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Resolve to eat well ...
Good-for-you eating

A primer on what healthy eating is and isn't from a self-proclaimed health food nut includes places that meet her wants and needs.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Kathryn Wexler is ready for her organic and healthy meal of spinach salad, vegetables and a bowl of soup at Nature's Harvest, one of her favorite healthy food spots in South Tampa.
Health food.

Dirty words to some. But, hey, we figure those are the people who will be dead in short order anyway.

Ernest Hooper: Good eatin'
For those who haven't already turned the page in a pesticide-induced stupor, what follows is a cordon bleu guide to South Tampa restaurants where the self-righteously healthy break bread.

Except that we shun most bread.

First, a remedial lesson in what hard-core health food is not.

It is not demonizing carbs. It is not freaking out over fat. It is not counting calories, points or ounces.

Surprise, all you poseurs: It's not whole wheat, not fat-free yogurt, not frozen veggie burgers.

It is rice -- brown or black and always organic. It's kale so green, it's almost black. It's tomatoes without genetic roulette. It's "juicing" carrots and beets and wheatgrass. It's soybeans, seaweed, flax seeds.

Real health food is fresh and often raw. It is grown locally to support nearby farmers and to reduce traffic and pollution. It is unfrozen and unsprayed.

If you want more information, buy a book. If you want a better lifestyle, body and outlook, read on.

The hands-down favorite among us is the deli at Nature's Harvest Market. This is the antigrocery store: the food is edible!

Passing through the sliding glass door to the market on MacDill Avenue is therapy alone.

It's in the soft aromas that emanate from fruit not entombed in wax. It's in the way they use regular plastic bags to wrap their homemade cookies. How the self-serve spice rack in bulk quantities is always a little messy. And how the food shelves don't have that deadening corporate uniformity.

Make your way past bins of wheatberries and raw almonds to the deli in back. There, you'll always find a wonderful selection of hot and cold food, like carrot ginger bisque, baby French lima beans and tofu meatloaf (meat-free). It's tasty. Inexpensive too.

If this food could talk, it would shout, "I choose life!"

No other South Tampa venue offers the breadth of choice and dietary awareness of Nature's Harvest, where it's a breeze to order a meal sans gluten (found in wheat and certain other grains), dairy products, meat, fish or eggs.

Because we don't want to incite a run on Nature's Harvest on the scale of a grand opening at Krispy Kreme, also consider a trip to Natural Kitchen Cafe on Kennedy Boulevard.

Kudos for using organic brown rice in vegetable dishes!

Points deducted for serving leafy greens that aren't organic!

Yet I have compassion for Rita Habbab, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Sid, the chef.

"Our goal would be to have more organic, but we can't afford it," she said.

On the up side, she offers organic wine and "everything's made fresh." You taste it, from hummus to the steamed vegetables.

But by serving dead birds, she knows she alienates the diehard healthies.

"Many true vegetarians found it corruptive because we serve turkey and things," Habbab said.

She walks a fine line between luring new customers and repelling purists.

Wexler smiles with the conviction that she and her ilk will be around for many meals long after less healthy eaters are gone.
"When you look at the pure, pure restaurants, they don't stay alive," she said. I'm in between. I understand the dilemma."

Ansley's Natural Marketplace, also on Kennedy, is more low-key. Remember, you're here for your health. If you want to feed your ego, go to Samba Room.

Ansley's makes smoothies and sandwiches. But unlike those -- ahem -- faux-healthy juice bars around town, Ansley's gets it.

They offer soymilk-based concoctions and will toss in flax seed oil (for essential fatty acids), milk thistle (known as a liver cleanser) and spirulina (blue-green algae). They serve tofu, vegan mayo (no eggs or dairy) and hummus (from chickpeas). And their chicken sandwiches are "all natural," meaning the bird wasn't stuck with more antibiotics than an anthrax victim.

On to Bertha's Au Natural Cafe on Neptune Street.

Owner Dena Van Orden is old enough to retire, but she looks like a million bucks. "Read labels and stay away from transfatty acids," she warns. But most of all, take her supplements, she urges and urges.

Foodwise, Van Orden says her turkey sandwich is a standout. Fruit salads get good reviews, too. The selection is limited, but she doesn't buy the idea that healthful eating mandates consumption of tofu.

"I'm not fanatical about organic," she says. "If you have a nice turkey melt with Monterey jack, I consider that health food."

To each her own. Take Nature's Table. That name fits only if Mother Nature never took a cooking lesson in her life.

To be fair, the cafe in Old Hyde Park serves some nice vegetarian chili. But the truly healthy don't get too excited about that.

