An Honest Meal

Our food expert sizes up healthy restaurant chain True Food Kitchen.

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  • Written by
    Bonnie Graves

Dieting is perhaps Los Angeles’ most popular sport. From the Zone to Atkins to Paleo, many of these diet plans focus on sins of omission rather than commission, i.e., it’s what you don’t eat that matters.

More recently, however, diet trends are focusing on proactive eating with a special emphasis on anti-inflammatory foods. Chief among these evangelists is Dr. Andrew Weil, who is one of the few American MDs who can justifiably be called a guru. While critics have questioned his many commercial ventures selling the same supplements he recommends medically, his commitment to healthy eating has undoubtedly inspired millions to make better choices.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious illnesses—including heart disease, many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease”

Dr. Weil’s many books and cookbooks outline his contention that inflammation causes disease. As he puts it, “It is becoming increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious illnesses—including heart disease, many cancers and Alzheimer’s disease. We all know inflammation on the surface of the body as local redness, heat, swelling and pain. It is the cornerstone of the body’s healing response, bringing more nourishment and more immune activity to a site of injury or infection.”

He continues to assert, “When inflammation persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes illness. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition and exposure to toxins (like secondhand tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation, but dietary choices play a big role as well. Learning how specific foods influence the inflammatory process is the best strategy for containing it and reducing long-term disease risks.”

Essentially Dr. Weil believes that food is our best medicine, and he’s spent the last 10 years bringing that medicine to the masses. True Food Kitchen, Dr. Weil’s restaurant concept, was launched in Phoenix with industry veteran Sam Fox in 2008 and is now at 25 locations and growing.

True Food Kitchen caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey too, and the media icon made a substantial equity investment in the brand and joined the company’s board of directors last July. Named as the top emerging restaurant brand by data firm Fishbowl, TFK is poised to double in size in 2019 with Oprah’s infusion of capital and her broad fan base.

TFK is clearly good business, but is it good food? My family and I recently visited the bustling El Segundo site to investigate. The connection to Dr. Weil is made explicit upon arrival, when guests are handed both a menu and a copy of his anti-inflammatory food guide. (Oddly, all guests were also given a blank index card but no pen or further instructions. Ours quickly became a paper airplane, thanks to my 8-year-old.)

The food guide features an eye-catching photograph of a pyramid of the anti-inflammatory foods, herbs and spices that Dr. Weil recommends in his books, such that it was easy to see just how commonly these ingredients appear on the actual menu. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu items are clearly noted, and seasonal highlights are denoted by a little green vegetable icon. All dishes are also marked with caloric counts.

The cuisine at True Food Kitchen is an amalgamation of Mediterranean, Asian and Californian influences—an excellent bowl of dashi ramen can be ordered alongside a burger and a lasagna Bolognese. Conceptually, this means everyone ought to find something to order even if it also means option overload.

I liked the kids’ menu too, with an almond butter, banana and apple sandwich or a chicken teriyaki bowl available alongside the requisite plain pizza (organic DiNapoli tomatoes!) and burger (grass-fed!). Tellingly, there are no fries here, where carrots are offered with tzatziki in lieu of ranch.

We ate everything from pizza to noodle bowls to salads to burgers to entrées to desserts at True Food Kitchen, and it was all mostly just OK—with the exception of that ramen, which was perfectly executed and slurped up with delight. It’s not that anything was prepared poorly; it was rather that it was prepared formulaically.

But a bowl of cashew pad Thai with kombu, gai lan, mushrooms, zucchini and a tamarind chili sauce could have held its own at my favorite Thai dive in the Valley—it was that good. I think someone with some Asian home-cooking experience must’ve been working the line that night.

Beverage highlights were a yummy pressed apple soda with cinnamon for the kids and a delicious pomegranate margarita with just the right amount of jalapeño kick. Someone knows how to tend bar at True Food Kitchen, though the sommelier in me cringed when I saw all the drinks being hand-carried as opposed to being transported on trays. I am not a germaphobe, but that’s a very unsanitary choice for running beverages. This didn’t make sense to me, as it actually creates more work since fewer beverages can be transported in a single run. But I digress.

Wines are duly marked as organic, biodynamic or sustainable, but they are all corporate wines made in mass quantities. True Food Kitchen’s wine list is an afterthought that was left to distributors to fill with large-volume products, and that’s a shame in a restaurant that seeks to highlight seasonality in California.

True Food Kitchen is what Americans need, believe me, in a country that boasts something like a gazillion Olive Gardens and TGI Fridays. Those unlimited, fake-buttered breadsticks and loaded potato skins will kill you for sure, so don’t get me wrong.

TKF offers warm service, a gorgeous room of reclaimed woods, water-efficient bathrooms and plenty of arugula. I’d choose it over pretty much any chain restaurant out there—except for Tender Greens and Lemonade, which both offer a higher level of food execution, albeit it without the table service. But we’re all spoiled and then some by these local California favorites. Oprah and the rest of America also deserve a healthier option, and it’s a void that True Food Kitchen is wisely filling.