Here’s another feature where WeLoveDC authors Donna (greenie) and Katie (foodie) have paired up to tell you about local restaurants that take on the challenge of being green. Donna will explain the logic behind the environmentally friendly trends, and Katie will tell you if the food tastes any good. It’s a rough life, but someone has to do it, right?
Katie: When I first heard about Mixt Greens opening in DC I was already bored. We have Chop’t, we have Sweetgreen, what in the heck are we going to do with another lunch-only salad place? But someone who eats as much as I do can always use a good salad. So when I was invited to try it out, I went hesitantly, and without much expectation. And I must say, I’m a convert.
Donna: It’s hard to find a restaurant that is carrying out as many environmental initiatives as successfully as Mixt Greens, which currently has three locations downtown and will open a fourth later this year. Executive Chef Andrew Swallow, who with his sister and brother-in-law founded and run the restaurant, is out to revamp fast food. In its traditional form, fast food is bad, unhealthy food, said Swallow, but many people eat it every day due to time constraints. So he set out to offer hungry, time-crunched people an alternative — healthy high-end salads. “I wanted to create the nicest fast food restaurant I could, using seasonal and local food.” I think he’s succeeded.
Katie: Mixt Greens locations are gorgeous, and most of the interior is recycled – the tables are made of plastic laundry detergent bottles, mostly blues and whites, with a few red specks from Tide bottles thrown in. Even the wood decorating the salad casing is reused from old trophy stands. Nothing is overboard for Mixt Greens, and they don’t boast about it. When customers walk in the front door, they’re greeted by a long counter of ingredients and welcoming, knowledgeable salad mixers. You peer over the counter, ordering a pre-made salad or throwing together your own.
Donna: No pale iceberg lettuce here! Mixt Greens brings in fresh ingredients from local farms. A chart on the wall shows exactly where your salad comes from, with many ingredients hailing from Pennsylvania or closer. What does this mean? That they were raised carefully on smaller farms, not on industrial operations, and were spared the 1,500 miles on a truck that most food travels. When they’re placed in your bowl, they are tender and fresh.
Katie: There’s almost every vegetable you could want – plus homemade croutons and crunchies. The dressings are all made in-house, and I appreciated the guidance I received from the woman mixing my salad. I had made a salad out of all the things that sounded good to me, trying to keep vegetarian (as I do on my days off). I wound up putting together a green salad of fruit and nuts, and had been craving olives so I threw those in there too. (Even I wing it with the flavor profiles of my food when forced to create them!) I chose what I thought sounded good, a champagne vinaigrette, but the woman behind the counter scrunched up her face and asked me if I was sure. This is one of my favorite things to have happen in a restaurant – for someone to doubt me. “Nope, not sure. Why, what do you suggest?” She wound up pairing my fruity and olive salad with a herb dressing, and sent me on my way. I sat down at the tables-formerly-known-as-laundry detergent, and dug into my big bowl of salad.
Donna: Although Swallow strives to one day have all ingredients be local, that isn’t practical yet. One reason is because winter is a challenging time to grow vegetables, although greenhouses do exist. The other is that customers demand the same ingredients year-round. “The American public wants things, and they want them now. They’re used to having tomatoes, cucumbers, and asparagus all year,” he said. The tradeoff? That asparagus will be shipped in all the way from Mexico, losing taste and racking up carbon miles.
Katie: There are a couple of things about Mixt Greens that I like better than Chop’t is that the salads, while overwhelmingly large, are served in a wide, shallow bowl. This just makes for happier fork use, and I like that it’s reusable. The salads are also served with a wheat bread, which enables them to make delicious looking sandwiches. The Rooster sandwich, which is herb marinated grilled chicken, sliced apple, fontina cheese, basil pesto, mixt greens, aioli, on an acme bread herb slab is a winner. Also, you can just TELL the ingredients are better quality.
Donna: Not all ingredients in these salads are certified organic. Instead, “natural products are what we strive for,” said Swallow. If you follow these issues, you know that “natural” can be just a marketing buzzword, that it carries no formal meaning, and that only “certified organic” is backed by federal standards. At Mixt Greens, said Swallow, natural means food grown by farmers who use actual natural practices, but who may not have pursued the certified organic designation because of the program’s cost.
Donna: Swallow worked in fine dining for several years before starting Mixt Greens and honors that background. All General Managers in his stores are graduates of culinary school, and his salads cater to foodies, featuring heirloom tomatoes, butternut squash, English peas, and the like. (Look for his new cookbook, Mixt Salads, due out next week.)
Katie: The drinks are great too – they have signature lemonades and teas, and serve organic sodas. I love the lemonade, tart and sweet all at the same time. Another bonus of Mixt Greens is that each of the tables stay set, so you don’t have to go collect your own silverware. Not only that, the view from the tables are great, since you can stare at the herb wall.
Donna: Mixt Greens shows how to do urban agriculture by growing its herbs on the inside wall and encouraging customers to do the same. Even the ice used to cool meats and cheeses is sustainable; as it melts, it’s used to water those plants. (See more of their green efforts.)
Katie: I love the Mixt Greens concept and sustainability commitment. I believe that Swallow and company will make an impact on local DC culture, and I’m happy to have them here.
Donna: Another of Swallow’s goals is to grow his business large enough to have an impact on what farmers grow — ultimately to affect prices and to help make fresh food available to people who can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. That people in inner cities can’t afford fresh vegetables bothers Swallow; he hopes to help change this culture. If more restaurants were as dedicated as Mixt Greens, dreams of food justice and sustainable, healthy, planet-friendly food could quickly become reality.
Mixt Greens recently opened three locations in Washington, DC: 1200 19th Street, NW, 1311 F Street, NW, and 1700 K Street, NW, with a fourth scheduled to open later this spring at 927 15th Street, NW. Each location is open Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 3 PM, and prices range from $7.95 to $11.95 for salads and $8.95 for sandwiches, which are served with a side salad of greens.