Six blocks southeast of Castro Street, Yam Leaf Bistro is like a time-out. No fighting for parking, no scrum of restaurants vying for your business. Just a pleasant meal of organic, local and vegetarian food, with vegan options. On the ceiling are thoughts such as "Here Gather Family & Friends."
Christina Liu and five friends wanted to find a restaurant they could love. The group, most of them engineers, had studied Buddhism together for nine years, and wanted to promote healthful, environmentally friendly eating. None had restaurant experience. All came from Taiwan, where yam is a popular food that is considered to have detoxing powers.
In June they bought and repurposed El Calderon, which for 44 years had served Salvadoran specialties. They kept the pupusas and several other menu items that could be made vegetarian and organic, and spent a month learning the business. They scrubbed the 35-seat restaurant to a shine, set the tables with white cloths and gray placemats, and opened as Yam Leaf in mid-August.
Start with kale chips ($2.25), crunchy and dry, but not greasy. Kale chips are very persnickety. As anyone knows who has tried this at home, the difference between under-baked and over-baked is about 10 seconds.
Vegetable soup ($6.95) changes with the availability of fresh ingredients. Recently it brimmed with cabbage, tomatoes, yams, cauliflower and tangy ginger.
The house salad ($6.95) is a bed of baby greens dotted with strawberries and blue cheese, dressed in raspberry vinaigrette that errs on the side of neither too sweet nor too sour.
The enchilada del rio ($9.95) is stuffed with mushrooms and draped in slightly spicy green sauce and luscious slices of ripe avocado.
Pupusas are a must. In homage to former owner Lita Lopez, they are labeled Lita's Pupusas ($3.95). The Salvadoran national snack can be a hockey puck of cornmeal, cheese and grease, cut by crisp curtido, a fermented or pickled cabbage slaw. Yam Leaf's pupusas dispense with the grease yet are delicious. A combination plate ($11.95) features one pupusa with crisp, tubular yucca fries. There is also a you-pick option, in which you can build your own pupusa with up to three ingredients. Smooth and sweet kabocha squash works very well.
A couple of dishes worked less well. The black bean quesadilla ($6.95 as a lunch special, $9.95 at dinner) is big and boring, despite all the condiments and side dishes: guacamole, spicy pico de gallo salsa, sour cream, refried beans and a small green salad.
In my vegetarian years I occasionally longed for a greasy hamburger or pastrami on rye. Yam Leaf's Reuben sandwich ($6.95) would have helped. It's got the toast, the coleslaw, the cheese, and it almost tastes like pastrami if you close your eyes and banish from your mind that you are eating not ribbons of spicy cured beef but a marble-mouthed hunk of smoked tempeh "bacon." It comes with sweet potato fries, delicious if not crisp.
The sandwich was nicely offset by a refreshing cold drink of "fruit salad" ($2.95) topped with chopped apple.
The menu is small but evolving, soon to include breakfast muesli and coffee and, eventually, a wine list. A young chef is helping the crew test new recipes. Expect to see vegan pasta with eggplant, Chinese-style fried noodles and a Thai-style soup.
699 Calderon Ave., Mountain View
Hours: Weekdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: parking lot in front
Alcohol: beer for now, wine in future
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: quiet
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent