Carnivore’s Holiday: Casa de Luz

 
 
A 10-part adventure on the other side of the food chain
 
Part 6: Casa de Luz
1701 Toomey Road. 512-476-2535, www.casadeluz.org.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. Breakfast is 7 to 10 a.m. Lunch is 11 a.m. to 2:30. Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.04.12
 
Anybody who’s tried to leave their car along Toomey Road to eat at Chuy’s on Barton Springs knows what an epic cluster-park that little fishhook of a road can be. Chuy’s has invoked a kind of Manifest Destiny to take over the lots behind it, but Toomey is still clogged with the cars of a war involving another restaurant: Casa de Luz. Last year, the City of Austin shook its fist at Casa, threatening to shut the place down if it didn’t come up with parking by June 1. So I picked June 1 on purpose for a visit, to witness the relocate-or-fall apocalypse firsthand. But Casa de Luz is still there, still ministering to vegetarians at the back of a complex that includes a school and playground for kids and a meandering meditation garden and healing services for adults. You can find your centering chi here, but good luck finding a place to put your car.
 
What you’re eating: The Voyager space probe might have carried a picture of this food the way it did Chuck Berry music, to show how evolved we Earthlings can be. A plate rendered in vibrant tones of yellow, orange, purple and green. Vegetarian, you know, so as not to scare off future sources of extraterrestrial protein.
 
Casa de Luz charges a set price of $12 for lunch and dinner, $7 at breakfast, a price you pay as you walk in. You start by filling your own soup bowl, salad plate and glass of hot or cold tea. Take a seat, then the kitchen staff composes and brings out an entree plate, a still life of beans or lentils, pickled vegetables, a grain like quinoa or rice, warm greens and a sturdy cooked vegetable. Not full yet? You’re allowed to ask for seconds. Decorum calls for bussing your dishes. It’s important to have a sense of process here, because most of the people in the big cafeteria-style room are regulars. It’s not exactly a Soup Nazi thing, but get with the program, Elaine.
 
Like a round Mayan calendar carved in plant-life, the plate was an animal-free degustation menu. Purple cabbage sauerkraut with rye seeds and a toasted quinoa salad woven together with toasted almonds, cucumber, carrot, radish and herbs. Mashed yellow lentils with parsley could ‘ve been an exhibit in the flavor gallery that includes soft-mashed potatoes or grits. Frilly greens with a thick sesame dressing were as warm as the sun on your face. Hearty orange kabocha squash and even more high-test orange butternut squash were cooked just until they were soft, needing nothing else to amplify their sweetness, like the garden’s version of custard. For extra swerve, salt and pepper were represented by a shaker of sesame seeds and sea salt.
 
The main plate was more interesting by bounds than the earnest salad and soup that came before it. Even if the soup was a garden basket of green beans, mushroom, squash and cabbage, it suffered from the lack of character a more fully composed stock could bring, something with more than tamari to bring it deeper life.
 
What you’re drinking: Kukicha tea, at least until you fully appreciate its sour twang, its semi-fermented self-righteousness. Bold qualities for warm brown water sub-labeled “twig tea.” Better to pull your refreshment from a cool glass of rosy hibiscus tea or a golden tea with the soothing eucalyptus head-rush of a lemon cough drop.
 
Other options: Breakfast is supplemented with beans, fresh tortillas and porridge with granola and raisins. The lunch and dinner menus change every day, but Wednesday lunches are Mexican and Tuesday dinners alternate between gorditas and tamales. It’s not part of the set price, but there’s a dessert case with vegan flan, colorful Jell-O-ish creations called kanten, carob pie, berry crunch and coconut macaroons.