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Stereotypically, adults hungry for the complex buzz achieved from equal doses of caffeine, pretentiousness, and organically sound snacks will migrate to vegetarian restaurants and coffee shops. Whenever I succumb to the charms of such places, the side-effects include self-obsessed brooding and urges to go back to school, muse about important cultural matters, and experiment with acting like a grown-up.
Kids, of course, tend to know about fun, and Planet X, a vegetarian cafe and coffee house located on Route 1 in College Park that caters to University of Maryland scholars, is set up like a boho playpen. Thrift shop–style trinkets dangle from the ceiling like loose jewelry; the walls are coated with neon paints and student art. Unamused by squares and rectangles, Planet X uses giant jigsaw-puzzle pieces for tables. The hallway to the bathroom is lit by a purple light, and the restroom itself is fashioned like the inside of a castle, a hole in the imaginary wall revealing the illusion of a sunset. As a 7-year-old brunch companion concluded, “This place is weird.”
There is no dress code at Planet X, but chic secondhand duds would play into the theme; even the food here seems dolled up to match the decor. A plate of hummus ordered at lunch came looking like an exotic flower, with carrots and celery slices stuck into a mound of mushed chickpeas, tabouli, and sprouts. (“My problem with hummus is I don’t like the texture,” said my companion on a lunch visit, a practicing veggie. “But this is good.”) The artichoke enchilada, baked with spinach and monterey jack cheese, topped with tomatillo salsa, guac, and feta, and served on a bright bed of red cabbage, looked good enough to be a centerpiece. Gorgeous, sure, but it had no personality.
Anyone who loathes generational stereotyping might take exception to Planet X if only for its name and the profuse offerings of its “Cybersonic Smart Bar.” But it’s an almost clichéd air of indifference that provides the place with much of its charm. When I ask a neighboring patron what he’s drinking, he shoots me a vacant stare and sits quietly for half a minute before answering that it’s a cafe mochiato, his tone implying that I should know better. What my waiter on two visits lacked in efficiency he made up for in dry wit. “I don’t really eat salads,” he deadpanned when I asked for a recommendation. When my friend couldn’t make up her mind about the celery juice, he quipped, “You know, if you don’t like it, I won’t make you drink it.” She didn’t drink it.
A devout carnivore, undeterred by health risks or moral guilt, I’ve always admired vegetarians for writing off meat-eating as a fetish that’s easily satisfied without resorting to the real thing. So I was pleased that Planet X’s best dishes were the simulations. I had to soak my T-shirt in cold water after wrestling with a vegetarian sloppy joe that put Manwich to shame. The same vegetarian sausage crumble was used on a monstrous nacho spread, which was graced with fresh veggies and more dips than I can remember. Although our waiter thought the inscrutable “meat” was probably made with soy, he wasn’t sure. “We buy it bulk,” he said. The hearty chicken salad, served as a sandwich or with roughage, was also an enigma. “It’s made like normal chicken salad,” remarked our comic-in-training, “…only without the chicken.”
The dishes served without animal substitute left us less than gratified. A few bites into his avocado tortilla roll, one companion, who obviously expects a lot of his food, remarked that “it doesn’t create this synergy that brings me somewhere I’ve never been.” Same could be said of both the dry “oblivion sandwich” (basically an omelet on a bun), which came without any signs of the feta cheese I ordered it with, and the lifeless tofu ran-cheros.
To justify the half-hour drive from D.C. to Planet X (God knows how long it would take by Metro), you’d have to take to its subtle sex appeal. The androgynous, gold-painted mannequin that greets patrons on the way in creates the tone; the sweets set the mood. Of all the yogurt shakes I got, the most seductive was a decidedly nonlowfat honey-and-strawberry concoction called “nectar of the gods.” Upon seeing his reflection in the silver platter of tiramisu, my synergy-craving friend couldn’t help noticing that “there’s something kind of kinky about whipped cream and mirrors.” If only we had been able to eavesdrop on the couple next to us, who were romancing each other in sign….
I hear that what’s considered sexy changes with age. So it’s no surprise that my brunch guests—one nearly 40 and his two preschoolers—weren’t as amused by Planet X as I was. The old guy surmised that it was just “a generational thing.”
“I been lookin’ for that primo $5 combo plate for some time now,” writes reader Chuck Z, not to be confused with Public Enemy’s Mr. D. His search ended at the Asian Kabob House, located at 1108 K St. NW in a renovated house with gingerbread trim. $6 is more accurate, however. Regardless, the lamb kabob, served with rice and choice of toppings (I got the potatoes and eggplant), a small salad, and crisp flatbread fresh from the tile oven was enough to feed me and a toddler. And yes, Chuck, it is a “nice buncha lads who run the place.” But someone should tell them that they can have their pick of several choice reruns after the news. Enough with the Hard Copy.