What do we want from fast food? That it be fast, of course. What else? That it be cheap? Convenient? Filling? Portable?
You'll find some, if not all, of these qualities at Nature's Express, which opened this month in a convenient location next to Peet's on Solano Avenue. But in exchange for what's occasionally missing, you get other factors, mainly this: It's vegan. From sturdy black-bean-and-"cheese" burritos to velvety peanut-butter "milk" shakes to slender, tender, air-baked golden "fries" to ten different varieties of "burger," everything served in this spic-and-span, snow-white slot — whose seating comprises tall, square stools along a counter — is not only meatless, but also milkless, eggless, honeyless, and preservative-free. For a menu whose sixty-something choices span breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, agave-sweetened desserts, and snacks — and even includes a special section for kids — that's saying a lot.
Crushed pineapple crowned our Spicy Hawaiian Burger, along with lettuce, tomato, and crisp purple onion. A salty tempeh slab topped our Bacon Burger. Both were hearty, hefty, savory, and juicy, delivering that incomparable, all-American biting-into-a-burger buzz, a rolling cascade of pickly and bland, crunchy and soft. For vegans, who have always been shut out of the fast-food scene's ostensible all-inclusiveness, simply peeling a paper wrapper off a bun containing a patty can feel like the acquisition of a basic human right.
Using patties that are mostly made in-house, Nature's Express burgers look and feel like their meat-based brothers, but aren't greasy. Nor are they as filling as traditional burgers, which is why eating here may require a mental leap. Depending on your outlook, it's either good news or bad news that this fast food isn't junk food. Instead it's a hybrid, a fusion, evincing a funny-sad fact about America: One by one, diverse cooking styles prove their integration into our culture at large when they are transformed into fast food. Not that Taco Bell is el más auténtico, but it certainly mainstreamed Mexican cuisine.
And health-food fast food — already represented in downtown Berkeley by Amanda's Feel Good Fresh Food — might be a wave of the future, because Nature's Express is actually a chain. Knowing all too well the links between diet and disease, Arizona oncologist Carl Myers realized that he couldn't stop his patients from eating fast food, which he calls "one of the worst choices they can make. Traditional fast food is basically high fat, high sugar, and high salt. It is also highly processed, has very little fiber, and is full of harmful chemicals. It is truly a toxic food environment — and we see the tragic results with increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer." Accepting that "the fast-food habit is very ingrained in our culture," and realizing that "I can't change how people eat, but I can help them change what they eat," Myers created a plant-based version that is high in vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. The Berkeley restaurant joins others in Yuma, Arizona; and Riverside County's Rancho Mirage.
With its minimalist ambience and humanoid mascot — a grinning turnip — Nature's Express looks and feels like a fast-food joint, sans grease spatter and sugar highs, and with rows of vegan cookbooks and healthy-lifestyle manuals on shelves lining the walls. Behind the counter, uniformed workers prepare orders assembly-line-style — not as rapidly as the phrase "fast food" implies, but perhaps they're still learning the ropes. Meanwhile, the huge, wall-mounted menu fails to define this food as vegan: Unwitting newcomers cannot help but assume that cheeseburger means cheeseburger. Another downside is portion size: While wraps and burgers are substantial, salads and side dishes are just barely big enough, sandwiches are borderline, and a single order of "fries" fit easily inside my hand.
I wanted the grilled-tempeh Reuben to go on and on. It's a probiotic three-fer, with sauerkraut and crinkle-cut pickles pertly complementing the beany richness of a substance whose Indonesian inventors never knew how intensely its presence could evoke happy delicatessen dinners. Another standout was the mashed cauliflower with gravy. Along with mac-and-"cheese" and other items, it's on the kids' menu — but why? Adult palates, too, can appreciate its sophistication disguised as simplicity, its steamed-vegetable verve as a soothingly smooth yet non-starchy, non-greasy, high-antioxidant alternative to a buttery and sometimes paralytically stodgy staple.
One thing most folks want from fast food is predictability. Even if what we predict is a 560-calorie meat sandwich in a sugary bun, we like to know that we won't be surprised. At Nature's Express, we can know that what we're eating is not chemically configured to clog arteries or fatten guts. This seems a simple covenant, one that should be automatic for all food and drink sold anywhere, yet in a world where our bodies and other people's profits intersect, it's not.
Chickpeas, pickles, tomatoes, chopped celery, and dilly vegan mayonnaise effected a persuasively just-fishy-enough whiff in our "Hold the Tuna" sandwich, whose diagonally cut rye slices came from Berkeley's Bread Workshop, as do all the breads used here, including the herbed burger buns. And all produce used here is organic, acquired from San Francisco's Veritable Vegetable and bringing intense flavor to such selections as kale chips, collard-green burritos, avocado-kale wraps (enrobed in your choice of lettuce or tortilla), and a carrot-cashew paté so bright and gingery-fresh as to outclass the fast-food tag. But this is the sneaky genius of health-food fast food: Bring 'em in with the basics, because fries and burgers — even veggie burgers — are a gateway drug. Lull them into compliance with shakes. Then whip out the lush, crunchy turnip slaw. The coconut water, served fresh in the shell. The corn-couscous-chutney-raisin-red-cabbage burritos. Is this fast food? Now it is.