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UNIVERSALLY FRESH

Laughing Planet Café comes full circle and orbits Reno.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS 

chefs table universally fresh

It’s 2 p.m. on a beautiful Friday afternoon, and Laughing Planet Café in Midtown is packed — no room on the patio and only two tables available inside. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was the noon-hour rush.

“It’s been this way since day one,” says Tim Healion, whose formal title is district manager, but who much prefers the title Ambassador to Laughing Planet. (More on him later.)

When word got out that Laughing Planet was opening, those in the loop cheered. They knew — by word of mouth or a visit to Oregon (where 13 Laughing Planets spin from Portland to Bend) — what that meant: fresh, fast, reasonably priced, health-minded food.

If you make menu choices by sneaking a peek at your neighbor’s dish, you’re in trouble here. Look around: Every dish looks inviting. Whether you’re an omnivore, vegan, vegetarian, or paleo, there is something tasty for you. Aside from hearty burritos and bowl meals, the selections continue with salads, soups, quesadillas (any adventurous takers for the kimchi version?), fresh fruit smoothies, and a children’s menu with such selections as Lil’ Spanky’s Bowl and Tween Burrito.

Good-for-you dishes

Nachos — loaded with corn chips (non-GMO, too), black beans, Cheddar, grilled veggies, Cotija, sour cream, and pico de gallo — are big sellers. Add pork or fresh guacamole and it’s guaranteed you’ll roll out of there. Perhaps the ultra-popular Holy Mole burrito is more your style. It features moist, shredded chicken, pinto beans, brown rice, cheese, and pico de gallo, and it’s laced with a deeply satisfying, house-made mole sauce.

Bowl dishes stand out, such as Calexico, a seasonal special built in layers. On the bottom are beans and brown rice, followed by carrot slaw and red cabbage; pulled pork (or tofu, your choice) sits on top. Fresh guacamole and a tasty house-made guajillo salsa add extra tastiness.

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No outer space sources

Laughing Planet’s corporate chef in Portland creates the recipes used throughout the chain. But the corporate kitchen does not prepare its dishes to distribute to each venue. Instead, the food is sourced from local farmers, ranchers, and distributors within each Laughing Planet’s area. So, in Reno, fresh produce, essential to practically every dish, is locally sourced and organic (whenever possible), supplied by Reno-based Great Basin Community Food Co-op and Produce Plus, a Tahoe-based distributor.

To Healion, “locally sourced” means “as far as I can ride my bike in a day. But once in a while I get an avocado from Mexico.”

Staples beyond Healion’s daily bike ride still are under the umbrella of Laughing Planet’s philosophy of sustainable practices. Take, for example, the smart beans (so named on the menu) from Washington farms that use the no-till method that protects soil erosion, the organic and non-GMO tofu made in Southern Oregon, and the pasture-raised beef from Northeastern Nevada.

Take me to your leaders

Many locals know Healion as the owner of the late (and beloved) Deux Gros Nez, where the hip-of-that-day sipped espresso drinks in Reno’s first coffeehouse offering cappuccinos. (The café was above The Cheese Board on California Avenue.) Several of the Deux’s mementos now are in Midtown’s Laughing Planet. A Tour de Nez poster (publicizing the annual Deux-sponsored professional road bicycle race) hangs on one wall, and in a front corner sits a “shrine” (as Healion, puts it) to thrice Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, a Reno native.

Deux Gros Nez’s and Laughing Planet’s galaxies are connected. Franz Spielvogel, CEO and principal shareholder of the chain, worked at Deux Gros Nez from 1991 to 1994 when he was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno. And he was a Deux regular before that and beyond until it closed 10 years ago.

Spielvogel opened his first Laughing Planet in 2001 in Portland.

“The Laughing Planet idea started with Tim,” Spielvogel says in an email. “Laughing Planet is/was an amalgamation of Deux Gros Nez and Tortillas, a place in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Six years ago, Spielvogel considered opening a Laughing Planet in Reno and contacted Healion. But the stars weren’t in alignment.

“We had a tough time finding a location,” he says, “and Tim was a little skeptical.”

But in 2012, it all came together, this collaboration between two old friends. And how does it feel being Healion’s boss this time around?

