Munch goes to Hello Bistro

When Munch was a kid, and while Munch continued to act like one as an adult, salads fell in the same category as things Munch found viscerally repulsive, along with the Baltimore Ravens, the dentist and colonoscopies. And as a college kid, Munch's diet didn't stray too far beyond cheap beer and pizza, old pizza, and "Hey I found a slice behind the couch, think it's still good?" pizza.

Which is why Munch found Hello Bistro, a new cafe that opened in the heart of that quaint student slum of South Oakland, a little puzzling. There's nary a slice of pizza on the menu (though there are burgers) and there's a LOT of salad. In fact, the restaurant describes its salad bar as "ginormous," with 55 offerings for toppings.

Hello Bistro, owned and run by the same folks who do Eat'n Park -- that middle-of-the night, drenched-in-syrup godsend -- opened at the beginning of the month on Forbes Avenue. Munch had been hearing quite a bit of buzz about the new concept, and the $1 coffee caught the eye of Med School Friend of Munch, who appreciates any kind of good deal since he has approximately a kajillion dollars in student loans.

On a day when the temperature in Pittsburgh reached hellish heights, Munch decided turning on anything in the kitchen would likely induce heat stroke. Putting on pants -- or really, anything that would be acceptable in a normal restaurant -- was not an option either. Just as Munch was digging into the freezer to eat unheated Lean Cuisines, Munch remembered Hello Bistro, which bills itself as fast and casual and given that it's in Oakland, grown-up clothes were probably not necessary.

So with MSFOM and Superfit Friend of Munch in tow, we sweated it all the way to Oakland in the kind of clothes Munch supposes people would wear to the gym, if Munch belonged to such a thing.

Munch instantly felt welcome in the warmly decorated space, which had a spunky, collegiate feel, like the dorm rooms in the Pottery Barn catalog. There were walls painted to be like blackboards so the creative (or the inebriated) could scribble. Munch liked those touches, along with the '90s alternative rock (Gin Blossoms!) that made Munch feel right at home (and extraordinarily old). SFOM dug the garage-door-style windows that allow you to feel as if you're dining outside on Forbes Avenue without the risk of getting puked on by a freshman rush candidate.

In addition to salads, the menu features seven burgers, including a vegetarian option, described in a tongue-in-cheek manner meant to look like math equations. The Big Honkin' Superburger ($7) is "(Big Beef x 2) + American Cheese + Pickles + Lettuce x Sauce Supreme A· A Healthy Appetite + No One Will Judge You = Beware of Wide Turns!"

Both MSFOM and Munch got the American Grillburger ($6.50), described as "Italian Bread + Burger + American Cheese + Grilled Onions + Grilled Peppers + Mushrooms + Ample Patriotism x A Hint of Mustard = USA! USA! USA!"

And to appease the cardiac arrest gods, Munch also got the Caribbean Shrimp salad ($9), which came with lettuce tossed with shrimp, corn, black beans and crispy wonton strips. The American Grillburger was a hit, with amply buttered bread cradling a healthy (meaning large, not necessarily good for you) burger with nicely roasted onions and peppers. The salad was also lovely, lightly dressed with a citrus vinaigrette.

SFOM, who is permanently attired in running shoes and sporty headbands and nonchalantly signs up for ultramarathons, predictably got a custom salad ($7), a BIG salad, with all kinds of things that normal people put in salads.

Salad-ing, a verb that Munch just invented and hopes the copy editors will let slide, is serious business at Hello Bistro. Customers start with a base and get to choose from dozens of toppings and then have their salads dressed and tossed. Next, the salads are chopped into tiny, tiny pieces with special, two-handled knives. SFOM chose broccoli, soy beans, garbanzo beans, peas, beets and an array of other vegetables, then dressed it with an apple cider vinaigrette. It was chopped so small that it was almost unrecognizable as real vegetables. And in fact, perhaps through some sort of proprietary Eat'n Park alchemy, it was converted into something more delicious. Because that salad was good. And Munch has rarely said that about one that didn't contain french fries.

But just to make sure there wasn't something radically wrong with Munch's taste buds, Munch split a chocolate milkshake ($3.50) with MSFOM. Also awesome and nostalgia-inducing, bringing Munch back to the era of necking while Gin Blossoms crooned on the tape deck.

Featuring salads so prominently on the menu seemed like a bold and daring move on the part of Hello Bistro, sort of like that time Munch ate a habanero pepper for $5 as a freshman. Hopefully, though, this little restaurant will have better results.

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