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94 Percent Dogma-Free

On my lifetime list of No-Place-But-Houston cafe concepts, Ziggy's Healthy Grill leads with a bullet. Ziggy's may cater to vegetarians and health food fans, but it also cooks up the most comprehensive menu of exotic meats I've seen anywhere. That's right, a whole Disney cartoon's worth of fuzzy animals with cute furry faces gets grilled: not just lumpish buffalo and surly, scaly-legged ostriches, but also on occasion caribou and deer and even kangaroo. As a rule, I'm fairly comfortable with my place in the food chain, but even I felt a twinge at the prospect of dining on Winnie's good friend Roo.

"Just remember, a kangaroo patty has only one gram of fat," says Wayne Croft, Ziggy's owner.

I suppose Ziggy's enduring popularity, second only to nearby A Moveable Feast in a recent on-line poll of vegetarian restaurants, proves that there's more than one reason to eat healthy and more than one sort of person who attempts it, particularly in Houston. As we slouch toward the millennium, I am no longer surprised to see urban cowboys spurning chicken-fried steaks for vegetarian chili or pierced and tattooed youngsters munching grilled garden patties. During weekend lulls at Ziggy's Healthy Grill, you're liable to catch half the waitstaff out on the front sidewalk sneaking a smoke.

"Our customers like to have a choice," explains Croft. "About half are vegetarians, but the other half are not, and even meat-eaters want healthy options nowadays. That's why we're so interested in the exotic meats." I started going to Ziggy's during my obsessive fat-gram-counting phase in the early '90s, back when low-fat dining meant dreary confinement to the home kitchen. Ziggy's was one of the first places in town I could find a 94 percent fat-free burger with low-fat cheese and low-fat or even fat-free mayonnaise. At this reductionist vanishing point, I realize, it's debatable whether what I'm eating is really a burger at all, but it comforts me nonetheless. Besides, I like buffalo. I like the less greasy, springy texture of the patties. The argument for replacing beef with buffalo meat is impressive, as Croft is quick to point out: Buffalo is lower in fat and higher in protein, doesn't provoke allergic reactions and is free from all those nasty chemicals -- steroids and hormones and antibiotics, oh, my! -- that cattle are said to be stuffed with. (Just ask Oprah.)

Bodybuilders like Ziggy's too. Glossy photos of buff bods adorn the wall by the cash register, and not a few posers fill the seats, managing to flex magnificently while lifting a 12-ounce fresh fruit smoothie to their lips. Athletes and personal trainers flock to Ziggy's from as far away as Sugar Land, says Croft, drawn by the tell-all nutritional analysis computed by a University of Houston specialist for every item on Ziggy's menu. The resulting book is displayed right out on the counter for handy reference while ordering.

Since Croft acquired the restaurant almost four years ago, he has worked hard designing new street-legal items for the menu. On a recent visit I skipped my old faithful buffalo burger ($4.65) to sample one of his latest creations, the caribou burger ($5.95). Caribou, I discovered, has the same faintly wild flavor I associate with venison, but with a richer, spicier tang I quite like. Too bad this particular patty was so woefully overcooked, blackened and so dry that even a thorough swabbing with low-fat mayo couldn't fix it. (I suspect Ziggy's kitchen suffers from undersupervision at times.) I also indulged in the Trio basket of fries, a fixture on Ziggy's menu since day one: a heaping, shareable pile of slender fry-cut Idaho whites, sweet yams and thinly sliced onion rings (only $1.70 with a sandwich, $2.45 solo).

"I warn people that french fries are still fries," says Croft with a laugh. "They're the only thing we fry and probably the highest-fat item we offer, even though we use canola oil, which is cholesterol-free and zero saturated fat. But some people just can't picture a burger without fries."

I can't picture fries without salt, so I ground a generous load of low-sodium sea salt over the top. ("Low-sodium" means "use twice as much," doesn't it?) As much as I want to like the dark orange strips of yam, they're unfortunately mushy, and I'd forgotten that they pretty much always have been. I prefer the sturdy white Idahos with their crispy brown skins. On previous visits, the skinny little onion rings have been delicately crunchy and appealing, but on this most recent expedition I was disappointed to find them limp; I suppose they'd absorbed a bit too much of that good-for-you canola. Next time I think I'll skip the onion rings in favor of grilled onions on the burger.

Salads are always a good pick at Ziggy's, with a fun array of fat-free dressings: Italian, ranch, raspberry vinaigrette, honey mustard and French, at last count. My current favorite is the Greek salad ($5.50), although I'm aware that the pleasantly light red-wine vinaigrette made with olive oil technically constitutes cheating. The generous bowl of mixed greens includes dark, briny Greek olives (prepitted, thank you), ripe tomato wedges and slices of sweet Spanish onions, sparked with deep red beet slices that festively dye the feta cheese sprinkles pink.

Another new item I'm fond of is also a compromise: the chicken pecan salad sandwich ($5.50). I know, I know, nuts are a diet no-no, and this jawbreaker-thick sandwich is chock full of them. "We make up for that by using only white chicken breast meat," Croft says persuasively, "and we trim off all the fat we can before we cook it." The chicken is marinated in a rosemary-spiked herb blend, and the pecans are roasted and garlicky, so the salad has a deep, resonant flavor that more than makes up for the fat shortfall in the lightly toasted five-grain bread. Croft and I disagree on the amount of fat-free mayonnaise appropriate to such a salad, though. "I'm not a big fan of mayonnaise, so I don't like a lot of mayo in my salads," he says. "It makes them gooey." I think he should use more to bind the ingredients; chunks of the loosely packed salad frequently fall out from between the bread slabs to decorate the plate, the table and, most often, my lap. The sandwich is finished with shredded lettuce, tomato slices and a haystack of plain, grated carrots that I believe would benefit from a splash of one of those house dressings.

We also experimented with two of the focaccia bread creations, a grilled portobello sandwich ($6.50) from the blackboard list of specials and a fresh spinach pizza ($6.50) from the regular menu. Both turned out to be object lessons on the importance of olive oil: Without it, the focaccia bread was fly-away light and crumbly, and the thick slivers of mushroom painfully plain; I guess the real selling point is that you can eat either item guilt-free. The single-serving pizza is made with skim-milk mozzarella, thick and surprisingly elastic and almost as good as the real thing, adorned with plenty of mushrooms and spinach. The portobello sandwich sports a light, garlicky pesto sauce, a pretty shade of green but applied too meagerly to moisten the bread. I guess I just prefer my sandwiches gooey.

What is it that personal trainers exhort -- no pain, no gain? That might be Ziggy's anthem: You've got to give up the goo. "People who care about what they eat know they can't get a burger at a fast-food joint," says Croft. "There's just too much fat. Our job at Ziggy's is to give people a reasonable, healthy alternative for the foods they can't have."

Ziggy's Healthy Grill, 2320 West Alabama, (713)527-8588.

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