Veggie Grill Santana Row (San Jose): Opened November 8, 2012!

The Veggie Grill is an all-vegan restaurant chain that specializes in vegan “comfort food.” It’s got the kind of dishes you’d expect at an “American” restaurant–burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, mashed potatoes, chili, etc.–but all veganized. The master chef behind the menu is Ray White, who was part of the brains behind Native Foods–another favorite restaurant of ours–along with Tanya Petrovna. Because of Ray’s background, the Veggie Grill menu shares some similarities with Native Foods’ menu, but we now prefer Veggie Grill over Native Foods. Customers place orders at the register and then have the food served to their tables. Prices are fair; entrees are in the $8-$10 range.

We first discovered Veggie Grill in El Segundo several years ago. See my prior review of that place. We fell in love with the restaurant instantly, and now we usually make a point of swinging by a Veggie Grill during our Southern California visits. Every time we go, we submit a suggestion card that they should come to the South Bay.

Our requests finally have been answered! This week, they are opening in Santana Row, less than 4 miles/15 minutes from my office. From the perspective of visibility and foot traffic, Santana Row is a great location for them; but it’s a mild pain to get to/from–traffic is rotten and parking can be a challenge. The store is bright and colorful, although I could see them running out of seats during peak periods. It was hard not to notice the generational split in the crowd; I was about 20 years older than the average customer.

I like almost everything I’ve tried at the Veggie Grill (the biggest miss is the mac ‘n’ cheese–quinoa pasta is hard to do well). My favorite entrees are the V-burger and the Carne Asada, both excellent. I also especially like the chili and the sweetheart fries. I generally don’t like kale very much, but their steamed kale is among the best I’ve ever tried, and I’ve chosen it as a side dish before.

Today, Lisa and I attended a soft launch lunch at Santana Row (our meals were complimentary). A report on the dishes we tried:

[see my photo gallery]

* V-burger with avocado. I rank the V-burger incredibly highly. I think it’s one of the first-rate veggie burgers served anywhere, although the veggie burger at Source in San Francisco–a much different composition–may be my favorite anywhere. I don’t think the avocado added much to the flavor, but I’m not an avocado fan.

* Sweetheart fries. These are outstanding sweet potato fries. I normally like potato fries more than sweet potato fries, but these are among the best sweet potato fries I’ve had. They are served with a ranch dressing for dipping (you can also get ketchup if you prefer) that complements the flavor nicely.

* Buffalo Bomber. This is a successful dish, but I liked it a little less than the V-burger. It’s a big chicken patty with lettuce/tomato/onion on a wheat bun, with both buffalo sauce and ranch dressing. The servers warned that the buffalo sauce was spicy, but it was mild by my standards. I expected the sandwich to have a stronger “buffalo sauce” taste and more kick than it did. Still, a good sandwich.

* “Bean Me Up” Chili. The chili is hearty and flavorful. Personally, I think a cup is better than a bowl; the flavor can get a little tiresome after a while.

* Chill Out Wings. Their fried chicken strips with BBQ and ranch sauces for dipping. This was a satisfying appetizer.

* Carrot Cake. I’m not a big carrot cake fan, but this was an excellent carrot cake, especially for being vegan. Both the cake and frosting were moist and flavorful.

* Chocolate Chip Cookie. I thought this was average.

* Chocolate Pudding. Lisa was lukewarm about the pudding, but I thought it was tasty. However, like the chili, a little may go a long way. A small cup was perfect, but a larger serving could get tiring.

* Drinks. I tried the strawberry lemonade, peach black tea and pomegranate green tea. I thought they were all OK, but none of them did much for me.

I’m so thrilled to have the Veggie Grill in our neighborhood! I hope you’ll check it out. I’d be happy to meet you there for a meal any time!

UPDATE: A group of 4 of us went back Wednesday night for another complimentary beta-test meal. This time, the place was so packed that all of the seats were taken, and a line formed outside the restaurant waiting until seats opened. I hope they are a success, but I hope they aren’t so successful that lines out the door are common. Comments on our second round of menu sampling:

* Uptown Nachos. I loved the taste of these nachos, more so than most other restaurants’ nachos. Recommended.

* Buffalo Wings. I would get either these or the Chill Out Wings; I wouldn’t get both. These had a nice flavor, but once again I thought the buffalo taste was milder and less pronounced than I would like. What stands out about these wings is their texture, which is quite meaty. Our meat-eater companion raved about the texture.

* Blackened Chickin Plate. This was a big disappointment. Basically, it’s a pile of the steamed kale, a pile of the quinoa pilaf–which is plain and thus indistinguishable from unadorned quinoa–and a cutlet of fake chicken, blackened, with a small dollop of papaya salsa. The steamed kale was fine, the quinoa was boring, and the chicken cutlet was surprisingly mildly flavored (tasted a little like a Gardein chicken cutlet), and the salsa didn’t enhance the flavor much. If you like bland basic food, this could be a nice dish; but compared to the better options on the menu, I don’t see any reason to pick it.

* Thai Chickin Salad. This had a great taste, and I recommend this dish as well. However, I could imagine eating the whole salad might get a little tiring. It might be better to split this dish with a friend; a half-salad might be the perfect amount before the flavor gets tiring.

* All Hail Kale Salad with blackened tempeh. My wife LOVES this salad! If you’re a kale fan, this is a must-have; but even if you aren’t (like me), this salad is very well-constructed. I didn’t think the blackened tempeh added much to the flavor.

* Carne Asada. I still love this dish, but sometimes I love it more than others. I’m not sure why that is. The V-burger is a more consistent success with me, so I will probably pick the V-burger more frequently and save the Carne Asada for special occasions. Our meat-eater companion complained (quite fairly IMO) about the bun-to-meat ratio in this sandwich.

We also got samplers of the carrot cake again, and all of us loved it. The carrot cake is a crowd-pleaser! But then again, so is the entire menu, so if you haven’t gone yet, definitely check it out.

UPDATE 2: We went back for Jacob’s 10th birthday:

* I had the VG-Cheeseburger, El Dorado style. I enjoyed the burger, although I’m not sure if I liked it a lot more than just the baseline VG Burger. It was very, very messy!

* the red cabbage slaw. This is bland. Between the chili and slaw, pick the chili or pay to upgrade.

* Lisa tried the All-American Stack. We were both surprised that the stack isn’t a single “patty’ but instead loose strips. That made the stack messy. Personally, I didn’t like it much better than the regular burger, but it’s a fun and exotic option nonetheless.