There’s a joke about Mexican cuisine that it’s a 100-dish cuisine made from 10 ingredients. Mexicans have indeed found ways to bring an arsenal of techniques to a somewhat limited number of staple foods, and to create a diversity of flavors and textures that make it one of the great cuisines of the world.
It’s something that cooks in most countries around the world have done, some out of necessity because that’s all they had, others out of sound economy. Restaurant chefs who have limited storage space and an eye on the end result think twice before adding a new ingredient to the menu. If it is a perishable product used in one dish, and which will be wasted if no one orders it, it will be less likely to make the cut than one which can be used in several preparations.
Health Nut is a small restaurant chain serving exactly what you’d expect from its name: calorie- and nutrition-conscious salads, sandwiches and noodle bowls. Although they opened in the old location of Jamba Juice, they don’t make smoothies, but have a few simple drinks like lemonade and fruit tea. The menu has quite a long list of items, but when I looked at it closely I noticed that it was the budget chef’s dream, with many of the same ingredients used in each dish.
This is a plus with this type of restaurant because when everything on the menu focuses on the flavors of fresh vegetables, there is a lot of potential for wastage due to the short shelf life. At the same time, the people designing these recipes have to be inventive enough that not everything looks the same. It’s a balancing act, and while they do some things very well here, they don’t always hit the mark.
On our first visit, we ordered the Health Nut spring roll and noodle soup, which one of the counter staff assured me was one of the most popular dishes. It’s very good, with a delicate ginger flavor that adds interest to the sweet vegetarian herb broth. Diners have a choice of tuna, chicken, or tofu for protein, and the soup is served with noodles on the side that you add to taste. Neither the noodles nor the tofu nor the skinless chicken breast add much flavor, but they provide different textures. About the only thing I would change are the very large potato chunks, which should have been cut smaller to make them easier to prepare.
The spring roll is a salad of carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts and alfalfa stuffed in a slightly fluffy rice flour wrap and cut into eight pieces. It’s a riff on the Vietnamese classic, which is often called a summer roll to distinguish it from a fried roll. The traditional version usually includes basil, cilantro, mint, or other strong-tasting herbs, and a dash of fish sauce or hot vinegar. Health Nut’s version is a stripped down salad in a flavorless wrapper until you add the protein and some of their spicy Asian dressing. I have to say it’s a good dressing with sesame oil and a peppery kick. You get your choice of protein, and I chose the poke salmon, which has a mild marinade brightened up with sesame seeds. I wish they hadn’t cut the roll because although the preparation is pretty, it’s not easy to eat cleanly as it falls apart after the first bite. Nevertheless, if you like natural flavors subtly enhanced, it’s a nice starter, and the portion is generous.
We liked it enough to go back, and when deciding what to order, we noticed the limitations of the menu. Most of the items here are the same few ingredients combined with very slight variations – sprouts, carrots and cucumber are in virtually every item. We tried a Chinese chicken salad, a turkey and avocado fondant, and a tuna salad panini to get as wide a range as possible.
Chinese Chicken Salad is made with lettuce, carrots, dry chow mein noodles, pickled ginger and sesame dressing. Pickled ginger isn’t part of the usual recipe, but it’s silly to be a purist about something invented in a Beverly Hills restaurant in the 1960s. The traditional version also often contains almonds or peanuts and cabbage, which add texture and flavor complexity. The pickled ginger was a nice touch and added a bit of spice to the flavors, and the sesame dressing was very good, but I prefer the traditional version.
Both sandwiches were disappointments, for different reasons. The turkey and avocado cast iron was oddly salty, the dullest tuna salad I can remember. Tuna salad can be delicious when done right, but all you taste here is tuna and mayonnaise. There are all sorts of things that can make tuna salad nice – a little chopped celery or onion, sweet pickle relish, dill and whole grain mustard come to mind. . They were all missed here and we missed them sorely.
At the suggestion of a member of staff, I also tried a ‘mango greentini’, an iced green tea with mango juice, honey and sugar. Way too much sugar, in my opinion, as the mango is sweet on its own, and just a pinch of honey would have sufficed.
There’s a cohesive aesthetic behind the food at Health Nut, focused on the natural flavors of fresh ingredients with minimal spice and variation. These fresh ingredients come at a price – the lunch I first described of soup, spring rolls and two lemonades was $42, which is high for counter service of simple dishes. Healthy eating can be exciting and varied, but while the food here is healthy, it falls short of those metrics. I would go back for their soup, as it’s the best expression of what they do, but I’ll probably give the rest of their offerings a pass.
Health Nut is at 332 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Mon. – Sitting. 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. Street parking. Wheelchair access OK. No alcohol, small patio and a few tables inside. (310) 943-1060. Healthnutla.com. Emergency room