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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.

My lentil soup comes to the table piping hot. It has a vaguely Indian aroma; there's cumin in it for sure, and maybe a little curry powder? The beans are cooked very soft, and the flavor is lovely. Hot soup on a cold winter night really hits the spot, which is no doubt why January has been designated National Soup Month.

For my entrée, I order the vegetarian smothered steak with mashed potatoes and vegetables. The fake meat is something called a steaklet, and it tastes just like meat loaf. No fooling! There's some kind of fake gravy too, made with a vegetable stock, I guess. The mashed potatoes and sautéed squash, carrots and onions are real. Eaten together, the fake ground meat and mashed potatoes manage to register on the palate as comfort food. I'd put this right up there with my top vegetarian restaurant dinner experiences.

The veggie burger, which is called a Garvey burger, is also pretty impressive. First, it's huge. Plus, Naturally Yours makes its own patties, so they taste fresher than the frozen ones. I once did a tasting of ten top-selling veggie patties, so I know how bad this stuff gets. The Garvey is one of the best. That doesn't mean you're going to swear you're actually eating a hamburger. It just means that the average meat lover could choke one down on a slow day. In my book, that's saying a lot.

I was delighted to see that Naturally Yours also sold real meat. Oddly, my friend's hormone-free sirloin is by far the worst thing we sample. He ordered it medium-rare, but it comes to the table about five minutes past well done. That doesn't matter much anyway, because the steak is a mess of gristle and chewy fat drenched in a dark brown steak sauce. It's completely inedible.

"Your fake meat tastes more like meat than my steak," he observes.

"What kind of steak sauce is that, A1 or HP?" we ask a waitress.

She says she doesn't know. She doesn't eat meat.

"That figures," grumbles the steak eater.

"That'll teach you to order meat in a restaurant run by vegetarians," the fake-burger eater opines.

Some vegetarians like meat-substitute cuisine; others find it lame. If you're a meat substitute-loving vegetarian (or a meat eater cutting down on cholesterol), I highly recommend Naturally Yours. As unlikely as vegetarian soul food might sound, it's one of the best approaches to vegetarian cooking I've tasted. Covered in barbecue sauce or spicy chicken wing dip, or gravy and mashed potatoes, the texturized vegetable protein patties recede into a larger whole of familiar flavors where they can be more easily mistaken for actual meat.

I order another beer in honor of the upcoming Healthy Weight Week (sponsored by the Healthy Weight Journal, www.healthyweight.net). Its organizers argue that dieting is a waste of time and that we should focus on healthy lifestyle habits instead. I'll drink to that! They're also the sponsors of the January 22 Rid the World of Fad Diets and Gimmicks Day, dedicated to exposing quackery in the weight loss field.

Speaking of quackery, I got a shock the morning after my dinner at Naturally Yours. Sitting at my kitchen table reading the paper and eating my oatmeal (yes, January is National Oatmeal Month, www.quakeroatmeal.com), I read that the "fattest city" designation is not based solely on obesity. The magazine also factors in the number of fast-food joints per capita, TV viewing habits, climate, air quality, average commute time, parklands and other quality-of-life indexes.

I threw down my spoon in disgust. (I never did like oatmeal anyway.) Forget about dieting -- and healthy lifestyles, too. The only way to get Houston off the top of this fat-city list is to jackhammer up the freeways, turn the oil refineries into parks, stop watching TV, oh, and change the climate.

Men's Fitness magazine, by the way, is headquartered in the San Fernando Valley, a Los Angeles suburb best known for gridlock, perma-smog and warring Latino street gangs.

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