Kale to the Chef at Healthy Junk
If you're eating dinner at Healthy Junk, you aren't there by accident. You didn't happen to just stroll by and thought you'd try it on a whim. Past a certain time, after the time-clockers go home, there are no accidental drop-ins in this part of Anaheim. Healthy Junk is located at the Center Street Promenade, a new retail-and-restaurant district operated by Shaheen Sadeghi of LAB fame that stands just across the street from City Hall and has aspirations to be the next Third Street Promenade. But for now, any time after sunset, it resembles a proverbial ghost town.
And yet, Healthy Junk stays open until 8 p.m., outlasting the other vendors in this food court who don't even bother staying for supper. But being a vegetarian restaurant takes as much commitment as being a vegetarian. It hangs on when others have given up because it has obligations to meet, just as you have a very specific reason to be here. Whether it's dietary, moral, religious, general curiosity or review-writing-related, your choice to dine at Healthy Junk was made with an open mind. No matter the motivation, you go in rooting for the place. The unwritten covenant between vegetarian restaurants and their customers applies. You know that places such as this aren't a dime a dozen, so you naturally want it to do well because its success somehow vindicates your choices, even if it's just for the evening.
The best compliment I can offer is that Healthy Junk will repay you in kind with food that makes you forget you aren't consuming meat. It does this best with its kale chips. Baking the frilly leaves with olive oil and salt not only renders the usually punishing-to-chew vegetable edible, but it also turns it into something as crave-worthy as what Lay's puts out. What was once thick and leathery is now feather-light and wispy. Pick one up, and it rustles and disintegrates between your fingers as though it were burnt parchment paper.
There is no need for fries if you order one of the burgers—those kale chips do very well as a French fry substitute, and they're most likely healthier, too, provided you don't dip them in the Ranch sauce given on the side. You want minimal distraction biting into the Anaheim Chile Burger anyway, one of the best meals Healthy Junk makes. It utilizes a whole, breaded and decadently fried slice of the chile as a better burger add-on than anything Carl's Jr. might peddle with curvy supermodels. Most of all, the same DNA that makes an In-N-Out burger so satisfying to chomp is at play here: the buttery toasted bun, the crisp vegetables and the mingling sauces tell your mouth that what you're eating is something hot and juicy.
If you need to order fries, go with the curly yam fries, lightly battered twists of sweet starchiness. The unreasonable mountain gets drizzled with ranch and barbecue sauce, but I suggest asking for it dry. There is zero chance you'll finish it in one sitting, and the sauces make it unfeasible to reheat the leftovers.
For those who like to fool themselves into vegetarianism with fake meat, there's a lot of that going on here. The fish fingers actually taste of the ocean, thanks to a functional layer of what I think is seaweed masquerading as skin underneath a thin covering of batter. Served with malt vinegar, lemons and a well-made tartar sauce, they're actually better than the overfried potato coins they call chips. And the chicken? Well, it doesn't taste much like chicken, but it does have a uniform texture and meaty pull of something chicken-like. The "beef" is better, best applied as the topping for the nachos, for which it assumes the role of protein convincingly enough because the black beans, guacamole, fake cheese, pico de gallo and fresh-fried tortilla chips taste as junky and as good as at any sports bar with a flat-screen.
Where Healthy Junk falters is its salads. A mango-topped bowl of torn lettuce has the fruit thinly sliced and arranged in a pinwheel, but the leaves seem left wanting of something, becoming a chore to eat. The quinoa it comes with doesn't help—the flavorless, translucent pellets that every vegetarian/vegan restaurant uses as though they were manna from heaven add nothing here. The Chinese chicken salad is better, with segments of hand-cut oranges and crispy noodles, but it's so overdressed that by the time you get through half of it, the rest turns into lettuce soup. For the sweet-toothed, there's a puzzlingly chalky fudge brownie and a carrot cake that's entirely too cloying. But when you're in a deserted food court eating at a stall that calls its fake cheese "chez," there's no rule that says you can't continue to munch on those excellent kale chips as dessert.
This review appeared in print as "Kale to the Chef: Healthy Junk offers so-so vegetarian in Anaheim's deserted-for-now Center Street Promenade."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.