A Healthier Reuben at Zoe's Kitchen

It was fate that put me in the vicinity of Zoe's Kitchen (4000 Washington) on Monday afternoon, having run some errands in the area and suddenly feeling the sharp pangs of the all too well-known "Hey, idiot, it's 2 p.m. and you haven't eaten lunch yet!" hunger come on. Zoe's just happened to be the first place I set eyes on, and the deal was done.

I had been laboring under the impression -- an erroneous impression, as it turns out -- that Zoe's served horrible, tasteless things like naked chicken breasts on a bed of iceberg lettuce. I'm still not entirely sure where that impression came from, but I'm very glad this chance visit cleared me of that misconception.

I was surprised by the menu, which offered items like steak roll-ups with sauteed mushrooms and Swiss cheese and ridiculously large hunks of glistening chocolate cake. Spread some pecans on that frosting and you could have mistaken it for classic Texas sheet cake.

Heartened by the lack of rabbit food, I ordered my favorite deli sandwich -- a Reuben -- Zoe-style. The "Gruben" comes with slices of grilled turkey, Swiss cheese, spicy mustard and the restaurant's signature coleslaw: cabbage marinated in a light vinagrette with feta cheese and scallions taking the place of heavy mayonnaise.

Despite my excitement at seeing a hearty lunch menu that was ostensibly healthy but not stuffy, I was dubious as I waited for my order to arrive. My doubts were banished the moment I saw the thick sandwich, its hearty rye bread buttered and toasted to the slightly greasy yet heartwarming sheen that marks a true Reuben.

Although it didn't taste like a Reuben, I really didn't care. It was delicious in its own right, the somewhat bland turkey (but, hey, turkey is usually bland anyway...) perked up by a generous smear of piquant brown mustard and the odd but wonderful slaw. The marinated cabbage reminded me strongly of the cabbage-and-Ramen-based salad you take to picnics and potlucks when you're in a hurry but still want to make something tasty. Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about just because it has Ramen in it. The feta cheese was somewhat off balance in the larger scheme of the sandwich (feta on a Reuben), but it worked magically in the context of the slaw. I was hooked.

Equally striking was the potato salad I'd ordered as a side. Although my affinity for thick, almost custardy, mayo- or mustard-based potato salads will likely never wane unless I'm put on statin medication, I'm also a huge fan of potato salads that use olive oil and vinegar as their "dressing." Even better, the little red potatoes still had their skin on, which -- along with the diced green scallions -- provided a nice textural contrast to the soft potatoes. I greedily inhaled the entire tub, reflecting at the end on how much tastier and fulfilling it had been instead of a bag of Lay's.

Unfortunately, Zoe's -- for being a large, nationwide chain -- doesn't have nutrition information posted to its website, so I have no way of knowing how "healthy" the Gruben and potato salad were. That said, common sense will tell you the lack of Russian dressing and mayo alone knocked off a good bit of saturated fat and calories.

Perhaps the aggressively bright and cheerful facade that Zoe's presents is the root cause of my initial misconception about its food. The orange and yellow and chartreuse interior is almost maddeningly peppy. That and the omnipresent signs with exhortations to "EAT SMART" and standalone shouts of words like "GRILL" and "ENERGY" could be the main culprits. But I'm glad I put aside those initial impressions and tried Zoe's. I anticipate it becoming a timeless lunchtime favorite.

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