Need more veggies? My favorite healthy restaurant meals

Takeout containers of gimbap, left, and a fish dosirak from Perilla.
Looking for a healthy lunch? Favorites from Perilla L.A., which recently was reviewed in The Times: gimbap, left, and cod dosirak.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

People are always commenting on my weight. The most frequently asked question: “How do you eat all that food and stay so trim?” “You must not try everything you write about.”

I do try it all. And I doubt they’d ask me that if I were a man. I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have an answer. At least not one that will likely satisfy everyone.

I spend most evenings out at restaurants. Many lunches consist of last night’s leftovers stir-fried with rice and whatever vegetables and chile sauce I have in my refrigerator. I once made fried rice out of my Langer’s Deli pastrami sandwich leftovers. I recommend you do the same.

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If you follow me on Instagram, my diet might seem like a monochrome spectrum of brown food. And for the most part, it can be. But what you don’t see are the healthful meals I try to squeeze in.

After an especially indulgent week, there are a few places I can turn to for something quick and relatively healthful. I crave balance, vegetables and real sustenance after an evening spent at a new steakhouse or after I finish reporting on the best ice cream or Italian sub sandwiches in the city.

These are also the meals I can rely on when I’m on deadline and too slammed to leave my desk for long. An excellent lunch does wonders to keep one sane while under pressure.

Gimbap and dosirak from Perilla L.A.

I like to eat Jihee Kim’s okra like a salad. It’s one of her banchan, designed as a small side dish to support a main course and rice. But Perilla L.A. treats it as the main attraction, something to be craved on its own and celebrated.

Kim makes a jangajji-style pickle with the okra, preserving the vegetable in a soy sauce marinade that leaves it pickled but still bright. She chars the okra, then covers it in the hot marinade. It retains that blistered, smoky flavor even after an overnight soak. The pickles are cold, crunchy, salty and just a tad sweet.

Kim says it’s a bestseller at Perilla L.A., her months-old banchan shop in the northwest corner of Chinatown, recently reviewed in The Times by restaurant critic Bill Addison.

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She originally started her business as a pop-up during the pandemic, selling her dishes via Instagram. Kim immigrated to the United States from Busan, Korea, when she was 20. She spent most of her childhood in her parents’ restaurants, watching them make various banchan and fermented soybean soup. But they never taught her to cook.

“It’s more like they took me to the market and showed me how to eat and appreciate food and ingredients,” she said. “They didn’t want me to work in a restaurant.”

When Kim left Korea, she attended culinary school in San Francisco, worked at Gary Danko there, then moved on to Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. She eventually started consulting and became a private chef. In 2020, she launched Perilla as a way to connect with some of the flavors she missed from home.

“It’s really for me to adapt myself to a new country and to adapt my palate,” she said during a recent call. “I love making banchan and it’s a project I dreamed about.”

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Depending on what banchan she prepares for the day, you’ll end up sampling a few in her dosirak, a Korean lunch set of sorts with a piece of grilled cod sweetened with a marinade of Korean fermented soybean, sake and mirin. It always comes with a scoop of potato salad and either rolled or smoked egg. The latter is cooked and then smoked in a mixture of soy sauce, yuzu marmalade, sake and mirin.

Pick up an extra order of the eggs and the okra in the small deli case at the front of the shop. And the gimbap, wrapped and stacked on a shelf opposite the case, makes an excellent afternoon snack.

“I really didn’t want to do it at the beginning because gimbap is a lot of work,” Kim said. “But people really like it. I wanted to make it more Californian so I added avocado and mushroom.”

Kim seasons her rice with sesame oil and salt and rolls it with seaweed around marinated shiitake mushrooms, sliced avocado, pickled daikon, egg and carrot. Each order comes with a tiny bottle of nostril-singing hot mustard.

Sometimes I squeeze a few drops directly onto my tongue to prepare for a 3 p.m. meeting.

Build your own bowl at My Lai

I’ve never ordered one of the preconstructed bowls from My Lai, a Vietnamese-leaning build-your own-meal restaurant in the same realm as Chipotle and Cava. Why choose an established concoction when I can customize to my heart’s content?

“My means ‘America’ or ‘American’ and Lai means ‘mixed’ in Vietnamese,” explained My Lai co-owner Traci Phan Davis in a recent interview. “It’s pronounced me-lie.”

After a long corporate career, Davis, who is not a trained chef but is married to one, decided to get into the restaurant business. She opened the first My Lai in Mar Vista in 2020 and recently expanded with a new restaurant in West Hollywood.

“Around 2017, I noticed a lot of different build-your-own-bowl-type places but nothing Vietnamese,” she said. “I thought Vietnamese food can really lend itself to this type of concept and you can mix and match with rice noodles or broken rice.”

The bowls at My Lai are infinitely customizable, with garlic rice, noodles, brown rice, salad and cauliflower, chicken, pork, beef, crispy tofu and vegan Impossible Meat. You can even construct a banh mi. But I find myself gravitating toward the same combination each time, addicted to the particular mishmash of protein, vegetables and condiments.

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Half cauliflower rice, half salad as a base. A scoop of the grilled pork for my protein, a recipe from Davi’s aunt, who runs Vietnamese restaurants in Austin, Texas. It’s nicely caramelized and garlicky with a smack of lemongrass and fish sauce. Some pickled daikon and carrots, pickled cucumbers, pickled red cabbage, chopped cilantro, mint, basil and scallions. I ask for “all the crunchies,” otherwise known as sesame seeds, fried onion, chopped peanuts and fried garlic.

There are eight sauces to choose from. Seven are gluten-free. I’m partial to the cilantro ginger, which, according to Davis, is intended as an Asian green goddess. It’s a vibrant green dressing made from pureed cilantro, ginger, fish sauce, garlic, onions and oil. If I have any leftover in the bowl at the end of lunch, I lick it up.

I like to mix it with the My Lai vinaigrette, Davis’ take on nước chấm, the catch-all salty and sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce. And some peanut sauce, smooth and rich with the flavors of oyster sauce and peanut butter, fashioned from Davis’ mom’s recipe.

“My mom used to serve it warm off the pot,” she said. “All throughout my life, I ate that exact peanut sauce.”

I dump each sauce out of their cups and into the bowl, place the plastic lid on top, then shake vigorously. There’s crunch, spice and plenty of acid. It’s enough to keep me satiated in all the ways necessary until my next meal.

Where to pick up a quick and healthful lunch

Perilla L.A., 1027 Alpine St., BLDG E, Los Angeles,

MyLai, mutiple locations at