Dieter beware

Whether one has had a holiday season full of warm family gatherings, good will toward others and hearty cheer; or a holiday season full of interminable family conflict, inevitable disappointment and continued, justifiable alcoholism, it’s time to shake off that post-holiday hangover. By this time of year, we should be done asking ourselves the existential hoo-ha questions like, “Who am I?” “What does it all mean?” and “What should I do with my life?” We should be on to the business of “Diet! Eat right! Exercise! Economize!”

On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, after packing a healthy and inexpensive lunch for five days in a row, one might be worthy of a little splurge. What about Jack’s Urban Eats? Don’t bother with the one in Midtown. It’s closed for lunch on weekends. Did you know there is a Jack’s in Loehmann’s Plaza, tucked in the northeast corner?

Actually, it’s hardly a surprise that a Jack’s can be found there. Loehmann’s is the land of discounted designer clothing—nice stuff for cheap but without the glamour of a full-service store. Jack’s could be called the restaurant version of Loehmann’s—designer food at discount prices but without the convenience of a full-service restaurant.

Jack’s specializes in big salads chock full of ingredients that can be selected during preparation. Mercifully, Jack’s does not try to pass off a small plate of iceberg lettuce with two garbanzo beans and one kidney bean (all drowned in bottled Italian dressing) as a salad. That’s not Jack’s way. The ingredients and the combinations are predictably a cut above.

Jack’s does grilled tri-tip and chicken or roast turkey in plated or sandwich form. Jack’s also offers a variety of sides, from mashed potatoes and stuffing to healthful, summery items like grilled vegetables.

If this is starting to sound a lot like Pluto’s Fresh Food, it’s because the restaurants are similar modern-day hof braus. Pluto’s is a Bay Area transplant that has expanded into Davis and Roseville. Jack’s is a Sacramento-born affair, with two locations in Sacramento.

The question at hand is: “Can Urban Jack cure the holiday hangover and make us slim, spry and Paris Hilton-esque once again?”

Consider the facts. First, you must drive to Jack’s at Loehmann’s. No one actually lives near Loehmann’s. If they did, they’d be stupid to walk, with all the dangerous vehicular traffic in the area. (See Dan Flynn’s excellent review of Bandera: “Dangerously good,” SN&R Dish, October 9.) If there’s no exercise while getting there, that’s strike one.

Second, Jack’s is within spitting distance of too much tempting retail. How can one resist the lure of dropping in to the Loehmann’s Plaza shops to see what’s on sale? If there’s a good chance of spending more money you don’t have, that’s strike two.

But what about the food? A salad, theoretically, holds the potential for health. I ordered one with grape tomatoes, marinated mushrooms, roasted red peppers, red onions, croutons and candied walnuts, with a gorgonzola vinaigrette. (In the interest of full disclosure, I added tri-tip for an additional $1.95 because it looked lean. Really.)

Health- and taste-wise, this seemed a reasonable combination. The veggies appeared flavorful, the croutons and walnuts crunchy, and the vinaigrette light with no excess cheese. However, the salad yielded strike two-and-a-half. Though it was plenty healthy, it didn’t taste right. The dressing lacked flavor. The onions—sliced too large—held too much punch. Bits of candied walnuts were too ubiquitous, and the croutons were impossibly hard. The tri-tip, though tastily marinated, was on the dry side. Weight loss was achieved, as a third of the salad remained on the plate.

On the sandwich side of things, Jack’s finally scored. The roast-turkey sandwich was a simple but excellent construction: a few slices of lean, moist turkey breast balanced with caramelized onions, tomato, lettuce and garlic aioli. This delicious creature was the picture of healthful eating. It was dispatched properly in several satisfying bites.

If that were all, it would be easy to declare victory for Jack’s and our bodies and call it a day. But Jack’s is a sneaky one. Ever wonder why being so good makes you want to be bad? Well, Jack’s feeds right into that urge, with “Urban Fries,” fries topped by blue cheese and chili oil. I wish I could say the Urban Fries sucked. I’d like to report that the mountain of hot, thin, crispy fries, blanketed by a layer of snowy blue-cheese dressing and rivulets of lava-like chili oil, was no good. But no one would believe me, and rightly so. The Urban Fries were very, very good.

Those fries undid all of our healthy progress in one fell swoop. We learned a valuable lesson: Even in the most benign of places, danger lurks. Just as you can spend a bundle at Loehmann’s Plaza, you can eat yourself silly at Jack’s. You might as well eat a pizza. The road to excess is paved with good intentions. Just don’t forget to walk.