Looking for a quick, healthy and affordable meal in the downtown area? While those categories might seem mutually exclusive, there's a lunch option that probably slipped your attention. You would be well served to slide on over to the hot bar at La Montañita in the Solana Center.

Let your eyes and stomach come to a truce, however. I recommend scooping less onto your plate than you think you will eat, because paying by the pound means every wasted morsel is also money down the drain. Frugal diners can purchase beans and rice for $5.99 a pound. The rest of the menu is $8.99 per pound. If you're on the go, you can even bring your own container. Just stop by the customer service desk on your way in to have it weighed before you load it up.

On any given day, deli manager Jeff Moses says there are one or two people waiting for the 11 am buffet unveiling. That's when he gets rid of the morning burrito bar and replaces it with offerings for the rest of the day. His goals, he says, are "to provide healthy, conscious, organic, local food."

"We always try to make sure that we have a little bit of vegan and a little bit of vegetarian, and of course we are high on the protein because that is really what drives it. A lot of people still like to eat meat," he says.

The bar often has a theme such as barbeque, home-style, Asian, Spanish or curry, but don't look for a consistency about which day they will pop up.

"We don't really have a set day of the week because that gets boring," Moses says.

My recent visit on home-style day was exactly what I needed—the kind of food I would have made for myself if I had placed a higher priority on cooking lunches last week than I did on watching the World Series on TV.

The thick slab of hot-bar meatloaf is just like Mom's (a touch bland and a little dry) but without the ketchup crust, and with an extra dollop of green chile. The label boasts it's made with all the PC rage: cage-free eggs, organic and natural spices and local grass-fed beef. Steamed carrots with kale and cauliflower with chard satisfied my vegetable urge, though I regrettably pass on scooping up some lovely looking squash in favor of a small helping of shepherd's pie casserole that features tomato and corn and with some other unidentifiable veggies. I have a full plate that weighs in at .61 pounds for $5.48.

An extra bonus of the Co-Op meal is that you can pick up five pounds of flour, a bottle of lotion or a package of toilet paper while you are there. Even if you do have a more organized approach to grocery shopping than I do, the fact that you will eat your meal at the grocery store also means you've got a virtually endless list of beverage options.

Whether you are into sugarless fruit juice, sparkling water or iced tea, the cold case offers something for every taste. I went crazy on my last visit and chose something called Lapsang Souching ($2.99) from Tao of Tea. Turns out, this black tea is smoked with pine chips, which gives it an odor similar to a sweat lodge, but a taste that is roasty and robust.

What's also attractive about this lunch option (in the store formerly known as The Marketplace, and still bearing that sign) is that there's no waitstaff to wait for. The store revamped its front seating area about a year ago, replacing worn out tables and chairs to offer a more comfortable spot in front of plate glass windows. On a nice day, you can also sit outside in front of the store in an alcove or at a picnic table strategically placed in the parking lot median. It's not quite like your own kitchen and backyard patio. But not too far removed.

La Montañita Co-Op
913 W Alameda St., 984-2853
Lunch/dinner bar daily, 11 am–10 pm