The burger trend may — may! — be slowing down, like a lipid clot in an old man's artery. Sure, burger restaurants including Liberty Burger, Hopdoddy, Mooyah Burger, Five Guys, Smashburger, Twisted Root, Jake's, Off-Site Kitchen and more are opening all over Dallas, and all over the country, but health-centric restaurants and food businesses are beginning to occupy strip mall space with surprising frequency.
Over the past few years, the juice industry has exploded, as liquefied vegetables become the meal replacement of choice for those who wear stretchy Lululemon pants as much as they do raw denim. Start (4814 Greenville Ave.) provides meals based on responsibly sourced ingredients via drive-thru so customers who just ran five miles don't have to get out of the car. Those who want to sit down and luxuriate over Brussels sprouts and tofu with table service and a glass of sulfite-free wine have found a haven in True Food Kitchen (8383 Preston Center Plaza No. 100). Both restaurants are doing well. Start will open a second location in Oak Lawn later this year, and True Food has 10 locations across the country.
The latest Dallas restaurant to place kale over french fries is LYFE Kitchen, a restaurant group based in California that was, ironically, started by two former McDonald's executives. Mike Donahue and Mike Roberts left commodity beef and bleached flour buns for the grass-fed meat that's celebrated for its lower fat content and tucked inside whole-grain bread. They've ditched paper wrappers and plastic utensils for washable plastic plates and honest dinnerware, and they've created a modern, clean environment where you're almost completely surrounded by healthy choices.
McDonald's made an effort to give customers healthy choices, but they pitted the seaweed-bound McLean up against two all-beef patties, special sauce, etc. Customers were forced to make their choice while looking up at stylized pictures of greasy food and bathing in a dining room saturated by the smells of browning meat. The struggle was futile — special sauce always wins, and McDonald's attempts at healthier choices always suffered in sales.
At LYFE (Love Your Food Everyday) you're surrounded by images of wellbeing. A cascading herb garden projecting freshness greets you at the front door, as do menus designed to keep you on track with your dietary goals. Vegetarians and gluten-free diners can grab tailored menus that exclude unsafe dishes. The rest of us can grab an "everything" menu and order unhampered, and there's even a wine and beer menu for the drunks. Sure, you can order a burger, if you have the right menu, but at LYFE there's an unintentional trick to keep you away: It's not very good because of a dry patty and a chalky bun. And in comparison, there are healthier dishes that are much more worth your time.
Take the Buffalo chicken wrap, packed with plenty of chicken and beans that lend heft, and laced with a creamy dressing that brings some heat. It doesn't resemble health food at all, unless you consider the wilted kale salad dressed with enough lemon to make a diner pucker. Flatbreads topped with chicken and cheese or other toppings are also filling, as are the fish tacos topped with a chayote squash slaw and a chipotle aioli.
Other dishes refuse to disguise their healthful intentions. Another wrap stuffed with quinoa and hummus isn't fooling anyone — it's rabbit food — but with a side of smoky hot sauce with plenty of character, it's considerably more delicious than the rabbit food you're used to.
With plenty of lean salads and pasta dishes that make use of convincing meat substitutes, LYFE might seem like a paradise capable of transforming the most devout grease lovers, but to pull off a concept that's capable of turning the tide on a larger scale, Donahue and Roberts will have to work harder.
Guacamole served with odd chips that seem stale will never convert a Tex-Mex lover, and while the Brussels sprouts and squash served as a side with many dishes is sometimes good, the vegetables are cut inconsistently, and sometimes underdone. If you sit at the counter, you can see small signs posted to the kitchen equipment depicting exactly how to assemble each dish. A similar trick is used at McDonald's and other fast food restaurants to help ensure consistency, but the consistency is still lacking here, mostly in cooking times.
Another problem is LYFE's claims to source local ingredients wherever possible. Back in California, where the company got its start, sourcing locally is easy — the state's Mediterranean climate is perfect for growing just about anything. Here in Texas, agriculture is another matter. During the hot days of summer, okra and chiles are all you can get to grow, and during the rest of the season, local produce is limited to highly restricted availability, while locally roasted coffee, brewed beer and cultivated herbs are featured regularly.
Still, there's something likable about LYFE, and it may be in the sense of wellbeing you get as you walk out the door. Where else can you get chicken with baked-on breading meant to mimic fried chicken skin? It's not fried bird, but it's pretty close, and you'll go home without needing a post-meal nap.
There are smoothies, of course, and LYFE waters, which are refreshing. Try the muddled mint and cucumber for something predictable, or any of the selections with chia seeds for something that is not. If you're not familiar, the tiny seeds that gained their popularity as a smeared paste for the clay backs of Chia Pets become gelatinous when soaked in water. A ginger mint chia looks like a glass filled with frogs' eggs from a distance, but they slide through your mouth with just a faint slippery sensation, leaving the bite of ginger and the scent of mint in their wake.
The seeds are better in a chocolate budino, where they're soaked in pomegranate juice and take on the fruit's flavor before they're paired with a chocolate pudding made with coconut milk. The seeds aren't exactly health food at this point but that's OK because they're absolutely delicious.
Delicious or otherwise most of the food served here is satisfying, especially if you take nutritional matters into account. Calories and sodium values are listed with each dish, helping customers make informed decisions. LYFE could be your go-to restaurant if you're looking for a quick meal that won't stick to your midsection.
Unless you want a burger, of course. If you want a juicy, greasy, delicious, sloppy burger, you'll have to go to those other guys for that. And don't worry: LYFE or no, those other guys will still be there.