By Frier McCollister

Keto, paleo, gluten free, vegan? All of the above? All I know is I’m hungry.      

Those who fall into one or all of those categories may be trying to lose weight, have a healthy meal or avoid eating meat. It’s challenging to find restaurants to accommodate these expectations and chefs with the chops to deliver consistent deliciousness. Add smart cocktail options? Even more rare.

“It’s the year of the pivot,” said Jon Rollo, the CEO and self-proclaimed “commander in leaf” of the successful local chain Greenleaf Kitchen and Cocktails.

For Rollo and Greenleaf, the latest pandemic twist is the October 1 opening of the eighth “location” at Kitchen United Mix in Pasadena. The ghost kitchen operation on Madison Avenue and Green Street houses 21 brands and serves as a kitchen and central pickup/delivery hub for each of the operations. The model allows established brands to extend their delivery capacity into new markets, while saving significantly on the time and expense of opening a standard brick-and-mortar location.

Greenleaf’s presence at Kitchen United allows the brand to extend its menu offerings to this end of town for the first time. And it took all of about six weeks to launch. What’s notably distinct about Greenleaf at our local ghost kitchen is the menu. Burgers, barbecue, burritos? All of the usual suspects have been available for pickup or delivery here for the last couple of years.

Mindfully composed and creative salads? Cauliflower steak? How about a paleo chicken fajita or keto carnitas bowl? Only at Greenleaf. Grass-fed Angus burger with aged white cheddar? Turkey melt on a pretzel roll with smoked gouda? Also at Greenleaf.

Regardless of your dietary inclinations, tastes or preferences, the food here is sourced for freshness, quality and nutrition. The good news is that it’s truly tasty and reasonably priced.

By the way, Greenleaf has yet to initiate a takeout/delivery cocktail option at Kitchen United Mix, but the plan is in the works. Stay tuned!

The arrival of Greenleaf Kitchen and Cocktails in Pasadena represents a homecoming for Rollo, who was born and raised here. He’s raising the next generation here as well with his husband Joey Gonzalez, in the form of their children Francesca, 5, and Jake, 3. By the way, Gonzalez is CEO of fitness chain Barry’s Bootcamp, whose South Lake Avenue location opened one week before the lockdown and remains shuttered in pandemic mode, along with other gyms in the area.

Rollo entered culinary school at the Cordon Bleu in Chicago, after graduating from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University in 2001. After a brief stint in Chicagoland, he returned to Los Angeles and joined the fabled (and recently bankrupted) Patina Group and became a protégé of owner and master chef Joachim Splichal. Of Splichal and the larger community of Patina alums, Rollo said, “He’s someone I respect tremendously and admire. It’s a small network of operators in LA. It’s a special network of people.”

Launched in 2007 as Greenleaf Chop Shop in its first Beverly Hills location, the menu concept was salad centric. “When we set out to build a menu at Greenleaf it was salad as entrée.” With the notion of offering fine-dining salad compositions but served informally at affordable prices, the first menu came together.

“The inspiration was very much personal,” Rollo said. “Patina was based on experiential dining—special occasions and limited audience. I grew up on fresh, abundant produce. My inspiration for Greenleaf was to create food that I and my family and friends could eat every day. I really wanted to create opportunities for people to have local organic produce that they would crave on a daily basis.”

Rollo is no stranger to adversity and uncertainty. “We opened before the big market crash. From year one, I’ve always had to be adaptable. We started doing catering and food service for Equinox gyms.”

Having learned the tricks of scalability from Splichal, Rollo began plotting Greenleaf’s expansion. Locations opened in Hollywood, Venice, USC Village, and two in Costa Mesa in Orange County. The newest Santa Monica location just managed to open in June. As the menus trended into “healthy lifestyle” options, brunch and dinner service evolved, and full bars were established at all locations.

“It’s been super well received,” he said.

Rollo considers his model to be a “hybrid” of fast-casual and fine dining. “In this hybrid, there is a level of table service. We want to make sure there is a connection, that (the customers are) given personal attention” he explained.

“COVID happens and we managed to pivot our way through it. We closed all but three locations,” Rollo recalled. The Hollywood and USC locations remain closed, while the other locations offer outdoor distanced seating at limited capacity. Catering, which typically made up 30% of the operation’s sales budget, has virtually vanished. “Catering is gone,” he noted.

Given these unexpected exigencies, Pasadena and the Kitchen United ghost kitchen model offered an unusual and effective expansion option for the ambitious brand.

“It made perfect sense for a market that I care a lot about,” Rollo said.

In the few short weeks of opening at Kitchen United, the Pasadena branch is “stable,” while the brick-and-mortar opening in Santa Monica is still finding its feet.

Full disclosure, I gratefully accepted Rollo’s offer of a menu sample, and frankly, I was delighted by the food. Salads are not typically menu destinations for me—with the possible exception of the cobb at Caltech’s Athenaeum—and even as an avid home cook, salad composition and dressing concoction still remain relative mysteries to me. The salad here is serious. After sampling a few of Greenleaf’s dishes, my hypercritical keto-bound dining partner, in a trance of low-carb ecstasy, simply uttered, “This is fantastic!”

The charred Buffalo cauliflower starter ($9.50), riffing on spicy wings, actually presented a flavor profile of unusual depth and a pleasing play of texture and heat that outdoes many sundry Buffalo preps—chicken or otherwise. The paleo chicken fingers ($10) manage an almond flour crusting that stays crisp and flavorful in transit. They’re hormone-free chicken breasts cut in generous strips and served with a refreshing avocado pesto.

The keto carnitas bowl ($14.95) is an impressive splay of citrus-braised pork carnitas, queso fresco, romaine, pickled watermelon radish, cilantro, and pico de gallo served with a chipotle Caesar dressing.

Finally, the salad. The chop shop chicken salad ($10.95/ $13.95) presents as a classic chopped salad with romaine, salami, mozzarella, tomatoes, cucumbers, garbanzos, pepperoncini and shallots dressed with a basil pesto vinaigrette. Chopped and layered consistently, this salad provided a thoroughly satisfying meal. The generous portion left a tasty if slightly wilted side for lunch the next day.

There’s a lot more on the menu to explore including burgers, paninis and a build-your-own salad option ($11). There are over a dozen vegan dishes on the menu, as well as gluten-free choices for tortillas and chips. Family meals and taco kits that serve four ($40) are also available for pickup or delivery at the new Pasadena location. Get on their list for updates on menu changes and upcoming holiday specials.

As our new hometown hero, Rollo reminds us, “We have a mission, and the mission is intense. It’s what we as a group work our fingers to the bone on every day. That is to get our local communities access to great awesome food.”

Mission accomplished!”