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Sweetsalt Food Shop keeps it simple and sincere

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Chris Jeromini, 37, eats lunch with his daughter, Madelyn Jeromini, at Sweetsalt Food Shop in Toluca Lake on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011. Madelyn's favorite food to order at Sweetsalt is the grilled cheese sandwich.

The afternoon lunch rush in Toluca Lake leaves most of Sweetsalt’s tables occupied, while customers of all ages chat it up.

The Sweetsalt eatery eatery boasts the type of humble decor one may find in Marmalade Café. The walls are colored eggshell white, while sunlight bursts in through the front window, illuminating the room.

Mismatched silverware and a glass water dispenser flank a tabletop near the entrance. Above the water hangs a makeshift, handwritten sign that reads “100% PURE TOLUCA LAKE TAP WATER.” Aside from its music, Sweetsalt’s country-style theme is everywhere.

A row of translucent, art deco lamps hang from above, running down the length of the dining room, all above a black, hardwood floor. An enormous, gold-framed blackboard that hangs on the wall behind the register advertises the current specials, written in colored chalk.

The $8 Caprese Ciabatta arrives in nearly 10 minutes. It tastes refreshing, and slightly tart. Dry spinach, a slab of silky smooth buffalo mozzarella, and slices of pepper-sprinkled tomatoes are nestled in a soft, vinegar-lathered ciabatta. On the side sits a salad, each leaf coated in Italian dressing.

Alex Eusebio, a past “Top Chef” contestant, opened Sweetsalt with his wife. They both share full ownership of the eatery.

“This is a mom-and-pop shop,” Eusebio said. “Literally, a mom-and-pop shop. These are our funds, our savings. We put it together and we go as we build.”

Eusebio wearing blue jeans with a red, checkered, button down shirt, keeps his sleeves rolled up, exposing a tattooed fennel that stretches from his right forearm to the shoulder.  He refuses to cook with sleeves, because he says
sleeves detach him from the culinary experience. He feels “constrained,” and aims to break down every barrier possible between him and the food he cooks.

Yet Eusebio is well aware that cooking sleeveless comes at a price. “Battle wounds,” Eusebio calls them, before proudly pointing to and identifying each of his own.

His laid-back mentality transcends to Sweetsalt’s vibe.  Eusebio can’t pinpoint where this modest, low-profile mentality stems from, but he doesn’t seem too worried about impressing anyone.

“I always believe that if it’s good food, people come, regardless,” Eusebio said.  ”Most of the time I go to a high-profile restaurant, I usually get disappointed.”

Clearly, the restaurant is anything but high profile.  They don’t advertise, and the menu changes spontaneously whenever Eusebio wants.  Sweetsalt’s basic selections boast the “simplest form of cooking,” consisting mainly of salads, sandwiches and soups.

They must be doing something right because business has grown. Also having launched an Echo Park eatery, Eusebio notices young people increasingly embracing these minimalist best-kept secrets.

And suffice to say, many restaurateurs would probably clamor for a line snaking out the door amid the recession. Yet Eusebio wishes he could interact with customers more and personalize the service. He grows frustrated when his dining room is so packed that he can’t practice his customer service.

He ultimately understands the importance of moderation, taking the good with the bad. He realizes that at the end of the day, he has to keep the lights on.

“I gotta pay my bills somehow, right?” he asks.  “So you gotta kinda balance that.”

**** out of five stars

10218 1/2 Riverside Dr. (Between Sancola and Forman)

Toluca Lake, CA 91602

Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
http://www.sweetsaltfood.com/

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