Salad Days 

The ambitious global fast-food chain Maoz just opened an outlet in Berkeley — and it's vegetarian.

What's better than regular vegan fast food? Bargain-priced vegan fast food that's really low in oil and sugar and that you assemble yourself based on your own preferences, that's what. Better yet is buffet-style vegan fast food of which you can serve yourself — for a single low price — as much as you like.

When you order a Salad Box at Maoz, you are given a receptacle containing a handful of lettuce and five hearty, garlicky, herb-and-onion-flecked falafel balls freshly fried in zero-trans-fat canola oil. Onto this you pile, salad-bar-style, nearly a dozen different house-made toppings, from lightly cooked carrot coins to flash-fried cauliflower to shamrock-green tabouleh to big grilled-red-pepper slabs to salsa to boiled beets to cilantro sauce to rich, intense tahini. You get to do this only once per Salad Box, but that's enough, because the box is as big as a catcher's mitt and vertical space is infinite. Order a falafel sandwich, on the other hand — featuring your choice of chewy white or whole-wheat pita — and you can come back and refill it again and again. Them's the rules.

Strictly speaking, Maoz isn't vegan, because two of its sauces contain yogurt and its cole slaw contains mayonnaise. But you can skip those sauces and choose others instead. And you can skip the slaw — which would be sad for any reason besides yolk-avoidance, because the slaw is lacy, tasty and, like everything else here, made with fresh, local ingredients.

Choice matters. In these hyper-personalized, custom-ring-tone times, having not just options but options within options makes a restaurant avant-garde.

Maoz looks the part. With its walls and ceiling surfaced in gleaming, wonky-oblong gray and lime-green tiles, it makes you feel as if you've wandered onto a spaceship, or the studio of a mid-Sixties TV music show featuring dancers in white vinyl boots: Shindig, say, or Hullabaloo. Guarding futuristically bright food, its sneezeguard shines. Amid this antiseptic, synthetic cheeriness stand hulking wooden tables and long benches stained a deep red. Almost medieval in their heavy, hand-hewn, dark solemnity, they're a stroke of design genius, proclaiming the confluence of ultramodern business plans and primal, simple, accessible ethnic food.

Occupying a space formerly inhabited by the Moolicious cereal bar, and already attracting a lively student crowd even in its first few weeks, Berkeley's newest flesh-free fast-foodery is part of a chain — but that just makes it all the more futuristic, as does the fact that it's a highly ambitious international chain with more than 100 branches on four continents. Founded by an Israeli husband and wife team, the first branch opened in Amsterdam in 1991.

Josh Shaeffer was living in Spain, studying for his MBA, when he first encountered Barcelona's Maoz in 2003. The Merced native was captivated by the restaurant's cleanliness, affordability — "I'm a seven-dollar-burrito kind of guy" — and a menu designed with health in mind. He wasn't even a vegetarian — yet.

"I kept it in the back of my mind that if I ever moved back to the Bay Area, I wanted to open a Maoz here," Shaeffer said. Maoz's first US outlet opened in Philadelphia in 2004. Four more are now open in New York City. Berkeley's is the only outlet west of the Mississippi. Continuing a tradition that Shaeffer loved in Spain, his Maoz stays open until 2 a.m. on Thursday through Saturday nights.

Made freshly every morning — the first shift arrives at 6 a.m. — and replaced frequently, the salad bar's components present a preternatural color palette. This further reinforces Maoz's message that meatless meals aren't merely virtuous but also birthday-balloon fun. (The chain's irreverently mispunctuated motto is Veg! Out.) So the velvety-soft, edge-of-sweetness grilled peppers are cartoon-heart crimson. The spunky sweet-and-sour red cabbage — our favorite — and mellow, perfectly fork-tender beets are apocalyptic-evening purple. The cilantro sauce, tabouleh, and searingly explosive chili-streaked hot sauce are incandescent, frenzied green. Slightly charred cauliflower and lightly oiled chickpeas offer pale, bland counterpoints. (For a small extra charge, potential add-ons include grilled eggplant and a smoky, creamy baba ghanoush.) The same recipes are used at all Maoz outlets worldwide, and the array shifts ever so slightly season-by-season: Expect to see fennel- and tomato-based items here soon.

Because it's meatless, and because so much of it is raw or lightly cooked — just one cup of oil per day is used to make all the salad-bar components, combined — you don't feel sluggish or gross after eating a lot of it. This, too, is part of the fast-fresh-healthy plan. If you forgo tabouleh, the Salad Box can be totally carb-free. This is good news to some, shocking news to others. The latter type can bulk up with Belgian-style white- or sweet-potato fries, and the vegan rice pudding that is Maoz's sole dessert. (The first time we tried this, the rice wasn't cooked all the way through; the second time, it was.)

Salad bars are nothing new. They made waves in the 1970s, when the very idea of raw spinach and jicama was wildly insurrectionary. But salad bars are getting smarter, and now a renaissance is afoot, as seen at Maoz, at North Berkeley's Chick O Pea's — which also has a make-your-own-falafel setup — and at New Amsterdam, the latest addition to University Avenue's "Gourmet Gulch." There, rather than build salads by hand, customers order $6 custom combo-salads and tailor them from a vast list of components that includes avocados, nuts, legumes, and fruit.

Second-wave fast food has begun. Bye-bye, burgers.

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