URBNMRKT: the other side of campus dining

It’s a safe bet that when the Ronald Tutor Campus Center opens its doors next fall, you’ll be scoping out the new cafeteria’s selection. But URBNMRKT, the latest eatery from Trojan Hospitality, probably flew right under your radar.

That’s because even though URBNMKRT is classified as a University Park Campus retail café like Café 84 or Literatea, it’s situated well off-campus on Grand Avenue. But don’t let the stigma of the east-of-the-110 district scare you off — URBNMRKT is a facet of student dining never before unveiled at USC, and it deserves to be experienced.

URBNMRKT serves fresh sandwiches and salads daily. - Vicki Yang|Daily Trojan

URBNMRKT serves fresh sandwiches and salads daily. - Vicki Yang|Daily Trojan

Plopped on a ghost town of a city block, the entrance is easily missed if you visit outside lunchtime hours, when a complimentary valet stand dots the otherwise deserted sidewalk. Not that you particularly need the valet; this section of Grand Avenue is lined with free and vacant parking spaces — an anomaly in LA.

Once you do notice the eight oversized letters stamped across the eatery’s floor-to-ceiling tinted windows, you then stumble into an oasis that is shockingly trendy and friendly calm. The sterile and the natural are juxtaposed with that sensibility that has come to define Pacific dining.

Concrete floors, soaring ceilings crisscrossed with bare ventilation, half-frosted bauble lamps dangling from cords and padded cement booths tucked in the skeletal remains of a loading dock lend themselves to an industrial openness. A court of wooden tables, stools like massive chopping blocks and a dominating print of what might have been tree trunks before the artist upped the contrast, evoke freshness.

Circle around the coffee bar to the marketplace area and you’ll find that it’s no different, contrasting stainless steel with containers of whole, fresh produce such as apples, which you can purchase, and carrots, which you cannot.

Add all this to the bank of angular couches, floor lamps and rugs that set off a lounge area, and you get the distinct impression of having walked into an oversized loft. (Whether the introduction of Wi-Fi will turn it into the ideal study haunt remains to be seen.)

If the atmosphere alone isn’t enough to distinguish URBNMRKT from other campus restaurants, then the food certainly is.

The menu is composed of inexpensive salads, “hot lunch” selections such as BBQ pork shoulder with crunchy slaw ($5) and mustard glazed salmon with quinoa pilaf and herb salad ($7). There are also cold sandwiches and wraps, soups — including a soup of the day and vegetarian lentil soup — and “a.m. eats,” such as a breakfast burrito ($3.50) and the medium coffee and 12 oz. oatmeal combo ($3).

The full-service espresso bar is complemented by a case of chewy chocolate chunk cookies and foot-long cinnamon twists along with a veritable tea chest of Mighty Leaf blends. Kettle chips, pickles and fountain drinks wait to be added to your sandwich combo. Two open, full-wall refrigerator cases house fresh fruit cups and parfaits, Martinelli’s apple juice, Naked beverages, sodas, Tejava and pre-prepared salads and sandwiches, in case you’re in too much of a hurry to customize.

But perhaps the best thing about the little strip of menu is that it’s more like a set of guidelines than the ingredient ultimata you find in prix fixe fare or even at The Lot. The super-accomodating kitchen staff is happy to substitute in red onions for fried wontons, throw havarti on your sandwich or fresh avocado slices in your wrap for no extra charge.

For this reason, it’s not too concerning that the leafy greens salad ($6), of soft, fresh mozzarella cubes, diced tomatoes, seasoned croutons, spring greens and a fresh basil sprig coated with thick vinaigrette, was lacking in sugary “vinaigre” and overpowering in peppery, salty “tte.” Or that the vegetable wrap ($5), of sweet peppers, shredded lettuce and hummus, soaked through its store-bought flour tortilla wrapping within minutes of assembly.

Or you can just scrap the menu, put together whatever you like the first time around and pay based on whatever your meal most resembles.

Also, well-executed standbys like the carne asada burrito ($5) with tender bell peppers and steak soaked in a thick, spicy marinade, and the Pacific Rim chicken salad ($6), of leafy greens, grilled white meat, green onions and fried wonton noodles shaken with a soy sauce-based dressing, prove that many menu items give Wolfgang Puck Express a run for its money without any alteration whatsoever.

You just have to keep reminding yourself that you can pay with discretionary money, since the few streets traveled to get there make URBNMRKT feel miles away from typical on-campus fare.