Eating to Live in the Third Ward
See how that luscious salmon burger is made and check out Conscious Cafe's tranquil dining room in our slideshow.
There came a moment of realization halfway through my slice of bean pie at Conscious Cafe the first night I ate there, when everything around me finally added up and I suddenly understood why there was a newsstand filled with copies of The Final Call, why Elijah Muhammad's How to Eat to Live was prominently displayed on a bookshelf, why there was a table full of men wearing tiny bowties to my left, and why I was even eating bean pie in the first place.
"That was a Nation of Islam restaurant, wasn't it?" I confirmed with my dining companion as we got into the car later to leave.
"Well, they were serving bean pie..." he said.
To my knowledge, Conscious Cafe — a precious little gem of a restaurant in the Third Ward — is the only Nation of Islam-influenced restaurant in town, and certainly the only one serving bean pie, that classic fundraising food sold by Muhammad's followers from New York City all the way down to Houston. The history of the pie, meant as a substitute for the more popular sweet potato pie, is fascinating enough, but so are the complex and extreme set of dietary guidelines set forth by Muhammad in his two-volume book How to Eat to Live.
Conscious Cafe is not simply a vegetarian restaurant that serves organic coffees and teas, it's a community center for the Third Ward neighborhood close to the University of Houston as well as the small Nation of Islam community in Houston. And it has an equally small, but nevertheless delicious, menu.
The gourmet salmon burger at Conscious Cafe is apparently one of its most popular items, and with good reason: The thick salmon filet is fresh, wild-caught Alaskan salmon served on just-as-fresh bread made at the cafe. On top of that goes a pile of tomatoes, lettuce, the Cafe's signature sweet onion sauce and tangy Vegenaise (egg-free mayonnaise, for the truly vegan among us). It's the only "meat-based" item on the menu, which also includes three vegetable-based sandwiches, a variety of legume-based soups and a few healthy desserts.
The Cafe is perfectly suitable for either vegetarians or strict vegans as a result, but carnivores like me probably won't miss the meat when they're eating one of the restaurant's hearty sandwiches. Other than the salmon, there is absolutely no meat to be found here — especially not pork — and that's thanks to the Nation's strict dietary guidelines, a fascinating mélange that prohibits traditionally Southern foods while adhering to traditionally Islamic halal standards.
That's not my interpretation, mind you. In volume one of Muhammad's How to Eat to Live, the Nation's founder himself says, "Peas, collard greens, turnip greens, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are very cheaply raised foods. The Southern slave masters used them to feed the slaves, and still advise the consumption of them. Most white people of the middle and upper class do not eat this lot of cheap food, which is unfit for human consumption."
Because of this, you won't find traditional Southern desserts or dishes on the menu here, and instead you'll find marvelous cross-cultural creations like that bean pie. Because sweet potatoes were forbidden to members of the Nation, crafty women like Lonnie Shabazz substituted navy beans (one of the only allowable beans to eat) in the dessert, which was long popular with African-Americans as well as Southerners of all races and walks of life.
In the documentary Bean Pie, My Brother? by filmmaker Hassanah Thomas-Tauhidi, Jabir Muhammad — son of Elijah — talks about how Shabazz, Muhammad Ali's main cook and a member of the Nation of Islam — created the pie, which Jabir Muhammad then began selling in his bakery to great acclaim. Before long, the pie became inextricably associated with the Nation, which sold them to raise funds, sold out of iconic pink boxes on street corners by men in those familiar bow ties.
The result of Shabazz's ingenuity is a dessert that's actually better for you than a sweet potato pie, and you honestly can't taste the difference between the bean and the root vegetable, save for the slightly lighter color of the filling. It's not too sweet, but that warm undercurrent of nutmeg and cinnamon is still there, making this a dessert especially fitting during the winter months.
At Conscious Cafe, the wonderfully sweet bean pie is made with a graham cracker crust — another attempt to keep the recipe as healthy as possible — resulting in a crumbly, slightly gingery texture and flavor that keeps me coming back for more. When I get a chance, I'm buying a whole pie to take home and share — spread the bean pie gospel to those who are unaware of its beauty — but calling ahead is advised, as owner Andre Lewis tells me they go fast.
Andre Lewis and his co-owners, Nicole Hudson and Shondra Muhammad, are a large part of the reason that Conscious Cafe is so special. If this whole restaurant thing doesn't work out, God forbid, I can see them conducting seminars on how to provide excellent customer service to restaurateurs far and wide.
On my first visit to the Cafe, I was sneezing up a storm thanks to some stubborn allergies. After introducing himself — "Tell me your name and I'll remember you from now on!" he said jovially as he explained the menu — he insisted on making me some echinacea tea, which he sweetened with honey before bringing it out. All of the teas here, like the coffees, are organic and brewed fresh. Although it was probably placebo effect, I felt better the moment that hot cup hit my hands and my sinuses.
On my second visit, Lewis surely remembered my name once again and later chivalrously helped me to my car with packages full of food (the sandwiches don't travel well over long distances, by the way) while pointing out where the parking will be along the street once construction on Scott is finally finished.
Hudson is quieter than Lewis, but always has a bright smile for anyone who walks in, making you feel right at home as you wait for your food. As Lewis has pointed out twice now, they welcome call-ahead orders if you're in a rush — everything is made fresh to order and can take a little while — but I've never minded waiting and relaxing in the stark but warm little dining room.
I'm curious to see how this cafe, which is clearly already popular with the neighborhood, comes to life during the school year at the nearby University of Houston. The herbal teas, luscious fruit smoothies and organic coffees served with raw milk — one of the only cafes in Houston to offer raw milk, I might add — seem a perfect fit for the collegiate set. But on a winter evening over the holiday break, it's mostly quiet here, ideal for catching up over a toasted sandwich and some wonderfully garlicky lentil soup.
"I can't get enough of this bread," my dining companion raved one night. He's right: The hearty, slightly sweet, whole wheat bread here is what makes the sandwiches so amazing, a thick buffer holding in a garden's worth of sautéed eggplant and onions in my favorite, the Eggplant Hoagie. It works equally well with the sweet caramelized onions, zucchini and squash in the Vegetable Po-Boy, which I washed down one sunny afternoon with a strawberry smoothie.
It feels good to eat this food, especially here in the unlikeliest of locations on a quiet street in the Third Ward. But that's also what makes Conscious Cafe so special. That and the bean pie.
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