Health Nut – A pastel palate on a Manhattan Beach menu

Health Nut’s expansive menu makes creative use of a relatively small number of ingredients. Photo by Richard Foss

Health Nut offers fresh flavors, but little zip

There is a joke about Mexican food that it’s a cuisine of hundreds of dishes made from 10 ingredients. Mexicans have indeed found ways to bring an arsenal of techniques to a somewhat limited number of food staples, and create diversity of flavors, and textures that make it one of the world’s great cuisines.

That’s something that cooks in most of the world have done, some by necessity because it’s all they had, others out of sensible economy. Restaurant chefs who have limited storage space, and an eye on the bottom line think carefully before adding a new ingredient to the menu. If it’s a perishable item used in only one dish, and will be wasted if nobody orders it, it will be less likely to make the cut than one that can be used in several preparations.

The recently opened Health Nut took over the former Jamba Juice location in downtown Manhattan Beach. Photo by Kevin Cody

Health Nut is a small chain of restaurants serving exactly what you’d expect from the name – calorie and nutrition-conscious salads, sandwiches, and noodle bowls. Though they opened in the former Jamba Juice location, they don’t make smoothies, but do have a few simple beverages like lemonade, and fruit tea. The menu has a fairly long list of items, but when I looked at it closely, I noticed it is the economical chef’s dream, with many of the same ingredients used in every dish.

That’s a plus with this type of restaurant because when everything on the menu focuses on the flavors of fresh vegetables, there’s the potential for a lot of wastage due to the short shelf life. At the same time, the people who design these recipes need to be pretty inventive to keep everything from tasting alike. It’s a balancing act, and though they do some things very well here, they don’t always hit the mark.

On our first visit we ordered the spring roll, and the Health Nut noodle soup, which one of the counter staff assured me was one of the most popular dishes. It’s very good, with a delicate ginger flavor that adds interest to the mild vegetarian herb stock. Diners get their choice of tuna, chicken or tofu as a protein, and the soup is served with noodles on the side that you add to taste. Neither noodles, tofu, or skinless chicken breast add a lot of flavor, but they do lend some different textures. About the only thing I would change is the very large chunks of potato, which should have been cut smaller to make spooning them up easier.

The spring roll and noodle soup at Health Nut. Photo by Richard Foss.

The spring roll is a salad of carrots, cucumbers, and bean and alfalfa sprouts stuffed into a slightly chewy rice flour wrap, and cut into eight pieces. It’s a riff on the Vietnamese classic, which is often called a summer roll to distinguish it from a fried roll. The traditional version usually includes basil, cilantro, mint, or other sharply flavored herbs, plus a dash of tangy fish sauce or vinegar. Health Nut’s version is an undressed salad in a flavorless wrap until you add the protein and some of their spicy Asian dressing. I must say it’s a good dressing with sesame oil and a peppery kick. You get your choice of protein, and I picked the salmon poke, which has a mild marinade enlivened with sesame seeds. I wish they hadn’t cut up the roll because while the preparation is pretty, it’s not easy to eat neatly because it falls apart after the first bite. Still, if you like natural flavors subtly enhanced, this is a nice entrée, and the portion is generous.

We liked it enough to go back, and when deciding what to order noticed the limitations of the menu. Most of the items here are the same few ingredients combined with very slight variations – sprouts, carrots, and cucumber are in virtually every item. We tried a Chinese chicken salad, turkey-avocado melt, and a tuna salad panini to get as wide a range as possible.

The Chinese chicken salad is lettuce, carrots, dry chow mein noodles, pickled ginger, and sesame dressing. Pickled ginger isn’t part of the usual recipe, but it’s silly to be a purist about something invented in a Beverly Hills restaurant in the 1960s. The traditional version also often has almonds or peanuts and cabbage, which add texture and complexity of flavor. The pickled ginger was a good idea and added some zip to the flavors, and the sesame dressing was very good, but I prefer the traditional version.

Both sandwiches were disappointments, for different reasons. The turkey-avocado melt was oddly salty, the tuna salad the dullest I can remember having. Tuna salad can be delicious when well made, but all you taste here is tuna and mayonnaise. There are all kinds of things that can make tuna salad enjoyable – a bit of chopped celery or onion, sweet pickle relish, dill, and whole grain mustard come to mind. They were all lacking here, and sorely missed.

At the suggestion of a staff member, I also tried a “mango greentini,” iced green tea with mango juice, honey, and sugar. Way too much sugar, in my opinion, because mango is sweet all by itself, and just a dash of honey would have been plenty.

There’s a consistent aesthetic behind the food at Health Nut, focused on the natural flavors of fresh ingredients with minimal spicing and variation. Those fresh ingredients are at a price – the lunch I first described of soup, spring rolls, and two lemonades ran $42, which is high for counter service of simple food. Healthy food can be exciting and varied, but while the food here is wholesome, it falls short on those measures. I’d go back for their soup, because it’s the best expression of what they do, but will probably give the rest of their offerings a pass.

Health Nut is at 332 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Mon. — Sat. 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Street parking. Wheelchair access OK. No alcohol, small patio and a few indoor tables. (310) 943-1060. ER


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