March 14-20, 2007

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Pluto's tri-tip and salad greens

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Planet Fresh: Barbecue tri-tip and salad greens at Pluto's

The Science Of Pluto

Santana Row's fresh new eatery is all about choices

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

AMERICANS crave choices. We want 200 channels on our TV, 65 brands in the cereal aisle and cell phones in a rainbow of fruity colors. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when restaurants pop up to cater to this trend. Pluto's Fresh Food in Santana Row, the newest outpost of a San Francisco eatery with eight California locations, takes choice one step further: this place is all about customization. Does it work? It can. But you've got to enjoy making choices—and making them quickly.

Co-owners Gerry Bugas and Louis Kimball opened the first Pluto's in San Francisco's Marina District in 1995.

"We wanted the ability to get fresh, wholesome food in a quick-service format, which wasn't really being done anywhere at that time," says Bugas. "Our food isn't fast food and our service isn't table service."

The restaurant's concept is indeed tough to categorize with its galactic themes, contemporary design and palette of trendy colors, Pluto's shares little with other fast-casual restaurants other than price point. And that's to its credit.

The completely customizable choices of salads, carved meats, sandwiches and sides all reflect the restaurant's fresh food approach. Meats are sliced and grilled while you watch, vegetables are colorful and plentiful and breads are delivered each morning. It's a nice change from standard quick-service fare, which is often frozen and processed.

But not everything here is lollipops and roses. Salads ($4.40 for a side portion, $5.40 for a main, plus an additional 85 cents for meat on top), for example, are tricky to order. A printed menu lists your choices, but without pencils to scribble notes it's easy to lose track of what you want. I was prompted to choose among three greens (baby spinach, romaine, mixed "farmers" greens), seven of 18 fixings (everything from grilled fennel to sweet walnuts to peas), five types of dressings, four varieties of meat and three kinds of bread. Deep breathing came in handy.

The good news is that those adept at composing salads at home won't have much trouble picking complementary items. A good rule of thumb is to keep things simple as it's easy to get carried away. Case in point: my tri-tip-topped romaine salad with green beans, roasted red peppers, jicama, red onions, blue cheese and walnuts would have been perfectly respectable. But then I was offered a seventh choice and said yes—big mistake. In overloading an already jumbled mix of ingredients with one element too many (in my case, sautéed mushrooms), I teetered perilously close to the edge of salad pandemonium. But then I ate the whole, mountainous thing.

Sandwiches, carved meats and sides are less stress inducing. The marinated tri-tip, partially cooked earlier in the day, then sliced and grilled to order, was especially good. Another winner was a grilled Aidells poultry sausage with cranberry sauce on ciabatta ($5.60). A portobello sandwich with caramelized onions ($5.65) also worked but needed a bit more zing. (Next time I would request caramelized onions for the sausage sandwich and horseradish mayo for the portobello.) Vegetable sides, particularly the butternut squash with fresh herbs and the mashed potatoes with gravy (both $1.75), were homey and nicely seasoned. And definitely order the parsley-flecked "garlic potato rings" (a.k.a. curly fries). They're hot, crispy and addictive.

What sets Pluto's apart from other fast-casual establishments is its use of healthier cooking methods. According to acting general manager Hafiz Nasar, the restaurant grills its meats, steams and roasts its vegetables and fries its onion rings, chicken wings and french fries in nonhydrogenated vegetable oil. Without all the excess fat, sodium and artificial additives, you'll need some skill at choosing condiments and accompaniments that boost flavor. This can take a little practice, but there are, unsurprisingly, plenty of choices.

In an industry where little touches can make a big impact, Pluto's makes some good calls. You'll find real plates, glassware, silverware, plenty of seating and helpful employees in addition to the fresh food. But there were also some missteps. It was cumbersome getting my food to the table without a tray (and there are none), the kids' mac and cheese was cold and pallid, and the scene at the cash register verged on the chaotic. These minor lapses aside, Pluto's successfully fills what was, until now, a relatively untapped niche in Santana Row, offering quick, fresh and healthy fare at a very reasonable price.

Pluto's Fresh Food

Address: 3055 Olin Ave., San Jose (Santana Row).

Phone: 408.247.9120

Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm Sun.

Cuisine: Fast, casual American.

Price Range: $4-$6.

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