A vegetarian oasis

Yam Leaf transforms El Calderon's Salvadoran classics into healthful, organic, meat-free dishes

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.

Yam Leaf

699 Calderon Ave., Mountain View

650-940-9533, yamleafbistro.com

Hours: Weekdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: parking lot in front

Alcohol: beer for now, wine in future

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Noise level: quiet

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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Like this comment
Posted by jc
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Delicious vegan food is one reason why the number of vegans has doubled in less than 3 years. Here's a video to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: Web Link

Join the revolution! 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Earlier this year when I started moving towards eating vegetarian and vegan I thought I was in the perfect place for it. After all everyone makes jokes about California and the Bay Area as the land of the fruits and nuts and you hear a lot of people from this region talking about vegetarian/vegan and other health trends ... BUT, when I started going around looking for places that had this healthy food I really have not found a good one in many months of searching and experimenting.

Mostly what I see are really unappetizing concoctions of fake soy meat products. Trying to eat vegetarian in Chinese restaurants is the best alternative I have found, but even that is expensive and usually filled just bok choy, or one or two cheap vegetables on top of lots of rice or cheap noodles ... for the same price as huge meat dishes.

Falafel and hummus can be a good break now and then, but the offerings in that area are few as well.

I have been completely underwhelmed by the vegetarian/vegan/raw/natural food places that mostly I don't see, and trying to get vegetable dishes in other places is problematic.

I'm looking forward to trying this new place hopeful that it will be something different.

Like this comment
Posted by A little happier
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 19, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Thank you so much for this information. You just made my day!

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I took the opportunity last night to go to Yam Leaf to have dinner.

The building is in a small L-shaped strip mall some are familiar with from the place that was there before, a Salvadoran restaurant. I had never been there and don't think I ever set food or tire in the shopping center before. It is easy to find off El Camino towards Central Expwy. about two blocks in on Calderon, the street where the Jack In The Box is.

Parking was easy. The place was about 2/3 full. It's pretty small space, painted inside a mild combination of yellow and green color and easy on the eyes but not particularly decorated. The tables are not overly crowded together and the chairs are comfortable. The sound level was not too high, and the music was very low key and you could hear or it not if you wanted to concentrate on it, very relaxing.

It took a while to get a waiter, but our waitress was friendly and explained the food. We settled on a kale salad with butternut squash soup, one pupusa, mushroom enchilada, some grass jelly and flan for dessert. The food was really tasty. A distinct positive difference from the vegetarian fair elsewhere, and enjoyable. After our meal I felt pleasantly full, but not stuffed or bloated. The check came to just over $30, so it's a tad higher than a normal eatery but worth it.

Now, for the negative. I am not quite sure why, but there seemed to be no heat inside the restaurant. It was so cold we sat and ate in our fleece snow jackets! The other negative was the service was inattentive and very slow. Just for a simple meal of one course we were there for over and hour and a half. It was very hard to find get the waitresses attention even when she was in the dining room, and that was not that often. That service and wait-time could be a killer.

I liked this place and it has a lot of potential, but my girlfriend said she will not go there again since they wasted our evening. I can see her point ... they need to get better with there service and speedier with their cooking. My understanding is that they are a new place, so I'm going to hope they get their act together and continue to go and explore their menu. I really liked the food.

Thanks for posting the story about this place or I probably would have not noticed it.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2013 at 7:43 pm

"with there service" = "with their service" :-)

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2013 at 7:46 pm

jc, a resident of Adobe-Meadows ... you seem to be knowledgable about vegan/vegetarian food ... I wonder if you can list some other vegan/vegetarian restaurants you would recommend in the local area?

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