Eating healthy doesn’t have to be all kale and garbanzo beans. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be all raw, undressed kale and garbanzo beans that taste like lawn clippings.
“We want to change the way people think about eating healthy,” says Jung Kim, University of Virginia grad and co-owner of Roots Natural Kitchen on the Corner.
And if the number of people lining up at lunchtime to get their hands on a giant salad or grain bowl is any indication, it would seem that Kim and his compadres are doing just that.
When Kim teamed up with fellow health-conscious alums Alvaro Anspach, Alberto Namnum and Joseph Linzon, they had a simple vision: Bring healthy food to the Corner in a way that’s both affordable and approachable. Between the four of them they had the idea, the business know-how, an intrinsic understanding of the market after being immersed in it themselves for years and a smattering of restaurant knowledge. But what they didn’t have was experience creating a menu. Serving “delicious food that happens to be healthy” was essential to the concept, Kim says, so with a business plan in hand and a general idea of serving bowls of grains and vegetables, they enlisted the help of some seasoned professionals.
Enter Ivan Rekosh and Andrew Silver, co-chef/owners of Zocalo who have been in the kitchen longer than Kim and his business partners have been alive. The six guys sat down together for the first time for coffee at Shenandoah Joe in February of last year; Rekosh and Silver joined the team as chef consultants, and, by June, Roots Natural Kitchen was up and running.
The menu that Rekosh and Silver came up with is simple and undeniably healthy. Customers pick either a salad or a grain bowl, then load it up with proteins such as chicken or tofu, fresh and roasted veggies, legumes, fruits, cheese and housemade dressing.
“They wanted to make sure that every ingredient can stand on its own,” Silver says. “They didn’t want to just open a can of chickpeas and put it on the line; they wanted to do something to it.”
Kim says the El Jefe, with its brown rice, chicken, kale, black beans, white corn, red onions, feta, pita chips and avocado is by far the most popular signature bowl. For something a little less hefty there’s the Corner cobb salad, a pile of Arcadian salad mix topped with chicken, kale, roasted sweet potatoes, white corn, red onions, cucumbers, boiled egg and avocado, all tossed with cucumber feta dressing. And for those of you who usually ask for dressing on the side, there’s no need at Roots—not only do they dress the salad conservatively enough that it doesn’t drown the entire thing, but they pack the giant bowls so full that trying to mix anything in would frankly just make a mess.
Roots may also be the only spot on the Corner that doesn’t serve either soda, juice or booze. Kim says the water-only stations were intended to be temporary at first, but it keeps the cost of a meal under $10 and encourages customers to hydrate, so they might keep it that way.
“There’s plenty of information now that tells us why we should eat healthier, and I think this younger generation is more health conscious,” says Silver, noting that when he was in college the cheap options were pizza, calzones and ramen noodles. “That doesn’t mean you don’t want to go get your grub on at Ace Biscuit & Barbecue once a month. But you can justify it better when you have balance.”
Even if an introduction to roasted vegetables and flavorful barbecue tofu won’t ever replace an inherent craving for something deep-fried or smothered in melted cheese, Kim hopes Roots will inspire more people to eat a more balanced, nutritious diet.
“Once they’re introduced to vegetables that taste good, hopefully they’ll buy into it,” Kim says. “I think eating healthy is a trend that’s here to stay. When you really adopt it into your diet, you’re not on a diet anymore—it’s just the way you eat.”