Fresh Planet Cafe

Fresh Planet Cafe

601 N. Lamar, 476-0902

Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm; Sun, 11 am- 5pm

I'm a big fan of Fresh Planet; it's one of the few places in town that quickly gets the thumbs-up, without argument or counterproposal, when our family decides to go out for a bite to eat. (With a 10-year-old, that's somethin'.) Each of us has our own reasons for liking this place, but here's my perspective on the restaurant that sits upstairs from the Whole Foods on Lamar:

First off, you should be aware, though it feels counterintuitive given the venue, that Fresh Planet has no affiliation with Whole Foods -- the place is called Fresh Planet, not Organic Planet. The concept and kitchenmeister here is David Garrido, chef at Jeffrey's and Cippolina's. What you get -- and what I'm drawn to -- is fresh, really, really lively food, creatively tweaked with an ethnic twist -- Asian or Mexican, as appropriate -- executed with a master chef's sensibility. Probably the closest you can get to a Jeffrey's meal -- a recent grilled tuna steak, gorgeously glazed with a perfect raspberry sauce comes to mind -- sans the Jeffrey's price tag. The most expensive item on the regular menu is $7.95.

I hesitate to describe the menu as healthy -- though it certainly is -- because of the danger of an off-putting "health food" association, which would be a miscue. After I've polished off a large bowl of garlic-chile vinaigrette or honey habanero-spiked Asian vermicelli ($5.50) -- rice noodles with Asian cabbage, red cabbage, carrots, and the cafe's signature pickled cucumbers, with my choice of tofu ($1.95), portobello mushrooms ($2.25), or herbed or crispy chicken ($2.25), -- I walk out feeling sated but not full, perfect for this hot summer weather. Other family favorites are the grilled tuna sandwich with wasabi ($7.95), the mini-Gorditas with black beans and masa ($4.95) served with a fabulous tomatillo-chipotle salsa and crumbled feta cheese, the grilled fish taco served with salsa and wasabi ($7.95), and a side of perfectly seasoned black beans sprinkled with feta. We've also loved a tofu stir-fry special. Fresh Planet is an inclusive, big-tent kind of place, though, big enough to accomodate the red-meat eaters out there: The menu includes a burger ($6.50) and a Thai beef wrap ($6.95).

You place your order at the counter and then take the little gizmo they hand you back to your booth or table of choice and wait for the gizmo to flash, signaling that it's time to pick up your order. There's a nice selection of good-quality, self-serve coffees and a come-hither assortment of iced teas, from snappy herbals like currant or hibiscus mint to regular leaded, a good lemonade, or even, on occasion, a wonderful watermelon juice. (There used to be, at this beverage station, a terrific selection of the house's signature condiments, chipotle-spiked Asian ketchup and other magical potions, but now these are served only with the dishes they're meant to enliven. I miss this little touch, because part of the coolness of the Fresh Planet experience for me was mixing and matching their wonderful salsas and sauces. Now, you have to know what you want and specifically ask for it if it's not served with your meal. Some of my personal faves in this department are the tomatillo-chipotle salsa that comes with the gorditas, and the garlic-chile vinaigrette and honey habanero that go with the salads and Asian vermicelli bowls.)

At lunch, Fresh Planet really hums; at dinner, particularly if you go late, there's more breathing room. The prevailing ambience here is definitely laid-back, not unlike that of the anchor store downstairs and, not surprisingly, there have been occasional lapses.

For my money, the food's the thing here, and that's what keeps us coming back.

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