In old movies and cartoons, they used to put a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other when a character was struggling with a moral dilemma. That image came to me when I noted the location of the Flame Broiler, a restaurant chain that subtitles itself: "A healthy choice."
It's right next door to Dickey's, the new Texas barbecue where, true to Lone Star State tradition, the fare centers around meat, meat and more meat. Given the prevailing trends in nutrition policing, we know who'd be the devil here.
But to be fair about it, the simple menu at the Flame Broiler gives meat a starring role, too. I was a bit surprised to see so few vegetarian options here -- no tofu, just bowls, plates and mini bowls with beef and chicken. The real difference with this chain, which we first visited in Long Beach and San Clemente years ago, is that the meat in proportion to the rice and vegetables is a more nutritious mix than what other restaurants typically serve. They also promote the fact that they don't fry, use dairy, chicken skin, trans-fat or any "added" MSG (note that important adjective). And like In-N-Out, they keep everything simple, so the kitchen can cook your food to order and get it to you in 10 minutes or less.
For meat you have four choices: dark or white chicken, marinated Angus beef or marinated beef short ribs. White or brown rice. Added vegetables (cabbage, carrots, broccoli and green onions) or not. All these combinations are available in bowls or plates, with everything under $8.
We got what we love: the Works ($7.49), a plate with chicken and Angus beef, vegetables, brown rice and the fascinating naked coleslaw, with a scored half orange as dessert. The coleslaw is interesting because the shredded cabbage (regular and purple) and carrots are not mixed with mayo; instead there's a light house sesame dressing on the side that is just amazing. When you pour it over, you can still taste the cabbage.
The restaurant also offers a "super" sauce that is soy based and a restrained hot sauce. (The trend to hot-hot-hotter sauces has one unfortunate side effect: You can desensitize your taste buds. It's like a person shouting in a room until you can't hear anyone else.)
Both sauces work well with the meats and the brown rice, and the vegetables are always perfectly steamed. My only wish was that you'd get more broccoli on the plate, but I understand that the generous mound of rice doesn't leave much room.
The bowls don't include the orange or the naked coleslaw, but they're all under $6 and about 600 calories or less, with the plates hovering near 850 calories. The mini bowls are a snack at below 400. I just wonder how long it will be until someone becomes like the guy at Subway, loses a grip of weight by eating only at the Flame Broiler and becomes the spokesperson. It will happen. They are pretty up front about all the nutritional information on the menu; sodium levels are high on the plates (880 milligrams is the highest), but the mini bowls are more reasonable at around 300.
The takeout menu is like a miniature health class with a page of information about cabbage, broccoli, carrots and green onions. I used to put cabbage in the nutritional ghetto with iceberg lettuce, but they've sold me on it having great medicinal value. At least that's what the ancient Greeks and Romans used to believe, but they also used lead in their water systems, so who knows.
The chain was founded in 1995 in Fullerton by Young Lee, a UCLA economics graduate who was on the road at lunch a lot and dissatisfied with his restaurant choices. He wanted to create Korean-style fast food without a lot of fat. Within four years the restaurant's popularity led to requests for franchising arrangements, and the chain has grown to 135 restaurants in four states.
If you're looking for a healthy meal, check it out. We know we'll be back.