Salads and Sammies With Style at Mendocino Farms
Mendocino Farms makes a splash in San Ramon at City Center Bishop Ranch.
From a Nicoise salad, to an Impossible Burger, to a Green Goddess turkey tartine, there's something for everyone at Mendocino Farms.
Caramelized pork belly. Sustainable yellowfin tuna. Mary’s free-range chicken. Steak with chimichurri. These are not common offerings at a fast-casual restaurant, but Mendocino Farms has them all, and serves them in salads and sandwiches at a price that barely cracks $10. And now, with a 25th location that debuted this spring in San Ramon’s City Center Bishop Ranch, Mendocino Farms boasts the sleekest sandwich shop around.
If you haven’t visited City Center, it’s the ultimate mall, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop—a world-renowned firm headquartered in Paris—with two stories of high-ceilinged, glass-enclosed shops and restaurants; it feels like an Apple Store megalopolis. Mendocino Farms scored a space alongside City Center’s gorgeous lawn and glossy plaza.
The California-based restaurant group was started by husband-and-wife team Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen. Even though Chen grew up in Lafayette, this is Mendocino Farms’ first East Bay location. Her parents, who emigrated from Taipei, were chagrined when their daughter didn’t follow the corporate route. But Chen chased her entrepreneurial instincts and fell for the food business, partly because, she says, “I could work with great product and see the customers’ reactions right away.” Now Mendocino Farms serves 25,000 diners a day and plans to open five more restaurants this year. So, it seems that Chen did take the corporate route, after all.
The restaurant group’s culture is both down-to-earth and whimsical, catering to adult palates by offering 10 draft beers and a dozen wines by the glass, and to kids, who can play in a corner filled with games and a drawing board. Most every location has a distinctive neighborhood vibe and design; San Ramon, for instance, boasts honeycomb-tiled tables and “grass”-covered benches for its outdoor dining. But there is one constant at each outpost: Mendo, a life-size blue cow sculpture that acts as the eatery’s official greeter. While Del Pero conceived Mendo as a way to get noticed at the couple’s first restaurant—which, he says, had a “lousy” location—the cow has evolved into a guru of sorts. “He embodies our philosophy of not taking ourselves so seriously,” Del Pero says.
The world is taking Mendocino Farms seriously, however. Whole Foods Market invested in the sandwich shop in 2005, marking the grocery titan’s first venture into the restaurant industry. That support has allowed Chen and Del Pero to keep prices low without sacrificing quality.
Premium pork belly, for instance, is what makes the eatery’s riff on a banh mi so, as Del Pero puts it, “craveable.” Braised, caramelized, and served on toasted ciabatta—and enhanced with pickled veggies, cilantro, and cucumber—it brandishes layers of flavor and textures. On an anonymous visit, we were also impressed by A Sandwich Study of Heat, a melding of smoked gouda, smashed avocado, and roasted Mary’s free-range turkey, spiked with chili aioli and jalapeño relish, and served on rustic white bread.
Of all the dishes we tried, none became tiresome, despite the hefty portions. A taco salad might sound heavy, for example, but Mendocino Farms treats Impossible Foods burger “meat” (a plant-based protein that eats almost like beef) with chorizo spice and tosses it with romaine and kale in a creamy vegan dressing with sweet corn from the cob, black beans, and house-made “superfood krunchies.”
In the end, Mendocino Farms never comes across as kitschy or gimmicky, despite the workers’ eat happy hats and the menu’s sometimes silly signatures (see “Study of Heat,” mentioned above). And it’s much more fun ordering an expertly designed sandwich than contemplating condiments for a basic ham and cheese. Of course, that may not be what every customer wants. Del Pero says he’ll get a complaint once a month or so from someone expecting a deli. “They tell me I’m the biggest idiot ever and our sandwiches are too complex,” he says.
We would have to disagree on both counts. It seems obvious that there’s a market for an elevated sandwich shop with a sustainable ethos, carefully sourced ingredients, and refined flavors. And it took a slice of genius to be first out of the gate with a sandwich chain that feels like anything but.
6000 Bollinger Canyon Rd., Ste. 1103, San Ramon, (925) 884-2060, mendocinofarms.com. Lunch and dinner daily.