There's a face that some people make when they hear the words "health food."
Alvy Singer, the consummate, myopic New Yorker portrayed by Woody Allen in his 1977 comedy Annie Hall, made that look when he found himself in a Los Angeles health-food restaurant. After looking at the menu, Singer, whose love for The Sorrow and the Pity is rivaled only by his love for a pastrami sandwich, follows up his order – "I'll have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast" – with an obvious grimace.
Jessica Burgan and Sandra Telep understand that scowl.
They've seen it on the faces of customers who first walked through the doors of Hoi Polloi, their small Allegheny West café/coffeehouse located amid old warehouses and dainty Victorians on the North Side.
"When we opened, some people came in, looked at the menu as if they thought this was a 'health food' restaurant," says Burgan. "You know, like it's nothing but sprouts and lettuce."
But the skeptics returned, dazzled by the playful menu's selection of vegetarian and vegan fare, freshly squeezed juices, the comfortable space and low prices (all sandwiches and wraps are under $5). With the exception of a few baked goods, everything on the menu is made from scratch – from muffins to soup to pesto – and heated in the oven. The Hoi, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, employs no microwave.
One local vegetarian chatboard, Happy Cow, lists Hoi Polloi's veggie chili as the best in the city. Tongues are also wagging about other menu items such as the mango wrap, filled with fresh mango and red onion salsa, black beans and rice; the yogurt parfait, with granola and fresh fruit; and the grilled Nutella treat, featuring the chocolate-hazelnut spread and banana slices on toasted farm bread.
And it's not just Pittsburghers waxing over the tasty offerings.
"We get customers from around the block and, like, Canada," laughs Burgan. The café is listed on vegetarian Web sites, so "a lot of road-trippers stop in."
Mostly though, the women seem proudest of watching doubtful carnivores swoon over a plate of tofu curry.
"We didn't set out to be a 'vegetarian' restaurant," says Telep. "We offer comfort food that just happens to be vegetarian."
1100 Galveston Ave.