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Sprout Cafe

Diners can create their own salad specials at Sprout Cafe in Palo Alto

AMERICANS are all about choice. The freedom to choose what we believe and what we do is fundamental to our way of life. Food is no exception. We like options. If we canít have it our way, then itís no way.

Palo Altoís Sprout celebrates our need for choice with a vast lineup of salads and sandwiches, one of the best in Silicon Valley. Thereís nothing fancy about the place. It occupies a clean and airy space on University Avenue, with pale green walls and an open kitchen where an army of lettuce slingers wield shiny metal bowls and make salads three and four at a time. This is a place to get in, get out and still feel good about what you ate.

There are 14 signature salads: hearty, fresh bowls of greens with a huge variety of ingredients and dressings that can transform a healthy plate of lettuce into a high-fat, high-calorie meal in a snap. Not that thereís anything wrong with that.

You can also build your own salad. Grab a little clipboard and pen at the counter and choose the kind of lettuce you want; pick from toppings that include basics like tomato and cucumber to more exotic ones like shaved fennel and watermelon radishes; and select a dressing. The combinations are endless.

Sproutís Cobb salad ($7.45) is a good rendition of the classic: crisp hearts of romaine lettuce tossed with Gorgonzola, avocado, apple-wood-smoked bacon, cherry tomatoes, a whole boiled egg and a creamy basil dressing. The Kyoto salad ($10.45) is another winner, and it gives you an idea of Sproutís range: pepper-crusted ahi tuna thatís still rare inside, mixed greens, wakame and nori seaweed, somen noodles, tofu, edamame, kaiware sprouts, carrots, sesame seeds and a nutty-salty miso sesame dressing.

Salads are often written off as unsubstantial, but the steakhouse salad ($9.75) is really like an entree that just happens to have a bunch of lettuce with it. This man-salad comes with grilled marinated tri-tip steak, hearts of romaine, apple-wood-smoked bacon, fried onions, two crisp-roasted potatoes, black beans, Gorgonzola and a Caesar dressing.

For something lighter that still packs protein, the Davy salad ($12.45) is the way to go. Itís made with poached Loch Duart salmon, a farmed fish that is in a class by itself because it has great flavor and is produced in an ecologically sensitive manner, unlike the majority of farmed salmonóthe French Laundry even serves the stuff. The salad also includes baby arugula, avocado, corn, sharp white cheddar, candied walnuts, shaved fennel, red onions and a sesame ginger dressing.

I love a good sandwich, and Sprout offers 10 of them, all made with high-quality bread from Acme. The chipotle sandwich ($8.25) is a standout. Itís made with chipotle-marinated chicken breast and fontina cheese on a toasty green-onion-flavored bun. My favorite is the steak sandwich ($8.75). Sliced and marinated tri-tip shares space with crispy potatoes, sautťed corn, lettuce and mayo on hearty toasted ciabatta bread. The BLTA ($8.95) gets points for its delicious simplicityóapple-wood-smoked bacon, avocado, lettuce and tomatoes between two slices of excellent Acme pain de mie.

The only disappointment I encountered was the croque monsieur ($7.95). Where I come from, a croque monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with delicious bubbling mornay or bechamel sauce thatís been browned on top under a broiler. Sprout comes through with the grilled ham and GruyŤre cheese, but I missed the creamy layer of sauce that elevates the sandwich from just ham and cheese.

There are smaller items on the menu, like chicken summer rolls ($4.95) and pork potstickers ($5.95), but theyíre not particularly noteworthy. Do check out the iced green tea with free refills ($1.95), though.

Itís best to come to Sprout early if you want a table and donít want to suffer ear damage. The place fills up quickly once the lunch hour hits, and all the restaurantís hard surfaces make for some harsh acoustics. But itís worth the wait and the noise. Or you can call in or order online and get your food to go. The choice is yours.

Sprout Cafe
168 University Ave., Palo Alto
Daily for lunch and dinner