Carnivore's Holiday: Mr. Natural

 
 
A 10-part adventure on the other side of the food chain
 
Part 5: Mr. Natural
1901 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-477-5228, more locations at www.mrnatural-austin.com.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.  Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
 
 By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.31.12
 
Almost 20 years ago, a group from the Statesman was working on the magazine that would become XL. We had a per diem for group lunches, and one of us was a vegetarian, the kind who kept a running commentary of news from her lower GI tract. We suffered through a lunch at Mr. Natural that channeled the Mamas and the Papas: “All the food is brown (all ... the ... food ... is ... brown).” Carnivoral dreamin'. It was flavor-challenged and depressing and it planted the notion of gray skies and scorched earthiness at this combination lunch-counter/health-food/yoga complex.
 
But like pages in a family album, I think our sense memories turn brown at the edges. Because Mr. Natural’s favorite color is closer to green, reinforced by emerald tablecloths and a patio covered with Riddler’s-green corrugated plastic panels that cast a healthy wheatgrass glow. The steam pans behind the cafeteria-style serving line are full of colors, and the bakery cases of empanadas, frosted cupcakes and caramel tres leches cakes suggest fun and games, not self-serious pallor.
 
What you’re eating: Thursday is taco day on the lunch line, and a plate with two of them with salad and two sides is $7.99. Soy chorizo colors up, spices and chews like ground beef and shares its overdeveloped love of salt. But piled with unseasoned potatoes in a crispy corn shell, it makes a decent taco with a trace of Mr. Natural’s cool and bristly red salsa. Top it with a salad of cucumber, onion and tomato drizzled with lime. They count a gordita as a side dish, with scrambled tofu and black beans tucked inside tender corn pocketbread with lettuce and tomato. Brown rice with peas and corn finishes a solid, flavorful and vegetarian Tex-Mex lunch.
 
What you’re drinking: A smoothie called Happy Digest ($2.99/small). Just in case your body wonders why all these vegetables and whole grains showed up, a pulpy blast of cold orange juice, papaya, honey and fiber is just the thing. An Orange Julius from the anti-mall.
 
Other options: The serving line on a recent Thursday also included carrot salad with raisins and pineapple, vegetarian barbecue, tamales and tofu stir-fry. Other days promise tofu pipian, spring rolls, zucchini poblano and cabbage rolls.  The full breakfast menu includes a “Vegans-R-Us” section with tofu scrambles and “Daiya-quiles” made with dairy-free cheese.  There’s also a Tex-Mex section and a diner-style lineup of sandwiches, burgers and meatless blue plates. I’m trying not to obsess over that caramel tres leches. 
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)