Whirling world cuisine into quick, healthy noms
DINE In my whizzings past Laurel Village over the years, I did notice that Miz Brown's Feed Bag, so conspicuous and inviting at the far northeastern corner of the complex that I never went there, vanished at some point. (In 2004, to be precise.) It became Cafe Lo Cubano, which I also never got to — you can't go home again, said Thomas Wolfe, and you also can't go to every place, though some do try — and then that too vanished. For the past two years the space has been occupied by Beautifull, a venture in tasty-healthy food that is, in its way, a feed bag for our time. (There's a second location in the inner Sunset, with a third opening soon in the Castro.)
The transition from Lo Cubano to Beautifull seems to have been a good deal less eventful. The space is shiny and modern, with handsome chairs that combine brushed steel and butterscotchy, Scandinavian-looking wood. We are a long way from Miz Brown's famous orange vinyl, and the question is, Who is going to pay for all these splendid aesthetics?
Beautifull assumes (as does Whole Foods) that modern urban people are interested in flavorful, healthful, and varied food that can be got in a hurry and either taken away or eaten in non-kitschy surroundings, and that they are willing to pay for these benefits. This is not the place to be pining for your Jumbo Jack with curly fries for $3.99. For that kind of money, you'll have to settle for the polenta fries, which are better for you anyway. They're $4.99, with chipotle ketchup.
The food takes cues from a variety of the world's cuisines — quinoa, spaghetti and meat balls, chocolate-chip cookies, a Moroccan chicken bowl — but the heart of the menu is Asian. There is a selection of Vietnamese-style bowls, a variety of curries, and salads of Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese provenance, along with a good old caesar. What was more heartening, to me, was the clever use of turkey. Turkey is a true native American food whose greatest misfortune was to be typecast as Thanksgiving dinner. People have a hard time seeing around that, just as they had a hard time seeing William Shatner as anything but Captain Kirk, at least until he started doing those Priceline spots.
Turkey is flexible and wonderful. It's used in a turkey burger, in the meatballs for the spaghetti and meatballs, and — rather unexpectedly — in a mild but solid red curry ($11.99/lb.) The great issue with the flesh, particularly from the breast, is its tendency to dry out, but when it was bathed in a luxurious coconut-milk broth (and cut into small pieces for faster cooking), it was fine.
We thought it was better than the slightly pricier beef red curry ($12.99). The beef was tougher, and its flavor fought more against the curry. Beef needs little to no help in the matter of flavor and isn't always gracious about accepting such help. Neither red curry looked especially red, incidentally; the color was more ochre, almost yellow, and indeed these could have been passed off as yellow curries.
Roast chicken ($11.99 including two sides) was wonderful, with nicely crisped skin and juicy flesh. But we ended up with a single piece, a whole leg, which might have counted as two pieces if the thigh and drumstick had been separated, but they would have been small. The black quinoa salad on the side was striking to look at, with a gloss reminiscent of beluga lentils, and the "zesty" citrus vinaigrette was serviceable. Mildness rules the day here. You could serve the zesty salad dressing to your grandmother, and the curries are tame enough to feed to a baby. This is fine. But if, like me, you like food with a measurable flame factor, you should adjust your expectations accordingly.
The mac 'n' cheese was served cold, though it was still creamy and hadn't congealed. It's the kind of thing you'd eat with a deep sense of gratitude if, brutally hung over, you found it in the refrigerator one Sunday morning. You'd thank the Almighty for remembering you at all, and you wouldn't quibble about a small matter like temperature. Still, it would be better warm. The pasta is whole-grain: a plus.
Ordering is complex, with a murk of choices, options, and pricing plans. It's like struggling at the podium of a budget airline — check this, carry that, headphones? By the time you're done, you need a glass of sauvignon blanc ($5), to settle down. It wasn't Sancerre but it wasn't bad, either. Getting anything here for $5 is beautiful. But that's our brave new world.
Daily: 10 a.m.–8:30 p.m.
3401 California, SF
Wine and beer