Fresh Side is a minor miracle of tasty, healthy, casual Asian fusion food
on a budget. The place is best known for its numerous varieties of "tea rolls," which are more or less like ambitiously stuffed versions of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. The rest of the menu is basic noodles-in-broth and rice-bowl fare offering sustenance in classic protein/carbohydrate combinations. Fresh, crispy, Asian-influenced salads also feature at the low-key establishment.
The dining room is small and bright, with lots of natural light, minimal design accents, and walls adorned by rejuvenating photographs lush with life. At calmer moments, the cafe has a homey feel, but the place gets elbow-to-elbow crowded at peak dinner and lunch times. The staff is friendly and accommodating.
The cold tea rolls are the way to go here. You can order one or two rolls for a light meal or a mere snack; in both cases the roll is halved, so even the smaller order is two pieces. Expect a medley of healthy fillings rolled together with cellophane noodles and often a hint of mint. The simplest combinations are some of the most brilliant. The Vietnamese tea roll, for example, looks on paper as if there is no centerpiece of substance-carrots feature in the creation along with cilantro, spinach, and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts-but the finished product is an explosion of freshness and flavor. Who knew that marinating raw carrots could make all the difference? The Thai tea roll is similar, but substitutes tasty bean curd for the carrots. Fresh Side's offerings make it look easy to be vegan (of the 52 menu items listed, 38 can be prepared vegetarian or vegan). Rolls come with a vinegary carrot dipping sauce or a lime-infused fish sauce; we far prefer the latter (even with vegetarian rolls, in spite of the staff's recommendations to the contrary). Peanut sauce, available upon request, is good too. Less inspired are the warm rolls, made mealy by rice; the rice wrapper is transformed from light to chewy, like a mediocre burrito. The chicken curry tea roll (not to be confused with the well-loved spicy chicken tea roll) compounds this problem by adding very little discernible curry (or any other) flavor. The menu is completed by an excellent herbal tea selection. In short, Fresh Side is a winning concept, and if you choose right, it's a standout among local lunch options.