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Restaurant Review: Tender Greens

+ shameful
++ mediocre
+++ delightful
++++ amazing

Tender Greens +++

2400 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 104

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; until 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays

Cuisine: American-organic

Budget impact: Low to moderate

Tender Greens isn’t only about salads. Look past the tubs of sprightly organic lettuces flaunting their frilly peaks from behind the counter and behold slabs of succulent flank steak, lumps of crackling free-range chicken and thick filets of herb-brushed ahi. Whether you come for the greens or the flesh, everything is prepared in full view and orders are usually ready by the time you complete the trod to the cash register.

The eco-friendly eatery further snags vulnerable appetites by the mere aroma of a mesquite grill in constant action. Piled around it are picture-perfect grilled vegetables that will tempt you to reach over the glass and snatch a few. There are also Yukon mashed potatoes of the dreamiest ilk and memorable homemade desserts that change seasonally.

Here is where the healthy concept wavers.....

The spuds are served in oversized mugs and made with criminal measures of cream and butter. Portioned adequately for two people, they sell for $3.50 an order. Ignore the calorie meter if you conclude with “carrot top” cake, lemon cupcakes or brownies that sometimes hide wisps of cayenne pepper to make the cocoa pop. When fruit cobbler is available, get it. Their biscuit crusts are breathtakingly buttery.

Salads are tossed in assorted styles and sizes, and you’d swear the lettuces were yanked from the soil just minutes ago. The medleys take on everything from meat, poultry and fish to roasted nuts, pea sprouts, capers, olives and shaved Parmesan. Dressings are homemade. Much love is given to creamy tarragon and cilantro-lime, although the sherry vinaigrette acts overly tart.

Until recently, everything on the menu was priced at $10 or less. Chalk it up to our sluggish economy that Tender Greens recently added 50 cents to top-rung items; those being “big salads,” sandwiches and plate meals.

But once a fan, always a fan, especially in regards to the organic chickens used here. Juicy and fiercely homey in flavor, they sing to ciabatta rolls capturing sweet roasted red peppers and basic aioli. The flank steak is also moist and glistening, and tastes more like roast beef than steak. Its texture, however, is hit-and-miss. Buttery soft in past visits; molar-challenging when visiting most recently.

Comfort soups are also available, and now’s the time to seize upon the rustic chicken soup with lemon thyme. Just don’t tell the matriarch in your family that this version is better. Conversely, the Roma tomato bread soup with basil oil translates to spaghetti sauce on my palate. Two strikes with it, and I was out.

Tender Greens lives up to its claim of being environmentally friendly. The high-ceiling space is powered largely by solar energy. Napkins are recycled. Takeout containers are biodegradable. Staff uniforms are spun from organic cotton. And the kitchen uses environmentally safe detergents and cleaners.

Planet Earth never looked so happy and tasted so good.

Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), which was published in 2003 and distributed to major book stores and web sites throughout the U.S. and Canada. He has written extensively on food and restaurants for Living in Style Magazine; Pacific Magazine; The Gay & Lesbian Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, where he worked previously on its city desk and also wrote feature stories for the paper's Food Section. Having covered the local food beat for the past 18 years, he has gleefully overcome his phobias for beets and sweetbreads. Someday goat cheese will join that list.