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Photo by Tenaya HillsWhen I ordered a portobello mushroom burger at Sidney's Café, owner/cashier/waitress/baker Sandy Sauers asked if I wanted fruit or coleslaw with it. "Fruit, please," I replied with a reluctant nod of atonement toward sins of French fries past, and prepared for unripe melon balls and watermelon rinds. But when I glimpsed the telltale red of fresh strawberries, I threw away doubt and guilt and replaced it with something approaching indulgence.
See, my fellow hobohemians and I tend to eat like crap: ramen, bread and other on-the-cheap entrées. And for better or for worse, corporate America is desperately trying to change that. It's because of people like me that an Amazon.com search for "diet" produces 7,262 results, that McDonald's recently rolled out a marketing campaign urging my Nielsen bracket to "catch a fruit buzz" (read: prove Morgan Spurlock wrong). They're smart—the Atkins backlash is creating a rise in sales of everything not meat and has rendered the FDA's food pyramid a bandwagon worth hopping on . . . again. But this neatly packaged attempt to push healthy eating ultimately comes off as crass and insincere, much like those anti-smoking commercials put out by tobacco companies.
Sidney's, however, is different. This charming café, right in the center of Fullerton's ever-expanding downtown bar life, might capitalize on the needs of the health-starved—it's a vegetarian joint, opening daily at 7 a.m. with an almost entirely vegan breakfast menu—but in a home-cooked, motherly, it's-good-for-you-because-I-say-so way. And it avoids the flower-power air of holistic arrogance that usually accompanies an herbivorous lifestyle: the décor isn't composed of mismatched trinkets and curtains but instead features a sleek, stonewashed dining room with stylish black tables, a touch born of Sauers' background in graphic design. Likewise, the customer base isn't exclusively Green: you find impeccably tanned Newporters, soccer moms, tattooed bros, sweaty laborers, everyone—there are even peanut butter dog biscuits on the menu. (This animal-lover aspect could easily devolve into a gimmick, but somehow it winds up feeling genuinely warm, fuzzy and absolutely apropos for an eatery named for Sauers' dearly departed pup.)
Seeking inspiration for the menu's dishes—light, veggie versions of California-style Americana, with hints of Mediterranean—Sauers turned to her own home kitchen. She excels with small touches, such as a feta cheese and sun-dried tomato dressing that sits lightly on the portobello mushroom burger, adding a freshness to the dusky fungus, or almonds and golden raisins on a surprisingly zesty coleslaw. Even the chips in the chocolate chip cookies achieve a perfect, just-melted stasis.
Lunch and dinner menu items range from the simplicity of a grilled cheese sandwich tricked out with avocado and salsa to the more (metaphorically) meaty T.L.T. (tomato, lettuce and peanut-y tempeh). Even better is the tart-but-sweet California mix salad: huge, topped with pecans, a fantastically light raspberry dressing, avocado and crumbly feta. Breakfast at Sidney's, meanwhile, means muffins: fluffy, hearty objects with fresh flavors ranging from banana walnut to a mellow pumpkin carrot to a wondrous sweet potato. But be quick with your purchase: they're usually out by noon.
Sauers opened Sidney's in December 2004, citing her own corporate burnout as inspiration, not to mention John Robbins' Diet for a New America, which first ignited her interest in vegetarianism. Her goal is for Sidney's to become "the best damn lunch spot in town" and reduce her day-to-day, nine-to-five-ish stress. "Best damn lunch spot" is within reach, but her ever-amiable omnipresence at Sidney's ensures the latter objective won't happen for at least the next few fiscal quarters. Sauers officially works three days a week, but "visits" the other four and ends up working on her off-time. On the morning I spoke with her, she covered two shifts—breakfast cook and cashier—and was in desperate need of a grocery run for avocados. But "business is getting better and better," and she recently hired a fourth cook. McDonald's may want me to "catch a fruit buzz," but I think I'd rather have a muffin.
SIDNEY'S CAFE, 108 W. WILSHIRE AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 525-5111; WWW.SIDNEYSCAFE.COM. OPEN MON.-WED., 7 A.M.-4 P.M.; THURS.-SAT., 7 A.M.- 9 P.M.; SUN., 7 A.M.-8 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$20, EXCLUDING DRINKS. NO ALCOHOL.