October 28, 2008
The Loving Hut, Palo Alto--Forgettable Vegan Fast Food
The Loving Hut is the oddly-named new vegetarian chain of restaurants with locations in Milpitas, San Francisco and Palo Alto. (The name practically invites salacious riffs). They are a spinout of the vegetarian stalwart restaurant in San Jose, the Vegetarian International House. Unfortunately, Lisa and I didn't enjoy our only visit to the International House a number of years ago. We didn't like the food, and more importantly, we were put off by the cultish overtones, especially the multiple TVs blaring promotional materials for the cult. Nevertheless, I hoped that the Loving Hut chain would transcend its origins and offer a new strong competitor to the marketplace.
The Loving Hut in Palo Alto is Palo Alto's newest all-vegetarian restaurant and the first in downtown Palo Alto since the Bayleaf Cafe closed a couple of years ago. It is one of only two vegetarian restaurants currently operating in town (the other is Cafe Soulstice, a raw food restaurant attached to the Equinox gym by Fry's). Unlike Berkeley, the sister college town across the Bay, Palo Alto has had an inexplicably difficult time supporting all-vegetarian restaurants. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 3 recent predecessors that have been churned out of town, compared with at least a half-dozen all-vegetarian restaurants currently thriving in Berkeley. Why is it so hard for Palo Altans to keep all-vegetarian restaurants in business?
Unfortunately, I don't think the Loving Hut is a strong enough entrant to break the jinx against vegetarian restaurants in Palo Alto.
The facility is well located on University Avenue between High and Emerson. There is a limited number of seats, but this didn't seem to matter when I visited at 6 pm on a Monday as everyone was ordering take-out. The seating area is uniformly colored in a bright white plastic, which gives the restaurant a fresh and bright look but also felt a little sterile. There is a flat-panel TV on one wall playing the same kind of cultish promotional material as I saw at the International House, but the sound was off and it was easy enough to avoid (unlike at the International House, where there were TVs everywhere I looked and the sound was loud).
Customers order at the counter, which is next to a large deli case displaying many of the items available for purchase. (Other items are prepared in the back). I was very disappointed that the menu on the website apparently is only for their Milpitas location, and the actual menu at Palo Alto was much smaller. Right now, the Loving Hut offers a total of only 6 entrees, two of which are sandwiches, Worse for me, the most interesting sounding entree (the Guru's Curry) was unavailable because they had run out. The menu also has 3 salads, one soup and a few other sides/accompaniments.
I thought the food overall was average--not great, not bad.
* As I mentioned, they had run out of the Guru's Curry, so we tried the 7 Seas Rice instead ($6 for a decent sized portion). Without the sauce, it was bland and was dominated by the smell of nori (although the nori didn't overwhelm the flavors). With the sauce, it was a little less bland, but still not nearly as flavorful as it should have been.
* The Heavenly Salad was similarly average-tasting and comparatively expensive ($9 for an medium-sized portion, which isn't too bad except when you compare it to places like Intermezzo or Smart Alex in Berkeley, where you get twice the salad for half the price).
* The quinoa side dish was fine, a little more flavorful than the others but still inferior to the quinoa my wife makes at home.
* The fresh spring rolls ($5.50) were large but just OK--mostly good but there was a surprisingly bitter and tough-to-chew green included in the roll (not an asset). The dipping sauce was unremarkable. I think the fresh spring rolls at Garden Fresh taste better and are a better value.
* The daily banana muffin was flavorful and had a good texture. It was the best thing we ordered. However, it was not a good value--$3.50 for an average-sized muffin.
Overall, the Loving Hut may be hampered by its relatively high prices ($9 entrees/salads for counter service), which will reduce its appeal to the students, and its lack of flavorful options, which will limit its appeal to the Palo Alto high-roller crowd. Without those two market segments, who will be left to support the restaurant and its high-rent location?
Even so, I'll give it at least one more try. I have obligations in Palo Alto that routinely bring me to within 2 blocks of the restaurant, so it's easy enough for me to go back. But if it weren't so convenient and I wanted vegan Asian food on the mid-Peninsula, I would prefer to go to Garden Fresh in Mountain View, which has a more extensive menu, tastes better, and has a better cost-to-food ratio.
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