Getting Schooled at Soka Bistro at Soka University

Food for Thought
Getting schooled at Soka Bistro

What little I knew about Soka University I learned from their website. Opened in 2001, it's California's newest liberal-arts college, built upon Buddhist principles, but welcoming students from all beliefs and backgrounds. But it's one thing to read about Soka; it's quite another to actually experience the campus.

Perched atop a hill and surrounded by the lush Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Parks, the college has a jaw-dropping grandeur. The first thing you encounter after you pass through the guard gates is a building that has the majesty of the Capitol and the Italian-marble opulence of the Bellagio. And as with the latter, there's a glassy reflecting pool as wide as a lake, with fountains that seem like they should sway to the songs of Sinatra.

Go deeper into the sprawling complex, and you see dormitories that could double for posh condos, a towering fortress that's actually a library, and a grassy area perfect for picnics, naps, or maybe a summertime concert. But most impressive is the Soka Bistro—a dining hall that feeds the student body at the same time it follows an ecologically responsible philosophy. Al Gore would be proud; Bill Clinton would salivate.

Run by Bon Appetit—the company that also does the food at the Getty Center—it uses all the right buzzwords: organic, hormone-free, locally sourced, sustainable, etc. A sign inside the buffet offers a simple yet sage piece of advice: “Take Only What You Can Eat.” But it's not just about eco-righteousness; chow time at Soka is a veritable jaunt through the world's cuisines. The condiment bottles stand as proof—Tapatí­o, Kikkoman and Sriracha get equal counter space with ketchup, mustard and Tabasco.

But the best evidence is the variety itself. One day, I had tender cubes of pork simmered in a mole sauce, spooned into a puffy tostada shell, and sprinkled with cotija cheese, sour cream and cilantro. There was barbecued tofu as well as barbecued chicken, paired with either made-from-scratch mashed potatoes or Japanese sticky rice. The latter was kept warm inside a communal rice cooker and can be topped with furikake shaken from tiny jars. Other times, there might be fluffy couscous or noodles. And for the fussy eater who wants nothing but a sandwich, there's a pantry's selection of breads and cold cuts.

A salad bar was stocked with fresh-cut veggies and greens, but also wakame salad and a spicy kimchi full of radish, cabbage and pep. But that's not the only salad option. At a station called “Fire and Ice,” a smiling employee wearing a poofy chef's hat will assemble a salad-of-the-day, customized just for you. One evening, I asked for the featured dish of Thai beef salad, and into a metal bowl went sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, field greens and thin ribbons of cooked beef. After a drizzle of lime dressing and a quick toss, my salad was plated. Later, I went back for seconds.

The most popular station was manned by multitasking chefs who took orders for both Asian stir-frys and burgers, each flung from the cooking surface onto plates in a whirlwind of spatulas.

For breakfast, the same gents will cook you an omelet better than IHOP's. Your choice of diced sausage, bacon, mushrooms, peppers and onions are first heated on a sauté pan, then dumped on top of a thin layer of beaten egg poured on a griddle. The egg sets quickly and gets folded over the filling into a perfect square. I ate mine after a few squirts of Sriracha and Tabasco.

Under heat lamps, pancakes, roasted potatoes, premium bacon and scrambled eggs were ready for the plucking. On ice, pitchers of orange and grapefruit juices chilled. From two covered troughs, miso soup and oatmeal were ladled into bowls. And of course, there's cereal. But the item most in-demand during breakfast? Tater Tots. This may be an environmentally conscious cafeteria at a private university, but who doesn't love Tater Tots?

Soka Bistro, 1 University Dr., Aliso Viejo, (800) 600-7652; Open Mon.-Fri., 7:30-9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. N 5:30-7:30 p.m. ; Sat.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. N 5-7 p.m. Breakfast, $7; lunch, $9; dinner, $10.

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