The ills of fast food are becoming increasingly well known, and yet Americans continue to roll through the golden arches regardless. All those cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets are bad news for the planet because industrial livestock production is responsible for massive outputs of carbon, nitrous oxide and methane, not to mention soil erosion, deforestation, ground-water pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Fast food also contributes to the needlessly cruel treatment of animals, with crowded feedlots, dark cages and pens too small to turn around in. With type-2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity on the rise, fast food isn’t so good for humans, either. Any notion that fast food is cheap or convenient sorely misses the big picture.

The world would be a better place if there were no fast food. But what about healthier fast food? San Jose’s 2-month-old Sante Grill takes a modest step in that direction. Owner Bill Cory says he doesn’t trumpet his restaurant’s healthy aspirations lest they scare folks away since many diners equate fresh and healthy food with food that doesn’t taste good. (But unfresh and unhealthy food? Now that gets people’s appetite going. Go figure.)

Sante Grill aims to “revolutionize” fast food with its lighter, nonfried, less calorically dense menu. The restaurant isn’t out to save the world through its food, but it’s just trying to make fast food doesn’t taste like fast food. And on that score that restaurant does pretty well.

The t-bacon cheeseburger ($5.49) is lightened up with turkey bacon, “lite” American cheese and grass-fed beef. It’s a decent burger that doesn’t leave such a large carbon footprint. The patty—80 percent beef/20 percent fat—is rather thin and a bit dry, but taken as a whole with the pickles, lettuce and other condiments and whole-wheat bun, it’s a step above a Whopper.

Cory couldn’t say exactly where his grass-fed beef comes from, because he buys it from a wholesale supplier, but the bison in the buffalo burger ($5.99) comes from Durham Ranch in Wyoming where media-mogul-turned-rancher Ted Turner is trying to revive interest in this great American meat. Leaner than beef and pasture fed (instead of fattened on corn and other grain like most industrial meat), bison is a forward-thinking alternative to beef. The lower-calorie pepper jack cheese and chipotle-flavored mayonnaise are nice touches, too.

Along with burgers, any self-respecting fast-food joint has got to get its fries right, too. Sante’s are good, especially considering they aren’t fried. Instead, the restaurant uses an 5,000-watt infrared convention oven to bake the fries in superheated air. The potatoes come out pleasingly crisp outside and moist inside. For something different, try the crispy green-bean fries, lightly battered green beans taken for a spin in the turbo oven.

For something really good in a messy, nachos kind of way, go for the white-bean chili chicken cheese fries ($6.25). The name pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the dish except that you have to eat it quickly to avoid soggy-fry syndrome.

Spicy Pacific Rim grilled chicken ($10.99) is another winner. The twin chicken breasts are lacquered with a sweet and spicy sauce that’s actually spicy. It and other entrees come with a choice of two sides. The menu might switch to a choice of one side to bring the price down. Either way, try the sweet potatoes. Rather than being cloyingly sweet, the puréed potatoes have a spiced, savory side to them that was surprisingly good. I’d welcome them to dinner for Thanksgiving.

For desserts, head for the fat-free frozen yogurt shakes ($4.99). The mocha biscotti is a good flavor. Sante also serves beer and wine, which further differentiates it from other fast-food restaurants.

Sante Grill gets points for serving its food on washable plates rather than disposable paper, plastic or Styrofoam. What’s really revolutionary is the availability of vegetarian options. The menu includes a vegetable burger ($4.99), various wraps like the “south of border” veggie wrap for $3.99 (let’s call it what it is: a burrito) and the “Mediterranean portobello” mushroom wrap ($5.99). I liked the veggie potstickers ($4.99), too. They’re available steamed or fried.

None of Sante’s produce is organic. Cory says that for a fast, casual place, serving organic produce would make the cost too high. That’s probably true. It’s too bad few people are willing to spend a little more in defense of their own self-interest, i.e. a healthy planet.

Low-calorie is good, but so is low-carbon food. Serving fast food that’s not quite so fattening is a needed change to the market, and I commend Sante for it. But better-for-you fast food addresses only a small part of a much larger problem. What good is a flat stomach and a low cholesterol count if the natural world on which we ultimately depend for our wellbeing is in peril?

Sante Grill
143 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose.
Fast food, low calories