Then there's the usual sandwich fare (dreaded by my ilk) of ham. The cafe offers all varieties of chicken "wraps."

"We get spinach, jalapeno cheese, cheddar cheese and tomato basil wraps from our distributor," says owner Bryan Drummond.

Preservatives in the wraps, I presume?

"I'm not sure," Drummond says. "We don't get the ingredients."

For all I know, there could be chunks of coal in those wraps. Think of ordering a filet mignon and biting into roadkill.

Drummond otherwise sounds like a nice guy. Nature's Table Cafe is a franchise of a national chain. They're not trying to rock the world.

"Our slogan is sensible food that tastes great," he says. "We're trying to get people away from eating hamburgers."

He sells yogurt, but confides, "I don't eat dairy." He buys organic food for his family but not the cafe because, he says, customers won't pay the extra cost.

Okay. But is all the soup cooked at the cafe, at least?

"You a healthy nut yourself?" Drummond asks, suddenly getting the picture.

Proudly so. Which is why I rarely find myself at Evos on Howard Avenue. "Everybody enjoys burgers and fries," says co-owner Dino Lambridis.

I don't think we've met.

"That's an American meal," Lambridis says. "We just make it guilt-free for them."

I know, I know. The fries are baked. The smoothies are all fruit. The steakburger, they advertise, is free-range.

Rah rah rah. But is it health food? No.

Amazing how some South Tampa residents talk about Evos with the same deep respect we purists reserve for colonics.

Even Lambridis happily acknowledges he's not hawking health food.

"The word 'healthy' surely means different things to different people," he says. "It's a very broad word and we try not to use it all over the place ... to some people it conjures up bad tasting food."

Puuhleez. Go tell that to the healthy, happy people. We are scattered among you, relishing our food, prolonging our lives and scrutinizing labels for unpronounceable ingredients cooked up in laboratories, not kitchens.

The word "Evos" is not even in the dictionary. That should tell you something.

-- Kathryn Wexler, a reporter for the Times in Tampa, can be reached at wexler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383. But don't bother contacting her to complain about this story. If you didn't at least smile over it, you need to change your diet.

EATING WELL: The green mile

-- Nature's Harvest Market and Deli, 1021 N MacDill Ave., 873-7428.

-- Nature's Kitchen Cafe, 3218 W Kennedy Ave., 874-2233.

-- Ansley's Natural Marketplace, 3936 W Kennedy Blvd., 879-6625.

-- Bertha's Au Natural Cafe, 3802 W Neptune St., 259-1109.

* * *

A matter of taste

Must Kathryn Wexler and Ernest Hooper be at odds? Couldn't they give peace a chance? They tried, and then filed this report.

KATHRYN: I introduce Ernest Hooper to a strange, new world: food that doesn't kill.

We go, naturally, to Nature's Harvest deli. The choices abound. There are kidney beans, blanched cauliflower, tofu pie -- all mouthwatering.

"Oh, God!" Hooper utters.

Must be his toxins talking.

ERNEST: By no means did I expect Kathryn to delve into my favorites at Mott & Hester Deli, a place so renowned in South Tampa it's been open for 20 years.

After all, the only bread she is willing to consider is flat, black and devoid of taste.

KATHRYN: I order him a Nature's Harvest special. It's a thick concoction called Ground Nut Stew.

"You don't really eat that," he accuses.

Laura Budzik, deli supervisor and a wickedly good cook, says it has butternut squash, potatoes, peanuts, cabbage, peppers, black-eyed peas and nuts.

Yummmm!

ERNEST: The best thing I could say about the stew is it tasted a lot better than it looked.

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I could get by eating that stuff for quite some time. It had some surprising flavor with a healthy dose of spices, and the crunch from the nuts was a nice complement.

But it could never inspire the kind of gleeful anticipation that accompanies me whenever I prepare to bite into Mott & Hester's Wild Turkey.

KATHRYN: He opts for some brown Basmati rice, the long-grain kind, to add to his stew. He pokes at the plate. He eats a little, complains a little. Eats a little, complains a little. Doesn't finish it.

He takes me to this place called Mott & Hester Deli. I can tell I'm in trouble.

Maybe they could just throw a slab of tofu on the griddle?

ERNEST: My hope was that she could craft a decent lunch from some of Mott's healthier choices. How could she go wrong, I thought, with squash casserole, shrimp salad and antipasto?

Unfortunately, Kathryn didn't share my enthusiasm. She danced around her three choices.

KATHRYN: "I'm still hungry," he says, back at the office.

That's what you get when you turn up your nose at a side order of cauliflower.

ERNEST: I knew it was a lost cause when Kathryn complained she was starting to feel sleepy after her meal.

Didn't she realize that was a good sign?

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