GRAND OPENING :: West Hollywood’s Hunger Market Cafe
When it's mealtime and you're looking for a place to eat that works for your wallet and your appetite, where do you go to satisfy your hunger? West Hollywood's Hunger Market Café opened last month and has already made its presence known on Santa Monica Boulevard, thanks to their selection of food and market choices that are not only out of the ordinary, but will easily satisfy those hunger pangs.
As the restaurant/market readies for its Grand Opening this Saturday (11am-8pm), EDGE's Jim Halterman wandered in to see what all the fuss was about. He also got the chance to sit down with co-owners Kevin Milligan, David Reinke and Toni Miller, who also serves as head chef for the new business.
Keeping things close to home
One thing that immediately sets the Hunger Market Café apart from its competitors is the fact that the food served is bought locally in an effort to give back to the community. "The concept was bringing the farmer’s market into a retail space," said Milligan, "so we really scoured all the local farmer’s markets, brought in a Mediterranean supplier for our hummus, tabouli, falafels, olives, we found a local ice cream maker. We brought in John Kelly chocolates; he’s a wonderful Los Angeles chocolatier."
Buying locally also gives the staff a chance to mix things up on the menu, which is something you don’t see at many markets. Milligan said, "I’ve really enjoyed going to Whole Foods but, to me, it was never really changing out its menu and had the same lasagnas and salads. Because we’re local, we can change it out, go to the markets that very same day. What we’re telling our guests is to check back often because we’re always going to have something new.
Designing the menu for a new place, however, can be tough when owners are not quite sure what customers will respond to and what they won’t. The key, as Chef Miller explained, was to stay away from anything too complicated.
"Why not make our menu really simple in terms of pricing for the customers, That’s why we sell a sandwich for $8 and a scoop of salad is $4. Make it simple, simple, simple."
Keeping the menu less complicated also allows Miller to try different food items on a whim. In fact, a recent trip to the Farmer’s Market ended up as a new dish in the food case. "I found these amazing carrots. They were purple on the outside and bright orange and these crazy beautiful colors. I brought them back and we made up a salad."
In terms of the West Hollywood community, Milligan is excited that the Hunger Market Café is adding something that, despite the variety of grocery stores and restaurants, the area had been lacking.
"Because we’re between Trader Joe’s and Pavilions [on Santa Monica Boulevard], we really feel that we fill the gap... and also have the gourmet markets where we have a lot of great spices, rubs condiments, oils as well as imported pastas and other things that you can’t find readily... we’re really trying to be more of a boutique market."
In the present crippled economy, some might not think this to be the best climate in which to start a new business venture but Reinke sees it differently.
"Right now it’s good for opening because you can get better deals on leases and equipment is much cheaper than it would normally be. Our thoughts were ’if we can make it in this environment we could make it any environment.’ Our philosophy is that we’re starting at the downturn and things are going to get better."
Page 2 ::How’s the food?
All that’s fine and dandy, but what about the food? Chef Miller showed enthusiasm (and a bit of pride) towards the Chicken Salad on Cranberry Bread sandwich, which is hands down the best seller on the menu.
"We created a chicken salad that is super basic - we take some rotisserie chicken, shred it up, add mayonnaise, mustard, celery and a little bell pepper. We wanted to put cranberries in the chicken salad but we found that in testing our recipes that it turned everything pink, which wasn’t too appetizing."
With pink chicken not making the cut to the menu, Miller "shopped around and found this cranberry bread, and that’s how we came up with this combination. We then tried variations of cheeses and one we tried was sliced green apples and when you put the cranberry bread, the sliced green apple and Mom’s chicken salad sandwich it’s amazing. Tons of flavor in your mouth."
The response has been great since the doors opened, she added. "People are coming in hearing about it and asking about it. They are coming in every day [saying] ’I need one for my lunch today.’"
While the chicken salad itself is mild and filled with easy flavors, the combination of the crisp green apples and the cranberries in the bread take the taste explosion to a new level, adding a bit of sweetness that swims perfectly with the taste of the chicken salad. It’s easy to see how this sandwich ranks #1 at the Hunger Market Café!
Moving on to the Wild Carrot Salad, the vibrant colors of the vegetables almost deters from wanting to mess up the presentation by eating it. Luckily, the vibrancy of the carrots was not only found in the vegetable’s color; in keeping with many of the items on the menu, the taste is simple but full of flavor that mixes great with the sweet cranberries and the soft crunch of the pecans.
In proving that scouring the local farmer’s markets can lead to great finds, Miller told the story of how she was more surprised when she got the carrots back to the restaurant kitchen.
"When we peeled them and began prepping them, they actually became brighter than what I saw at the market. They’re almost neon colors!"
What’s for dessert?
After the amazing Chicken Salad on Cranberry Bread sandwich and the Wild Carrot Salad, a piece of John Kelly Dark Chocolate with a few specs of Sea Salt on the top was fantastic. Not only was the dark chocolate the perfect blend of moisture and strong chocolate taste, the aftertaste of the sea salt truly surprised me by giving a pleasant kick to an already great dessert. Bravo!
Hunger satisfied, how exactly did the trio come up with the name?
"Basically we were bouncing around names," Milligan said, "and Hunger felt somewhat primal and also explains what we’re doing. If you’re hungry, come in and get satisfied."
One way they’re setting themselves apart from nearby venues is to utilize local vendors and the various farmer’s markets around Los Angeles. In fact, one of the taglines for the restaurant/market is "Locally sourced satisfaction."
Milligan also addressed questions about the Hunger Market Cafe logo. Is that a happy spoon or something more provocative? Milligan said with a grin, "we did a little twist on it with a happy spoon; some people see it as a happy tongue but it’s still about satisfying hunger."
What can restaurant and market goers expect for the Grand Opening this Saturday?
"We’re going to have vendors here doing samples; chocolates from John Kelly and Bovetti," promised Reinke. "We’re going to be sampling some of our salads, small pieces of sandwiches and the coffee."
The Hunger Market Café is located at 8731 Santa Monica Blvd (at Hancock) and offers free wifi to guests. Follow them on Facebook, where you can also check out the great variety of foods they’re serving up every day.