CROUTONS

Food: () No-nonsense salads, sandwiches and soups offered at very modest prices.

Service: () Enthusiastic young staff takes orders and delivers them to tables.

Atmosphere: () Cookie-cutter design features large windows and spiffy dining areas.

More Info

Location: 335 SW Century Drive, Bend; 564 NE Greenwood Ave., Bend; 974 SW Veterans Way, Suite 6 (Fred Meyer mall), Redmond

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday only at Century Drive location

Cuisine: Focus on salads and flatbread sandwiches

Price range: Salads $5.75 to $8.95; sandwiches $7.45 to $8.95; soups $3.95 to $5.95

Credit cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa

Kids’ menu: Full meals with apple juice or milk, $6.25.

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: Veggie panini and Sundance salad are two of many choices

Alcoholic beverages: No

Outdoor seating: No

Reservations: No

Contact: croutonstogo.com; 541-330-1133 (west Bend), 541-728-0825 (east Bend), 541-316-1500 (Redmond)

For more area restaurant reviews, visit bendbulletin.com/restaurants

Croutons has found a solid niche in Central Oregon. Since opening its first area cafe on Century Drive in 2005, the casual salad, soup and sandwich shop has continued to attract a solid core of customers.

That patronage ballooned in 2013 with the addition of a second restaurant on Greenwood Avenue, half again as large as the original. Late last year, a new Croutons in Redmond’s Fred Meyer mall further grew the restaurant’s audience.

Diners may be drawn to Croutons by its no-nonsense approach to the lunch (and light dinner) experience. Nineteen salad choices, 14 panini and flatbread sandwiches, and five daily house-made soups assure there’s no shortage of meal options — at very modest prices. Diners order at the counter from an enthusiastic young staff, take a number, help themselves to soft drinks and wait for their meals to be delivered to a table.

It’s all very efficient. The west-side and east-side Bend establishments (I haven’t been inside the Redmond store) are clean, modern and well-maintained, in a sort of cookie-cutter fashion. Concrete floors and timbers buffer the dining area from overhead ventilation ducts. Large windows welcome outside light into the squarish spaces.

Croutons was established in Southern California in 2003, where the group retains four shops in San Diego and Orange counties. The Bend and Redmond cafes are its only others. According to the company website, its goal is combining “unique flavors with premium ingredients to create an innovative selection of menu items that are prepared fresh-to-order and delivered to the customer in ‘fast food’ time.”

Nothing unique

I am not a big fan of Croutons. The food is fine, sure, but it’s singularly unexciting. I don’t find anything unique or innovative about its offerings, with the possible exception of its cornbread croutons. These are a plus for any of the romaine or spring-mix salads on the menu.

Despite the large number of salads, most seem remarkably similar to one another. And nothing tells me the greens or vegetables are locally sourced. Yet the variety of ingredients is surprisingly diverse, and preparation is not as mix and match as one might suspect: Many of the fixings, including fruits and veggies, cheeses and meats, are used in only one recipe. Examples include pears, strawberries, grapes, artichoke hearts and roasted eggplant.

I shared a Santa Fe salad ($7.95) at the east-side Croutons with my dining companion. Tossed with the spring mix and romaine lettuces were diced apple, red onion and smoked Gouda cheese, along with corn kernels, toasted walnuts and those delicious cornbread croutons. For an extra $2, we added diced chicken to the fix. (Other add options were turkey, avocado, tuna or salmon.) Served with a ranch dressing, the salad was fine, but not memorable.

Soup and sandwich

I actually preferred the soup ($3.95 a cup or $4.95 a bowl). Five choices were offered. My albondigas — a Mexican-style meatball soup, made with beans in a chicken broth — was delicious. My companion’s cream of spinach blend was saltier than I might have preferred, but also excellent.

My Tuscan roast beef sandwich ($8.95) was a panini, made with two slices of ciabatta bread dressed with garlic mayonnaise. Several slices of prime rib, medium rare, were pressed in a grill with roasted red bell pepper, red onion and provolone cheese. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I wouldn’t be inspired to order it again. The Margherita chicken panini, with fresh basil and sun-dried tomato, might be worth a try next time.

My dining companion, limiting her carbohydrate intake, opted for butter lettuce wraps ($7.95) with egg salad. (Other options were chicken salad or tuna salad.) The plate came with three. She ate one wrap and took the other two home, where she hoped the addition of more seasonings might improve the egg salad.

Healthy option

About a week later, I dropped into the original Croutons cafe on Century Drive. For just $8.95, I was able to get a cup of soup, as well as a small flatini sandwich.

The soup was a creamy chicken and wild rice blend, a mainstay on the Croutons menu for years. Seasoned with a sprinkling of thyme, along with celery, onion and finely chopped carrots, it gives me one reason to want to make an occasional return to the restaurant.

The albacore tuna sandwich was less inspiring. The house-recipe tuna salad was made with light mayo (neither sloppy nor dry) and mixed with fresh herbs, including tarragon.

But it came with a mere piece of green leaf lettuce in folded flatbread, a sort of lightly grilled pita bread, and once again didn’t stand out as memorable.

Overall, I consider Croutons to be a fine lunch alternative to conventional fast-food restaurants, especially considering the very reasonable price. Think of it as a health-conscious substitute for a burger joint. It may not measure up to more formal, sit-down establishments in terms of creative preparation, but for value, it’s hard to top.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached janderson@bendbulletin.com .

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