“I am not Tim’s boss. Tim cannot have a boss,” Spielvogel says. “Our mission and values are so aligned that we are partners in this game. The way I see it is that it is a full circle of life.”

Getting back to earth

The bottom line is that Laughing Planet offers deliciously fresh food in a family-friendly atmosphere. There even are toy dinosaurs on every table.

“They are fun stuff for kids to play with,” Healion says.

But they also are a subliminal symbol.

“If we wreck our planet, we will go the way of the dinosaurs,” he adds.

One more thing Laughing Planet offers: great people watching. During one lunchtime, the following were spotted: two grammar-school-aged girls and their grandma jumping on their bicycles after lunch and speeding off; a young woman, her head shaved except for a topknot of turquoise hair, waiting for take-out; and a tourist, on her way to California from Kansas, with a fluffy, white Maltese dog named Thor on her lap. Thor?

“I thought she was a he when I got her,” the woman says.

After her maiden voyage to Laughing Planet, Sandra Macias became one of its fans. A longtime Reno food writer, she also was happy to find Tim Healion at the helm. She has known him since the Deux Gros Nez days. As Ambassador to Laughing Planet, he is a perfect fit.

Recipe

Thai Bowl

(courtesy of Laughing Planet Café. Serves 4)

One of Laughing Planet’s most popular, the Thai Bowl is full of grains, veggies, and a tasty peanut sauce. It is designed for either vegetarians or carnivores.

Note: The recipe proceeds in several steps. Most of them can be done ahead of time. But it is best to read the recipe thoroughly, and then plan your approach.

3 cups short-grain brown rice, cooked

1½ cups broccoli florets, steamed al dente or to preferred doneness

8 ounces green beans, sautéed

12 ounces baked tofu or grilled chicken breast

12 ounces peanut sauce

2 cups cilantro-lime slaw

To assemble salad: In each bowl, serve ¾ cup cooked brown rice. Top with 3 ounces (about ¼ cup) broccoli, followed by 2 ounces sautéed green beans, 3 ounces baked tofu or grilled chicken, then 6 tablespoons peanut sauce. Finish with ½ cup cilantro-lime slaw.

Sautéed green beans

½ pound green beans, ends removed

1 tablespoon safflower oil

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat sauté pan on medium-high heat. Add oil, then green beans and garlic. Sauté 2 to 3 minutes and season with salt and pepper.

Baked tofu

1 pound tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ cup tamari

1 tablespoon sambal chili paste

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon minced ginger

1 teaspoon tomato paste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except tofu. Whisk together. Add tofu and gently mix. Place on baking pan and bake for about 45 minutes, tossing every 15 minutes to make sure it’s cooking evenly. You want tofu to brown and get slightly crispy crust.

Cilantro-lime slaw
(yields 2 cups)

⅔ cup red cabbage, shredded

⅔ cup Napa cabbage, shredded

⅔ cup red cabbage, shredded

⅔ cup carrots, shredded

⅓ bunch cilantro, chopped

2 scallions, sliced thinly

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and toss to coat. Allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Peanut sauce
(yields 2 cups)

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

¼ bunch cilantro, chopped

1 stalk lemongrass, fibrous outside layer removed and discarded, soaked, and minced

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

3 tablespoons sambal chili sauce

2 tablespoons tamari

1 cup natural peanut butter

1 cup water

Combine all ingredients except peanut butter in blender until smooth. Add peanut butter and continue blending until smooth. Add more water, if needed, to thin out. Should pour out easily.

Extras

Satellite planet circles University of Nevada, Reno

Reno’s second Laughing Planet Café opened in April at 941 N. Virginia St. A new neighbor in the University of Nevada, Reno district, the café is located in a refurbished 1930s house. Its interior reflects UNR’s long history. Check out the tribute to William Arthur, aka Art, Keddie. A student from 1898 to 1901 at the University of Nevada, he was an all-around athlete, plus a winning cyclist with the Reno Wheelmen, one of the oldest cycling clubs in the country (it started in 1896).

Laughing Planet, Midtown
650 Tahoe St., Reno • 775-360-2592 • http://www.Laughingplanet.com

Open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily

Laughing Planet, University
941 N. Virginia St., Reno • 775-870-9633
Open 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily

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