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Vegetarian soul food? Naturally Yours serves up "buffalo things" and smothered steaklet

The chalkboard menu above the bar at Naturally Yours Caféincludes a lot of Southern dishes you don't usually see in health food restaurants: chicken wings, barbecue, smothered steaks. Most of them are available in both the original and vegetarian forms. I order some vegetarian chicken wings, cleverly advertised as "buffalo things." Attached to the Naturally Yours pharmacy and nutritional supplement store, this is the first African-American health food restaurant I've ever eaten in. (And I've got to say: With a menu like this, even I could be a vegetarian.) It's also a good place to kick off my healthy-eating awareness campaign. As you no doubt have heard, Houston has been selected for the second year in a row as Men's Fitness magazine's "fattest city in America." I just want to do my part to help.

The first week of January is Diet Resolution Week (sponsored by The Vegetarian Awareness Network, 1-877-VEG-DIET). The vegetable people want us to get fit by eating grains, legumes and soy. I'm right with the program here at Naturally Yours. I order some lentil soup (that's a legume, right?) and the fake chicken wings (they're made out of wheat stuff, I think). Both are probably very nutritious.

When the waiter asks what I want to drink, I'm tempted by the Red Stripe and the many other interesting-looking beers displayed on a shelf above the dining room, but I courageously resist my urges. Besides, I know that January is National Hot Tea Month (sponsored by the Tea Council of the United States, www.teausa.com). But the only herb tea they have here at Naturally Yours is Celestial Seasonings Very Berry, and it's already chilled in a big stainless-steel iced tea urn. It's awfully cold outside for iced tea.

If you have to eat a veggie burger, the Garvey -- with its fresh-made patty -- is one of the best.
Deron Neblett
If you have to eat a veggie burger, the Garvey -- with its fresh-made patty -- is one of the best.

Details

713-520-0924. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

Lentil soup: $4.95
Buffalo things: $6.95
Garvey burger: $6.50
Vegetarian smothered steak: $8.95
Hormone-free sirloin: $11.95

4830-A Almeda

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"Isn't there some kind of herb tea I can get hot?" I ask the affable young black guy with beads in his hair.

"We can heat it up for you," he says.

"That'll work," I agree.

My tea is delivered, but now it's too hot to drink, so I look around awhile. There are eight tables, two African-looking cubist paintings on the wall and one TV tuned to ESPN. The crowd is young, black and friendly. There are lots of dreadlocks and big knit caps -- a guy in glasses reminds me of a young Spike Lee. A white couple comes in and sits down. The woman is wearing a nylon windbreaker several sizes too small and plaid pants under a gingham skirt. It must be some new "urban backwoods" fashion thing. I wonder where the fashion magazines rate Houston? Never mind, I don't want to know.

The tea is finally cool enough to drink, so I wrap my lips around the thick ceramic mug and take a sip. I am twice surprised. First, because the tea has sugar in it. Doesn't sweetened herb tea kind of defeat the whole health-and-diet thing? But I don't have long to ponder this enigma before the second surprise kicks in. My lower lip is stuck to the mug and sizzling. They must have heated the tea by putting this mug in the microwave. The tea has cooled, but the outer surface of the mug hasn't. A blister begins to form on my lip as I go to the counter to request a cooler mug.

One of my eating companions arrives about the same time as the buffalo things. He orders a Guinness. I'm about to complain that he's ruining my whole healthy-eating awareness, but then I remember that Guinness is actually considered a health food in Ireland (its national awareness day is March 17). As a malt beverage, it's in the grain family, too.

The buffalo things are served with french fries and your choice of ranch or blue cheese dressing. In order to assess which is healthier, we get both. The fake chicken wings are brown oblong objects about the size of real wings. Each is cut on the diagonal and covered with a sticky cayenne red sauce. They're nicely crunchy with a meatlike, fibrous texture. Maybe we're just hungry, but these things taste damn good. I eat several despite the stinging in my blistered lip. By now my mug is empty.

"Do you want another herb tea?" the waiter asks.

I'm afraid that, what with my wounded lip and all, I might not survive another round with superheated ceramics. Besides, sugary Very Berry is bad for my diet. It doesn't go very well with fake chicken wings either, so I order a Heineken. Not only is it a grain beverage, it's also bound to be considered a health food in Holland.

The french fries present another dilemma, because January is also Fat-Free Living Month (sponsored by fatfreeliving.com). These folks want to raise our consciousness about dietary fat as a factor in weight gain and various diseases. Thankfully, my other dining companion, a veteran vegetarian, arrives and sets me at ease. Vegans live on french fries, she says. If vegans -- those ultraradical vegetarians who refuse to consume even cheese -- live on french fries, they must be good for you, I figure. So I dig in. She orders a Guinness and a fake burger.

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