Enter Kitava Kitchen, which opened yesterday in an old McDonald’s on Mission Street, right off of 16th, a fast-casual restaurant by two former tech guys who both came to the benefits of eating this way through their own personal experience.
For Bryan Tublin, it was a chronic pain injury that led him to attend Bauman College’s nutritionist training program and adopt an anti-inflammatory diet to heal. For Jeff Nobbs, it was the high rates of cancer and diabetes in his family that had him reading up on nutritional studies in his spare time.
“I was trying to figure out the healthiest way to eat. It’s crazy to me that no one can agree on it,” Nobbs said, adding, “I always nerded out on the nutritional side.”
About two years ago, Nobbs founded Mealmade, a delivery service that he said was “like Munchery for the Paleo diet,” while Tublin founded Simmer, a company that sold nutrient-rich bone broths, and soups and stews made from the broth at farmers markets and through catering.
A quick primer on these diets: the Paleo diet as well as AIP and GAPS have some differences, but they mostly avoid gluten and dairy as well as soy and corn. Some avoid all grains and legumes as well. Kitava has white rice – that’s the only one that’s permissible because it’s easier for the body to digest – but the Paleo-friendly cauliflower rice is also on offer. Some also avoid vegetables in the nightshade family: tomato, eggplant and peppers. This means that spices like cayenne and paprika can’t be used, either, since they are made of dried peppers. Some also avoid seeds, which can be left off most dishes at Kitava. While Kitava’s menus are clearly marked with what’s vegan and/or vegetarian, there’s a special menu given to those on the AIP diet.
It’s a diet heavy in vegetables and protein; pastured and organic meats and wild fish. White refined sugar is also avoided; at Kitava, when sweetener is used, it’s either coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey. The only oils used are olive, coconut or sustainably-harvested palm, and any processed foods are avoided as well. These diets are also responsible for the rise of bone broth.
Even those doing the incredibly strict Whole 30 diet can find things to eat here.
“We didn’t want to tie ourselves to one specific diet philosophy,” said Tublin. “We wanted to make this food philosophy approachable, which is why we don’t brand ourselves as only Paleo or only vegan.”
They also point out that so many vegetarian or vegan restaurants rely on heavily-processed foods, which minimize the health benefits.
Mainly, their diet philosophy is: “We want people to eat clean and more vegetables,” said Tublin.
In choosing the name, “We wanted to honor traditional food cultures and the wisdom in those cultures,” said Tublin.
Tublin and Nobbs met about two years ago when they each had their respective businesses going. They talked about perhaps collaborating some day. But then both reached a point where they felt opening a restaurant was the next logical step to grow their businesses.
“Bryan was catering, and I was in delivery,” explained Nobbs. “We were both wanting to open a restaurant, and we realized it would be silly to be competitors with identical food philosophies.”
Given that neither of them are chefs, they have worked with several; now heading up the kitchen is Chef Todd Preston, who spent much of his career doing research and development and in different managerial positions at the San Francisco Soup Company.
The fact that they are in a former McDonald’s is not lost on them, of course.
While they’ve made some major improvements to the dining room, with blond wood, one wall painted a cheery dark teal, living walls with succulents throughout; and replaced much of the equipment to suit their own needs, traces of their former tenant remain -- mostly in the bathroom signage and metallic doors as well as the stickers for apple pies and other McDonald's fare that still adorn the freezer.
“Of course there’s a pun-ny irony here, but we’re taking fast food to real food,” said Tublin. “We hope that by being in this neighborhood and in this location, we can provide accessible and approachable food; we have familiar items but healthi-fied, with nothing on the menu over $20.”
Added Nobbs, “In an early mission statement, we said it should be as easy to get a Paleo burger with grass-fed meat as McDonalds, but most are so much more expensive,” he said. “While we had a lot of grease to clean out, McDonalds has always put their brilliance into optimizing the kitchen for making food quickly; so we can take advantage of that, but with using incredibly different ingredients.”
“Our protein sourcing is really important,” said Tublin. “Factory farming is terrible for everyone involved, it’s not healthy for us, nor the animals themselves, nor the environment.”
Vegetables are local and organic when possible, with many coming from Oakland’s Mandela Marketplace.
We tried some of the more popular dishes at Kitava.
We found the butternut squash hummus (it has no chick peas) and yucca chips ($7) to be an interesting and delicious substitute for the real thing, while the avocado mash (also with yucca chips $6) tasted like just avocado and salt. While it wasn’t called guacamole on the menu, we wanted more acid or heat, to make it more interesting.
The General Tso’s Chicken is made up of chicken pieces deep-fried in cassava flour, with roasted broccoli over white or cauliflower rice ($14). Given the no soy rule, the sauce is a hoisin-coconut amino sauce blend. The sauce was a bit sweet for us; we obviously missed the saltiness of soy.
For those having a meat craving, the Zoodles and Meatballs ($13) were a great choice (vegetarians could have this dish with king trumpet mushrooms instead).
The meatballs were hefty and generous, in a marinara sauce over spaghetti-like noodles made solely of zucchini; it was comfort food gone Paleo.
Our favorite dish by far was the tacos; we tried them with wild-caught salmon ($19) (they can also be had with chicken ($16) or beans $12). We found the cassava-almond flour tortillas to be excellent, with the texture and mouth-feel barely discernible from corn.
There are also numerous bowls on the menu, like the Cuban or Baja ($14 to $15) with various proteins and other fillings, salads, and a meatloaf with sweet potato mash ($15).
There are also other vegetable sides, like Roasted Broccoli with Lemon ($4.95) and Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Chipotle Aioli ($7) that can be shared as small plates.
And then there is the sweet section; where most of the desserts are made with almond flour and cashew milk ice cream. There are brownies ($4) and cookies ($3) and dates stuffed with almond butter, chocolate and sea salt ($5).
We were given an ice cream sandwich, which is made with cashew milk ice cream and maple syrup sandwiched between two almond flour cookies ($8).
Kitava is available not only at the restaurant, but by delivery with Uber Eats, Grubhub and Doordash. To-go orders can be taken online. They also offer catering, and eventually hope to expand.
Even with its impeccably-sourced proteins, Tublin and Nobbs feel people should be eating more vegetables than they often do.
“Our menu is centered heavily around vegetables,” said Tublin. “Our bowls feature them prominently, and our small plates are all veggie- heavy. What we really want is for people to be eating more veggies.”