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DAMMIT, PLANET, WE LOVE YOU 

Liquid Planet proves that you can spell fast without F, A and T

When it launched in Lakewood about seven years ago, Liquid Planet boasted an unusual business model built around the notion that fast food needn't be junk food. Now with three locations, the small local chain has carved a sweet little niche for itself in an otherwise crowded dining scene. The latest outpost opened just last week in Cleveland Heights, adjacent to the bustling Cedar Hill Starbucks. (Crocker Park is the other location.) Arguably the most attractive of them all, the historic double storefront features massive arched windows, soaring ceilings, sleek industrial fixtures and plenty of seating.

Few are the concepts that feel equally at home in environments as dissimilar as Crocker Park, Lakewood and Cleveland Heights. Popular with students, yoga moms and commuters, the restaurant's multigenerational appeal is proof that there's always a market for food that's quick, satisfying, economical and wholesome. What's more, the shops' all-day, every-day hours of operation provide a generous window of opportunity for the earliest of risers and the latest of night owls.

Smoothies are considered by some as an ideal breakfast food. Others gulp them down for an afternoon pick-me-up in place of coffee. Both groups are well served by the selection available here. There are more than 40 concoctions utilizing some combination of fruits, veggies, non-fat frozen yogurt, soy milk and the occasional Oreo cookie. Toss in another dozen "boosts" and supplements, and that figure increases exponentially. Recovering from a rager? Take a swig of the Hangover ($5.95), which combines fresh fruit and orange juice with gingko and ginseng, and feel the pain melt away.

Liquid Planet may have made a name for itself in the smoothie department, but the menu flies well beyond the orbit of its liquid assets. A brightly colored wall menu covers half the room, with sections devoted to soups, salads, pita sandwiches and rice bowls. My advice: grab a take-out menu and a seat, and decide in peace.

Nowhere is a restaurant so vulnerable as with its salads. Designed to be picked apart, salads are a wonderful judge of an eatery's dedication to quality. Apart from a wayward mandarin orange slice or two, the ingredients that make their way into my bowls are unimpeachably fresh. In addition to an entry-level house salad ($4.95), there are numerous entrée versions featuring grilled chicken, tuna salad and deli meats (all $6.95). If there is a complaint to be lodged, it is in regard to the flavor and consistency of some of the dressings.

After smoothies, the largest chunk of menu real estate is devoted to the "stuffed toasted pitas." Various sandwich combos — there are more than two dozen of them — are tucked into a folded whole-wheat pita and grilled in a hot press. Like pita panini, the toasty bundles feature crispy exteriors and warm, melty insides. A zesty cucumber dressing promotes the Greek ($6.49), a medley of grilled chicken, feta and onions, to the favorites column. So-so deli meat, however, prevents the turkey reuben ($6.49) from doing the same. Sandwiches include a small side of chips and salsa, chips and hummus, or apples and peanut butter.

Relatively new to the operation are the rice bowls. These hearty, all-in-one meals feature rice topped with meat, sauce and vegetables. The chicken chili Thai ($7.95) boasts some genuine spice, along with tender white meat chicken, broccoli and crunchy chow mein noodles. A very saucy chicken paprikash ($7.95) is far more tame, but no less satisfying.

Given the quality of the food, Liquid Planet manages to prepare orders in a remarkably brief amount of time (about five minutes for a full order). The well-staffed shops have enough hands on deck to accomplish multiple tasks at once, like whipping up smoothies and toasting sandwiches. Though some items are prepared ahead of time and reheated to order, they don't seem to suffer the same indignities found elsewhere. Meats are moist, sauces arrive hot and rice is reasonably fluffy. Is it five-star cuisine? Heck no, but it's not drive-thru dreck either.

Looking for friendly service? Staffers here all seem to be drinking the same Kool-Aid, eager to welcome a customer and perform their duties with a smile. In Lakewood, we were greeted by each employee. Same goes for the goodbyes. Folks in close proximity to a shop should grab a "preferred customer" card on their initial visit. After 10 punches of the card (one each for smoothies, salads, sandwiches and bowls), customers get $5 off the next purchase. Far out.

dining@clevescene.com

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