint, Thai basil and a little curry oil.
Yellowfin tuna tartare with Dungeness crab with avocado, mango, pineapple, shiso-ginger vinaigrette, sesame-nori crackers.
Grapefruit and avocado salad with Ruby Red grapefruit, avocado, arugula, pistachios, Banyuls vinaigrette, Purple Haze goat cheese rolled in date sugar.
Verde Es Vida Salad with salt-cured cactus, watercress, zucchini, chayote pickles, purslane, Mexican oregano vinaigrette, avocado and 18-month aged Cotija cheese.
Baja Hiramasa Crudo with coconut aguachile, tomatillo, cured pineapple, avocado, chiltepin (wild chile pepper) and serranos.
Almond wood-grilled carrots with pickled apricot puree, peanuts and jalapeño chimichurri
Baja stone crab meat with mango, gazpacho, avocado and coconut
Charred sugar snap peas with espelette dressing, mint and cotija cheese
Wood-roasted branzino with Milagro squash, Chino Farm peppers and Swiss chard, charred lemon, fennel, chile flake and EVOO
Scallops alla plancha with heirloom tomatoes, avocado mousse, red onion, compressed watermelon and spicy green bean salad
Summer salad with roasted Chino Farm corn, grapefruit, celery, hearts of palm, avocado, arugula and white balsamic vinaigrette
Grilled avocado taco with bean puree, creamy corn salad and lime
Skuna Bay Salmon tataki with sesame, ginger, soy and olive oil.
Cold green tea noodle with asparagus and roasted pepper in a ginger vinaigrette
Albacore and scallop ceviche with avocado, red onion, tomato and crisps
Quinoa Salad with roasted summer vegetables, feta, pepitas, arugula and preserved lemon vinaigrette
Summer stone fruit salad with citrus-compressed peaches, pickled cherries, apricot vinaigrette, frisée, pistachios, goat cheese and rye croutons