Open since last summer, Tender Greens has slowly been winning me over. Despite raves from a friend who'd eaten at and loved its original location in Culver City, the restaurant's concept of build-your-own salads and sandwiches did not, at first, ignite my food flame within. Neither did the site of the San Diego eatery, in Point Loma's Liberty Station.
Though I enjoy some elements of the area, like a Trader Joe's with ample parking, there is something vaguely Truman Show-ish about the perfectly manicured and orderly compound, where new businesses seem to pop up overnight like set pieces.
But then encouraging tidbits started coming in. Although the menu is much the same at both of Tender Greens' Southern California locations, the San Diego restaurant is owned and managed by Pete Balistreri and Rian Brandenburg, Point Loma High grads and experienced chefs who also whip up off-menu, creative specials, and everything—from soups to salad dressings—is made in-house. Their green practices are pretty cool, too. The high-ceiling interior is fashioned from reclaimed wood, most restaurant supplies are sustainable or organic and they harness some solar energy for kitchen tasks—plus, the patio, with comfy cushioned benches, potted herbs for cooking and a good mix of shade and sun, bolsters my theory that food tastes better when eaten outdoors.
The grilled vegetables, along with fresh but pre-cooked grilled flank steak, chicken and tuna rest under heat lamps, though orders stream in at such a fast clip that nothing seems to sit for too long. Orders are placed at the front register, picked up at the end of short assembly line and can be had in configurations of a hot item served with mashed potatoes, tucked into a sandwich or with a side salad, whose options range from butter lettuces with a creamy tarragon dressing or baby spinach, goat cheese and hazelnuts with a Cabernet vinaigrette. Entrée-size salads, from a Grilled Chicken Cobb to the Happy Vegan with tabbouleh, hummus and farro grains, are meals in themselves.Most of Tender Greens' lettuces are grown at Scarborough Farms, a Los Angeles-area family farm, but the San Diego location makes efforts to source other ingredients closer to home. The roasted vegetables from the grill, which vary depending on the season, are delivered from Crows Pass Farms and its neighboring farms in Temecula.
The Tuna Nicoise salad is a rare case in which I'd prefer canned fish to fresh. I like the savory quality and richness that a good tuna packed in olive oil brings to a traditional rendition of this salad. But the salad's silky slices of barely seared, line-caught local albacore tuna are great in a sandwich, with roasted red peppers and aioli on ciabatta bread from Point Loma's Con Pane Bakery. The bread, when freshly grilled for the sandwich, is excellent, but it doesn't fare as well when used for the pre-toasted crostini that comes with the soups and salads, which is a little hard on the teeth. Yukon gold potatoes, so inherently buttery, get an extra butter-fat boost that turns them into a smooth, soft potato dream. I spread each bite of flank steak, cooked nicely but not served quite hot enough, with a bit of potato, hoping for a heat transfer.
Occasional specials, from braised lamb cheeks to slow-roasted beef, have been worth checking back for and a recent lentil soup, enriched with smoky bacon, was especially good. Always available are freshly squeezed juice or homemade aguas frescas—I like the combo of fresh lemonade and Jamaica. There are also local beers and a few boutique wines, and chef Rian's mom makes the desserts. Don't miss her specials, like cheesecake or cornmeal cake with a citrus glaze—an additional feature that keeps Tender Greens from being classified as just another chain.