Location: 3610 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-621-2221. www.redoakusa.com
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Fare: Soups, salads and sandwiches
Atmosphere: Old-but-new deli-café
Natural-food eateries are as much a fixture of college towns as Birkenstocks and keggers. And while they've come a long way from the days of chewy brown rice and bland lentils, they're still up against an undeserved impression that healthful eating equals penance on a plate.
Red Oak, in the heart of Oakland -- Pittsburgh's college town -- would like to remind you that a healthy meal can be both fast and delicious. Its ethos, "Rooted in Pittsburgh," is evident. For instance, there is the 60-year-old photomural of the city, a time capsule which the owners took pains to preserve in their bright, jewel-toned space (a former bakery, which commissioned the murals), as well as the brightly mismatched Fiestaware (made at the Homer Laughlin pottery plant just down the Ohio River) on which the food is served and to the menu itself.
Red Oak also takes the eco-conscious practice of utilizing the freshest organic and locally grown ingredients, which has become so popular in upscale restaurants, and translates it to the more humble, but arguably much more indispensable, arena of the student-quarter deli.
Actually, to call Red Oak a deli is to deny it full credit. Though the mainstays of the menu are sandwiches and salads, there is also more than one nod to the venerable diner tradition. Every day the menu lists a different "Blue Plate" entree special, and eggs (local, natural and born of cage-free birds, of course) are served all day. Vegetarian, even vegan, offerings share the menu with frankly carnivorous ones.
We started with a grilled-cheese sandwich. This classic combination is, by virtue of its very simplicity, harder to get right than one might think; everything about each of its few ingredients must be good. Red Oak's grilled cheese, a blend of creamy gouda and sharp cheddar, was served on perfectly toasted sourdough bread. It also included tomato by default. In concept, we are all for this approach, but early spring tomatoes being what they are, they added little to the sandwich in practice. Jason was unhappier about the temperature of the tomato, which was hot from the grill. In his opinion, it's the contrast of hot and gooey cheese against cool and juicy veggie that makes even out-of-season tomatoes worthwhile on grilled cheese. Angelique begged to differ. She finds cold ingredients distracting on a hot sandwich and thinks that a little heat brings out the sweet, astringent flavor in otherwise wan tomatoes.
The beef-and-cheddar melt skirted this entire issue by using sundried-tomato spread, which offered more intense flavor than actual tomatoes, in season or out. The beef and cheese were good and well proportioned, and the tangy flavor of the sourdough bread made it more than just sandwich binder. But it was the layer of caramelized onions -- soft, sweet and savory -- which made this sandwich truly superb.
The red-pepper hummus sandwich presented a different set of issues. The organic 16-grain bread was, surprisingly, neither dense nor crumbly, but the kitchen-sink list of fillings -- including, besides the title ingredients, vegetables and cheese -- made the sandwich unwieldy. The thin layer of hummus was so slight that we requested extra as a side, while the mass of mushy sautéed zucchini threatened to overwhelm everything else with its soggy texture and slightly bitter flavor. On the other hand, thin slices of sautéed mushroom added a welcome note of earthiness, and wilted spinach was a great way of adding lots of this good but bulky green. Interestingly, the guy at the grill opined that this sandwich is tastier and easier to eat as a wrap, making us wonder why this option isn't on the menu.
Spinach was missing altogether from the green garden salad, one on a page of hearty, creative, meal-worthy salads. But the garden salad still offered a complex combination of flavors and textures: romaine lettuce, tomatoes (of the juicy little grape variety this time), cucumber, carrots, beets, peas, caramelized onions, radish, celery and croutons. It came with an avocado-vinaigrette dressing that was as creamy and intense as an aioli. We could have eaten it with a spoon.
Though food-as-politics is certainly embedded in Red Oak's raison d'être, it trades mainly in food-as-healthy-fuel, where the politics are in the choices of ingredients. Its main challenge seems to be in the proportions -- and presence -- of those ingredients, but Red Oak's overarching organic, local ethos is one whose time has come.
- Brian Kaldorf
- Herb-crusted wild Alaskan pollock, with vegetable slaw, and organic brown rice and asparagus