You can depend on a Vietnamese restaurant to make its own nuoc cham dipping sauce, but this made-from-scratch sauce is not the sort of thing you'd dream of finding at a university cafeteria.
You might be able to chomp into a chubby burrito from the average college commissary. Just how often, though, can you expect to find salsas laced with cascabel chili peppers as you do in the La Cocina station at Cherry Street Market?
When offered eel sauce with my Bon Appétit sushi recently, I acted as though it was an everyday occurrence to dine on such exotica at lunch. After tasting it, however, I requested an interview with Bon Ap Executive Chef Shannon Wilson.
"We make our eel sauce from scratch," she said, yet the look on her face told me she was holding something back. "I don't want to disappoint you, but it's made without either eel or monosodium glutamate."
I was relieved to learn there was no MSG flavor enhancer and glad to discover I am employed by an MSG-free campus. No eel in the eel sauce, though? Then it hit me that eel sauce seems as though it tastes like eel because it's customarily wedded with eel.
"We don't do eel because it's not sustainable," says Wilson, who has 11 years of service with Bon Ap.
Whenever possible, Bon Ap offers sustainably raised, organically grown and regional products that minimize carbon impact. Seafood purchases follow the sustainability guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Freshwater eel or unagi is on the aquarium's list of seafoods to avoid.
C-Street's sushi area offers fried bean curd pockets once a week as well as a sea vegetable salad. The hot food station by the grill features Meatless Mondays, a national initiative to reduce meat consumption. Livestock creates more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Grains-wheat berries, faro, quinoa, spelt and bulgur-play a starring role in pre-made salads and on the salad bar.
"We try to stick to authenticity but we want to keep it healthy, too," Wilson notes.
There's a lot of pride in all that's genuine. Food-service workers and students frequently recommend ingredients that add to the authenticity. One worker at C-Street's La Cocina suggested the kitchen add loroco-a pickled flower bud-to the curtido or cabbage relish atop Bon Ap's thick, filled masa cakes known as pupusas. A helping of pupusas today features loroco in that pickled curtido.
Am I going too fast? Did you follow all that?
Speaking of pickled cabbage, Bon Ap makes its own kimchi to enhance the grab-and-go Korean kalbi beef wraps.
"We don't keep a five-gallon tub of kimchi around, but by making our own we avoid purchasing a product that comes from too far away and we also intensify the knowledge of our cooks," says Wilson.
Food trends have an impact on what Bon Ap offers, too. Hawk's Nest Bistro now offers a gluten-free pizza crust (large only). You can order gluten-free pasta from C-Street's Tavola Calda station. Or request a sandwich on gluten-free bread-albeit smaller than the others-and find a celiac-friendly shortbread cookie at C-Street. Catering provides the option of gluten-free desserts including sheet cakes.
It's common knowledge that the wok station at C-Street often has a long line even though Bon Ap expanded to include six wok burners this year. Best to go early or late, Wilson advises.
And you'll never guess what's available and quite popular among the numerous sushi and wok fixings: Spam. Now there's a familiar ingredient that has been on my no-thank-you list since Catholic grade school.