- Wendell Brock For the AJC
I’ve been stuffing myself with fast food, and for once in my life, I feel good about it.
Perhaps that’s because this orgy of eating has not included a single french fry, hamburger or milkshake.
No, ma’am. Look for me among the worshipful throngs at Upbeet, Atlanta’s new high altar of fast, clean eating. It’s the latest concept from Young + Hungry Hospitality, the company behind the city’s two Yeah Burger joints.
When you place your order at this sunny Westside spot, a spunky, fresh-faced server will make eye contact and ask you how you want your salad or grain bowl. It’s a personal moment not unlike checking into a spa. But instead of choosing a vitamin-renewal treatment for the skin or an apricot-kernel exfoliation for the feet, you’re charged with selecting the kind of food that scrubs and cleanses from within.
Those stainless-steel fast-food bins formerly filled with boxes of all-beef patties and salty fries now hold mesclun, kale, romaine and spinach. Maybe you want to start your bowl with a scoop of white rice. Well, forget that! Here the grains come in shades of purple, brown and bamboo green.
Open since June, this Howell Mill Road haven of wholesomeness proves that healthy fast food is not an oxymoron. The format can be delicious, inspired and habit-forming.
In the name of research, I really did spend a good chunk of my Labor Day weekend in this minimalist room of white walls and blond wood. Dining with friends or sometimes with just a potted tabletop succulent to keep me company, I rarely had a downbeat moment at Upbeet.
Sure, I was disappointed a few times: Like when the server dumped my fully loaded Oh-Mega grain bowl because he built it with chicken instead of sustainable steelhead trout (as the menu specified). What a waste.
Or when I was told there was no sweet-cashew dressing for my Very Vegan Salad; nor pesto for my Labne Long Time toast. (We paired smashed avocado with the strained yogurt, sweet cherry tomatoes, olive oil and sea salt, and everything was right with the bread.)
At lunch and dinner, you may build your own meal, dawdling over every grain, green, fruit, veggie and dressing decision. And what of protein? Do you want chicken, shrimp, steak, fish, tofu, boiled egg, turkey or vegan meatballs?
Or you may save time and put your trust in a house-made concoction.
I’m crazy about the Aloha Bowl, a fetching mix of bamboo rice (the grains are processed with fresh bamboo juice, which renders the rice green), mango cubes, macadamias, jalapenos, coconut, avocado, scallions and tuna poke. A splendid balance of sweet, savory, spicy, crunchy and unctuous, this Hawaiian homage is very satisfying, if not addictive.
The Thai Chia bowl, a tumble of purple rice and purple cabbage, carrots, basil, chias, cashews and succulent sustainable shrimp, was good but a little kale-forward, making it more of greens than grains. I imagine the Thai peanut dressing would smooth out any rough images. I’ll never know, though, because the kitchen had run out of it. (I settled for ginger-miso, and it worked.)
I ordered the Oh-Mega because I was curious about that steelhead trout. A melange of brown rice, edamame, quinoa, spinach, watermelon radishes, chias, cashew, lime and orange miso dressing, it was tasty. A few notes: Watermelon radishes are lovely and everything, but these waxen beauties added little flavor. Soybeans tend to have a naturally mustiness, more so here than I would have liked. Next time, I’d ask the server to break up the trout (rather than leave it in one picturesque chunk) so that it mingles with the other ingredients.
On the salad side, I recommend the Mexican-inspired Fiesta Bowl. With romaine, avocado, black beans, charred corn, heirloom cherry tomatoes, pepper jack, crushed tortilla strips, grilled organic pollo and ranch dressing, it’s a smart way to satisfy a “Quiero Taco Bell” craving. I also liked the Very Vegan (kale, quinoa, chickpeas, pomegranate and sunflower seeds and agave-Sriracha tofu).
If you really want an eye-opener, saunter into Upbeet at the down-tempo time of day normally reserved for bacon and eggs. Now get yourself a yogurt bowl and a slice of toast; for either category, there are many choices, savory or sweet.
If you’ve got a jones for the warm and comfy, consider That’s My Jam, a slice of sprouted wheat bread slathered with local strawberry jam, ricotta and a generous handful of crushed pistachios. Or the Sister Hazelnut toast, spread with dark chocolate-and-nut butter and crowned with strawberries and a sprinkle of sea salt. So good.
Order a cold Beetnik latte, bright pink with beetroot and frothy with vanilla almond milk. It’s a little sweet, but compared to an espresso beverage topped with extra whipped and caramel drizzles, it’s a revelation.
If this is the future of fast food, I’ll co-sign. One small step for omega, one giant leap for lettuce.