March 21, 2012

Restaurant Review: Nature's Express

Being a Southern California native, I grew up a "Laker girl" so to speak.  Magic, Worthy, Kareem, the Coop, Byron Scott, Kobe, even Rambis -- they were all heroes in my eyes.  I loved the rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics, and later the Bulls and whoever else challenged the Lakers' dominance.  So you would think that when I went to Cal for college, my love of basketball would have resulted in me attending some Cal men's basketball games.  Nope.  Not even one.  I guess being out of a household of rabid fans and in a new city with so much to do, see, study, and eat will do that to a girl.

This all changed last New Year's Eve.  With excitement over Coach Mike Montgomery's leadership and discount tickets in hand, I finally went to my first college basketball game after nearly two decades of Cal fandom! 
Creating die-hard fans of the alma mater -- gotta start while they're young!

I of course went with my fellow Cal devotees, my husband and two sons.  With a 1pm start time, we would need to eat lunch before the game.  As a mom of kids with milk,k peanut, and tree nut allergies, playing it by ear is never an option.  I envision the day's schedule and to know what meals we'll be eating away from home and what snacks to bring in case we are out longer than we think.  Figuring out what to do for lunch demands a bit of planning with online research, phone calls, and at-home food preparation in case any "safe" restaurant choices can't be identified.

With my boys being severely allergic to dairy and various nuts including peanuts, I began looking for lunch options on Yelp.  First I searched for vegan restaurants so I could eliminate dairy as a possible cross contaminant.  You would think that this would narrow down the field but, in a socially-conscious community search as Berkeley, this still left a good number of places to explore!  However, the fact that I was looking for a business that opened on Sundays quickly weeded out more potential eating spots.  I decided to check out the website for Nature's Express, a restaurant on North Berkeley's hip Solano Avenue which likens itself to fast but healthy food. 

The website was promising.  The menu offers burgers made with lentils or black beans, soy products such as tofu or seitan, and wraps with leafy greens and quinoa.  As its cheese substitute, Nature's Express uses Daiya Vegan Shreds which is free of the top 8 food allergens.  Although with a detailed description of its menu items, the website has a link to allergen information for all menu items aside from drinks.  The company also has added links to menus especially for wheat-sensitive, soy-sensitive, and meat-loving customers.

It is important to note that Nature's Express does serve nut products including an almond sunflower patty and walnuts and peanut dressing in a couple of its salads and wraps.  If nuts are something that you must avoid, do give the restaurant a call for more information on their measures to prevent against cross contamination.

We had planned to see a friend before the game so we decided to meet at Nature's Express at 10:30am, right when the restaurant opened.  Getting to the restaurant at the earliest time was important to me because this was the best chance for me to have my kids' food prepared on clean work and cooking surfaces thereby lowering the risk of cross contact.  Plus, I got to talk directly with the store manager who confidently answered all my questions about food preparation and cleaning practices.  So yes, we ordered burgers at 10:30am, less than two hours after we had eaten breakfast...but we ate without any allergy incidents!

We ordered two Cheezy Mushroom Chik-un Melts on a wheat bun, the Classic Grilled Reuben on rye, a grilled Daiya cheese, and a side of air-baked sweet potato fries.  The grilled cheese was nothing to write home about.  I think it would have been better with more Earth Balance vegan margarine on the bread to get a nice toasted, buttery taste.  The sweet potato fries were okay, a nice change of pace from regular guilt-ridden fries.
Grilled Daiya Cheese

The Reuben was an indulgent experience.  Made with marinated tempeh, it had all the rich tang of the real sandwich.  The thousand island dressing was spot-on and the sandwich oozed of melted Daiya and dressing.  I have to admit, I felt fairy gross after eating it because it was a gigantic, rich sandwich and I had already helped myself to a good portion of one of the chick-un melts.  Definitely didn't mirror the healthy eating experience that I should have been having!  My poor kids were frightened by the mess and didn't want to give it a try.
The Reuben, oozing with grilled onions, Daiya cheese, and sauce

The Cheezy Mushroom Chik-Un Melt was the favorite of mine and my husband.  My husband, who is not a fan of garden burgers, liked this melt.  What's not to love?  A patty that is crispy on the outside but juicy on the inside with grilled mushrooms, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on a toasted bun slathered with melted Daiya cheese.
My favorite: the Cheezy Mushroom Chick-Un Melt
The Chick-Un Melt had the right amount of veggies and tomatoes to balance the burger.

Nature's Express strives to create zero landfill waste by only using compostable containers and cutlery or selling recyclables such as glass-bottled juices.  The restaurant didn't have a trash can -- now that's commitment!  (Nice statement although I had to pocket my plastic safety wrap from the bottled coconut water I had purchased.)  Indoor seating for Nature's Express is fairly limited.  There are four tables including one large rectangle.  There are a couple of tables for outdoor seating which would be perfect for those gorgeous, lazy Sundays for people-watchers.  A bookshelf displays vegan cookbooks and information on veganism that patrons can browse and buy.

If you are in the Berkeley area with a car (sorry, Solano Avenue isn't walkable from campus) and you have egg and/or dairy allergies, I recommend checking out Nature's Express.  If you are also nut-allergic eaters, definitely consider getting to the restaurant when it first opens to avoid cross contamination on the grill.  I can't wait to go back to try out other menu items including their avocado kale wrap and veggie juice blends.


  1. Yummmm... I hope I get a chance to try it next time I'm visiting the Bay Area! Love your description of the food and the photos - makes my mouth water :)

  2. GO BEARS! Gotta try out that restaurant next time we're there! Thanks for the review, Irene. As an aside, what I would give to be in NY right now to watch a Knicks game!!!! ;)