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Good, cheap, and plentiful 

A surprise discovery in a fast food café

click to enlarge PIZZA OF THE MOMENT :  Instead of pizza of the day, it’s of the moment (although all pizzas can be custom ordered). This one includes housemade roasted red pepper sauce, charred eggplant, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, green onion, and roasted red pepper. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PIZZA OF THE MOMENT : Instead of pizza of the day, it’s of the moment (although all pizzas can be custom ordered). This one includes housemade roasted red pepper sauce, charred eggplant, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, green onion, and roasted red pepper.

Why have kale chips become so popular? I know the idea sounds deliciously natural, and so much healthier than calorie-laden potato chips, yet I’ve never bitten into a kale chip I could respect. At the new casual café Eatz by Dezign, dreamer that I am, I thought maybe I’d find the one crispy green chip that would have me craving another and another. Too bad their typical straw-textured kale chips didn’t thrill me either; perhaps that’s why they only charge one buck for a pile of them. Happily, there’s a better story here, or I wouldn’t have bothered writing it up. The discovery of Eatz’s freshly made, delicious foods definitely made me eager to go back for more.

Unexpectedly, I found there were several dishes at Eatz that I enjoyed very much. In fact, I’d wager some of the money I saved on their value-priced foods that Eatz beats out most of its neighboring peers. Who knew fast food could be made so well? It has a lot to do with the fact that they have chefs in the kitchen who are cooking the foods they serve rather than reheating pre-cooked frozen foods like most fast food chains. While I don’t eat at fast-food restaurants, I am constantly looking out for those great little discoveries, and I definitely found one here. 

In fact, on the first visit to Eatz, I enjoyed nearly every dish: Their toothsome veggie lasagna layered with thinly sliced vegetables and not a speck of pasta ($6); a spinach salad with cranberries and candied walnuts ($8), “tater totz” with bits of eggplant ($2) that weren’t greasy at all (lately I’ve even found unsavory greasy potato tots in fine restaurants in San Francisco), and my favorite, the pizza. It’s their specialty, and their tasty house-made crust was the perfect style for me, somewhere between thin and crispy, thick and chewy. My favorite pizza is their fennel-pork sausage and mushrooms with tomato sauce and cheese ($9). Their plate-sized pizzas make a great meal for one, or shared with someone if you order some side dishes. Honestly, I could have eaten the entire delicious pizza by myself and been quite content.

- ZEE FOR YOURZELF:  Eatz by Dezign is at 851 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo. Call 542-9504. -
  • ZEE FOR YOURZELF: Eatz by Dezign is at 851 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo. Call 542-9504.

The Eatz concept is exactly what today’s consumers prefer: farm fresh foods from local growers, simple but delicious preparations, accommodating service, and fair prices (now, even chain restaurants advertise the farm to table concept, but I’m skeptical about whether or not they’re telling the whole story). The proof is in the food at Eatz, which has been very fresh. I also appreciated the fact that the salads had very fresh ingredients—except the mushrooms in the spinach salad, which I cast aside.

The name of the place is odd. Eatz alone would be better, and I’d bet locals already call it that. Another surprise: Why isn’t a place this solid much busier? Are cheap hamburgers and fries the preference of college students? Admittedly, Eatz has undergone several changes, including chefs, yet the food has remained consistently good. Most consumers probably have no idea it’s undergone such changes, so that shouldn’t make a difference in attracting more customers.

During three visits I noticed that some people came in, looked at the menus inconveniently located on the wall high above the counter where you order, and walked back out. I wondered if they were unimpressed and found the fast food atmosphere a turn off. We saw one couple come in, read the menu, and leave. Five minutes later they were back, staring at the menu again. 

I couldn’t resist listening with them standing beside our table. They had no idea I was a restaurant critic, but I felt compelled to tell them the food was very good considering it has the appearance of being fast food. I also pointed out something else that’s not immediately obvious: the daily specials board beside the cash register. This time the couple stayed, although I didn’t get a chance to ask them if they liked it. I’d bet they did, since they were obviously looking for an inexpensive meal that provided good, quality foods.

On my second visit alone, after I finished lunch, I noticed a longtime friend standing in the kitchen talking to the chef. It was their general manager Molly Perello, whose family has been SLO County natives for several generations. Locals know her best from the popular restaurant she and her husband Greg Perello owned and operated, Restaurant 1865 in SLO. Perello explained she started working at Eatz as an accountant to help pay her daughter’s college expenses. I’m sure the promotion was immediate once they realized her greatest asset was running a successful restaurant. 

“Eatz offers high quality foods at a faster pace that’s convenient and casual, typical of what you’d find in San Francisco and L.A.,” Perello explained. “Eatz by Dezign was created by Scott Hindell in Los Angeles. It’s a concept that hasn’t quite hit the Central Coast yet.”

She noted that the menus will stay limited, focused on the most popular foods. The veggie lasagna, pulled pork sandwich, kale and spinach salads, and pizzas all sell very well. But dishes like the seasonal marketplace and ravioli that didn’t sell are no longer on the menu. 

Only one dish displeased me: the chicken porchetta stuffed with fennel, sage, and chicken ($6), which was unappealingly dry. The side dish of mac and cheese with three-year old Cheddar toasty bread crumbs with bits of bacon was far better, and so was the price ($3).

It’s clearly a place that’s trying to establish itself by continually working at improving the offerings, despite the fact that they feature an excellent concept. As much as I approved of Chipotle for its use of local products and high-quality foods, I like this idea better. I loved the huge kale salad mixed with crispy lettuces, golden raisins, quinoa, parmesan, and sliced almonds tossed with an excellent lemony vinaigrette ($8). Although it sounds pricy, it was more than the two of us could finish with the sausage and mushroom pizza, and the fully-loaded pulled pork sandwich with a tasty pesto-like sauce, oven-dried tomatoes, and crispy leek strings ($8).

On the restaurant’s website, eatzbydezign.com, you’ll find the full menu and information about fundraisers to support schools or nonprofit organizations. Their simple philosophy is fresh food fast, and I think they’re doing a superb job. ∆

Contact Cuisine Columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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