- Alex Springer
Though our fast-food-driven dining culture has made it extremely difficult to hit the center of the "healthy," "fast" and "affordable" Venn diagram, there are moments when I feel like we as humans are pushing the needle in the right direction. Consumers and restaurateurs are becoming more cognizant of the fact that junk food delivered at warp speed—delicious as it is—needs to make up less of our diets. It's much easier said than done, however, when your only options for a quick, cheap meal are 10 places that sell the same burger and fries.
As this is the world we live in, watching a place like Vessel Kitchen (multiple locations, vesselkitchen.com) open its fourth location makes me feel a teensy bit more hopeful for the future of our eating habits. Vessel's approach to fast-casual eating is based on sustainability, seasonal ingredients and local partnerships—because those concepts yield tasty food. The Vessel team acknowledges the fact that putting in some extra work to prepare locally sourced, seasonal ingredients is helpful for several reasons, but it all comes back to making food that people will enjoy eating. The result is a fresh, considerate menu for those of us who are after a good meal that we don't have to cook without the buyer's remorse of eating garbage.
After perusing Vessel's menu, which changes every six months or so, it's clear that you're dealing with people who know how to blend and balance their ingredients for specific flavor profiles. The poke tuna bowl ($14) spruces up the fresh yellowfin tuna with a ponzu marinade and a spring roll slaw of veggies like jicama and snap peas tossed in sesame seeds and a Vietnamese vinaigrette. It relies on Asian-inspired flavors as its basis, but the Israeli couscous and avocado pop in to add some creamy texture to the acidic flavors. The paper-thin slices of pickled ginger send this dish over the top—they bite just hard enough to let that fresh ginger flavor take the lead.
Where most fast-casual places would just stick with one regional set of flavors, Vessel takes you all over the place with their menu. In sharp contrast with the sharp, acidic and crunchy notes of the poke tuna bowl, the chicken and grains bowl ($11) mixes an herbed avocado salsa with micro cilantro and fire-roasted pepper crema with shredded chicken on top of a basmati rice and quinoa blend. It's a dish that could use some texture—it's smooth on top of soft on top of pillowy—but the flavors are lovely. The herbaceous cilantro and avocado salsa take their cues from Mexican cuisine, and the fire-roasted pepper crema livens things up with a decent amount of heat.
Leaning into the flavors of Central America while borrowing techniques from the Middle East, Vessel has a selection of flatbread tacos that are worth exploring. Each taco is served on a street taco-sized piece of naan, which is never a bad thing to include in a meal. The falafel tacos ($10) are great for those who want some traditional Middle Eastern flavors—the hummus, spiced tahini and Israeli salad work excellently with the crispy falafel.
While Vessel's prices veer toward the higher end of the fast-casual spectrum, the portions are big enough that most of the signature bowls can be shared between two people. They even have family meals ($30) that let you pick a protein and three sides. According to the menu, the meal serves four, which feels about right since it fed me, my wife and my daughter for dinner and lunch the next day. We went with the braised beef, roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and ratatouille, and we were impressed by the speed and quality of our meal. Occasionally they leave roasted veggies like the Brussels sprouts and the sesame soy cauliflower under the broiler for a tad too long resulting in premature cremation of the dish's top layer, but the flavors are always on point. The carrot chermoula—a Moroccan-style relish—is the acidic soulmate to the roasted Brussels sprouts. As Vessel has a build-your-own bowl aspect to its menu, it's fun to check out the list of ingredients in each dish to see what kinds of complementary flavor combinations you can create outside of their tried-and-true signature bowls. With the menu as vast and diverse as it is, this is a rabbit hole that would be all too easy to tumble down.
Indeed, it's that rabbit hole that makes eating at Vessel so intriguing. The secret of their success is an encyclopedic knowledge of culinary tricks that get the most flavor out of their ingredients. It's no secret that food from the good-for-you end of the pool isn't known for fireworks of flavor, but a keen culinary mind knows how to get a bang out of ingredients like kale and snap peas. Each item on Vessel's menu has a thoughtful blend of seasoning, spicy heat or tangy acid, reminding us that it's always possible to eat well without leaving our taste buds in the dust.