By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It is one of the largest mall restaurants in San Diego County, and with a menu that gives shoppers a plethora of healthy, sophisticated meal choices. At nearly 10,000 square feet, True Food Kitchen has been luring shoppers at Fashion Valley Mall for more than six years with cuisine that is much too wholesome for any food court.
Located on the ground level at the mall’s east end, the bill of fare follows the dietary dictates of founder Andrew Weil, a doctor of integrative medicine famous for his anti-inflammatory food pyramid.
With multiple locations throughout the country, including another locally in Westfield UTC mall, Dr. Weil isn’t quite the staunch opponent of meats and rich sauces as other food police. In the reasonably restrained measures in which he allows for them, you suddenly start forgetting about that weighty stromboli upstairs at Sbarro when chomping into True Food Kitchen’s creative, seasonal cuisine.
Vegans and vegetarians feel right at home here. So do carnivores, provided they can settle for things like grass-fed burgers, chicken-sausage lasagna and grilled salmon instead fatty beef and pork of any kind.
Weil’s multi-scaled food pyramid puts vegetables and fruits at the base. The model ascends into lesser portions of pastas and grains, followed by healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados and flaxseeds. After those are fish and seafood, then soy foods, cheese, lean meats, tea, vitamin supplements, and yes, red wine.
Sitting at the tip of the pyramid is a piece of dark chocolate, which for us translated into a slice of flourless chocolate cake that was more ravishing than most due to its decently salted and unusually thin caramel sauce.
Even after grazing through appetizers and entrees, dessert is doable because the food lacks bad oils and excessive fat, not to mention debilitating amounts of carbs that ultimately result in food comas.
My vegetarian lunch companion took delight in the number of “safe” choices the menu offers, ranging from sprightly salads and roasted veggies to bubbling pizzas and meat-free sandwiches. I wove some meat and fish into my choices, and still came away with a spring in my step.
“For the table” is a clean, engaging appetizer that gives you three dipping bowls filled separately with herby hummus, guacamole strewn with kale, and a soupy but delicious black-olive puree that carried the meaty essence of low-brine kalamata olives.
Served alongside were wedges of pita bread, colorful heirloom carrots and chilled cucumber spears. The ratio of dips to dippers, however, seemed a little out of whack as we found ourselves spooning through the bowls well after the bread and veggies disappeared.
Orange-tinted chicken satay is so exquisitely marinated in achiote spice that I was tempted to request a triple order of the skewers in lieu of an entree. The dish’s south-of-the-border spin is further accentuated by a side of hummus-like “salsa” made with pumpkin seeds, cilantro and cucumber.
We shared a substantial “Good Earth” kale Cobb salad served in deconstructed form, and with the addition of cubed tofu. The bowl contained sections of watermelon radishes, tenderly roasted asparagus, ripe cherry tomatoes and garbanzo beans. There was also dried corn, which I could have done without because of its hard, chewy texture.
Otherwise it was a fine medley supported also by romaine lettuce, a thick chunk of avocado and cashew poblano ranch dressing that yielded a tinge of spiciness.
Afterward, my friend reveled in the TLT sandwich featuring smokey strips of tempeh as the understudy to bacon. Stacked also with crisp lettuce and sliced tomatoes, the seeded grain bread lapped up the right level of moisture with the help of vegan mayo. A simple hash of oven-roasted sweet potatoes and caramelized onions was an enjoyable and healthy alternative to french fries, which you’ll need to go elsewhere to find.
I chose grilled salmon for my main course. The perfectly cooked filet was lightly seasoned — nothing out of the ordinary except for the zesty cilantro-pumpkin seed pesto sitting underneath. It paired to the fish as naturally as peppercorn gravy does to filet mignon.
With a full bar in place, we skipped over wine, beer and some intriguing cocktails such as cherry-bourbon sours and basil-cucumber Collins, opting instead for super-refreshing “quenchers.” The pomegranate-chia limeade was pleasantly tart; the very green “kale aid” tasted a bit too vegetal for my liking; and the “medicine man” was gulpable with its mix of green tea, black cherry juice, pomegranate seeds, honey and sea buckthorn, an obscure east-Asian berry high in monounsaturated fatty acids.
True Food Kitchen’s airy, organic design corresponds swimmingly to the culinary concept. The entrance is flanked by herb gardens, and inside are mixed woods and live greenery growing along illuminated side walls.
For worn-down shoppers in need of an energy boost, it’s the ideal place to revive those swollen feet and eat your way back to life before setting out for a few more mall laps.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.