Sandy's offers a staggering array of salad toppings.
Sandy's offers a staggering array of salad toppings.
Troy Fields

Sandy's Produce Market

It's like some surreal dreamscape," my lunchmate observed, looking out over the interior of Sandy's Produce Market on the Katy Freeway near Dairy Ashford. We were sitting at a table in the middle of the health food store eating heaping plates of salad. Nearby, there was a display of milk thistle liver-detox kits.

The interior of Sandy's is dominated by some 40 mismatched wooden dining tables set up under the fluorescent lights. Most of them were occupied at lunchtime. A stainless steel salad bar slanted through the middle of the store. Shoppers wandered in between the tables with shopping carts full of foodstuffs.

The baby arugula, fresh spinach and field greens on the salad bar were extremely fresh. Over a hundred stainless steel bins offered a staggering array of toppings. There were hearty options like turkey salad, tuna salad, egg salad and pasta salad; savory stuff like peppers, onions and garlic; and lots of healthy junk like crushed flaxseeds, almonds and sesame sticks. There were also four or five varieties of chopped fruit with yogurt.


Sandy's Produce Market

12171 Katy Freeway, 281-870-9999.

Breakfast buffet hours: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. Brunch buffet hours: 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch buffet hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Weekend brunch buffet: $8.50

Lunch buffet: $8.50

Breakfast buffet: $6.50

All of the produce was crisp and perfect, with none of the brown spots and wilted edges you find on the vegetables at your typical salad bar. The dressings included low-fat herb vinaigrette and other healthy options. There were also squeeze bottles of exotic healthy oils. I grabbed a bottle of flaxseed oil and brought it to the table with me.

Every now and then, I go on a short-lived healthy eating kick — usually right after I have consumed a couple dozen chicken-fried steaks smothered in cream gravy. Having accidentally discovered Sandy's a couple of weeks ago, I decided to review it so I could binge on health food for a while.

I wish I could say it all tasted great, but it didn't. The turkey salad and tuna salad were mucky and bland, and the dressings were watery. Luckily, there was a bottle of cayenne on the table. By dusting everything on my plate with red chile dust, I rendered it marginally palatable. I am not sure whether the cayenne was on the table because of its reputation as a healthy supplement or to spice up the lackluster food.

But my lunchmate told me he had consumed a lot of cayenne a couple of months ago while conducting a "master cleanse" fast. On this regime, you eat nothing but lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. The fad diet was made famous by Beyoncé Knowles, who says she lost 20 pounds in two weeks on it. I squirted some flaxseed oil on my salad and passed the bottle over to him. I am not willing to fast on lemon juice for two weeks, but I will squirt a little healthy stuff on my food.

A guy pushing the tea cart came by our table and asked us if we wanted hot tea. He had Ceylon, herbal chai and several varieties of rooibos teas, which come from South Africa and are prized for their high level of antioxidants. We were already drinking apricot iced tea, so we declined.

It was the tea that got the food service thing started at Sandy's. The place opened as a health food store called Ye Seekers around 12 years ago, an employee told us. Several years ago, Sandy bought the place and changed the name. He started brewing teas and offering tastings to show off the store's enormous selection. And then he expanded the concept to include healthy snacks and salads. Now Sandy's is better known as a restaurant than as a health food store.

My lunchmate helped himself to some papaya supplement tablets that were sitting on the table. The bottle said they aided digestion. Then we went to check out the hot foods buffet.

Under the chafing dish lids, I found vegetarian chili, vegetarian lasagna, whole wheat spaghetti with a meatless tomato sauce, black beans, potatoes and steamed vegetables.

My lunchmate observed that you couldn't make a bad choice here no matter how hard you tried. "Even if you go for the chili or the spaghetti, you end up eating healthy," he said. I asked the chef if the lunch was always vegetarian.

"It's not all vegetarian," he insisted, opening lid after lid looking for something with meat in it to prove his point. Finally, in exasperation he sent an employee off to get some turkey meatballs.

My first visit to Sandy's was early on a Sunday morning. Some friends who were on their way back to Austin wanted to eat breakfast before getting on the road, but they didn't want to wait around until eleven for brunch. She is a health food enthusiast, and he used to work for Whole Foods, so Sandy's was the perfect choice.

The weekend brunch buffet started at seven o'clock in the morning. The salad bar was set up the same as it is for lunch. The best things in the chafing dishes on the hot food line were the stone-ground yellow grits and the Scottish-style steel-cut oatmeal. There were also scrambled eggs, limp bacon, pale turkey sausage, potatoes in some kind of dairy-like stuff, meatless black beans, and onion and peppers.

I made myself two slices of whole-grain toast and then cut them in half and spread each piece with a different kind of nut butter. The almond butter was terrific; the pecan butter had so much sugar in it, it tasted like it was made with pralines; the cashew butter was all dried up; and the peanut butter wasn't nearly as good as Skippy.

During the weekend brunch, an omelet station is set up amongst the tables. I had an omelet with mushrooms, cheese and onions. The eggs were fluffy and the flavor was excellent. Rather than butter or olive oil, the cook was using virgin coconut oil.

Coconut oil tastes great. But due to its saturated fat content, the American Heart Association and other organizations have long recommended a reduction in its consumption. Then new studies disputed the old findings. And now Sandy's is selling virgin coconut oil as the latest in health foods. It costs ten bucks a jar. You can eat it, cook with it or use it as a face cream.

"It's odd that none of the produce is organic," one of my tablemates observed. "But I guess they would have to raise the price if it was." Another of my friends sprinkled some ground flaxseed over the top of the coconut oil omelet, to double the nutritional gris-gris. I covered mine with medicinal cayenne. Boy, were we healthy when we left that place.

On my way out, I noticed a guy sitting alone with a giant drink cup from Whataburger on his table. "Bring your own drink, that's smart," I commented as I walked by.

"It's the only way to get a Diet Coke around here," he said. Then he held up a plastic leftover dish that was also on his table. "I bring my own salsa for the omelet too. They haven't got anything spicy." I suppose you could bring in beer and potato chips too, but that defeats the purpose.

Eating at Sandy's Produce Market is a form of penance. You can go ahead and stuff yourself with french fries, steak, hamburgers and fried foods all week, as long as you eat one meal at Sandy's to atone for it all.

The food isn't very tasty, but you feel so virtuous after eating it, you don't really mind.


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