Snackshot: Mr. Natural

I'm not going to lie to you. There is far, far better food to be found in East Austin -- particularly along this stretch of Cesar Chavez -- than at Mr. Natural (1901 E. Cesar Chavez). But for a uniquely Austin experience that you won't soon forget, it can't be beat.

The first thing you'll notice about Mr. Natural is that everyone in line around you smells like a potent combination of patchouli oil, bong resin and B.O. Many of them have dreads. Some of them are wearing completely foolish outfits that make them look like they've escaped from a group home for adults who have the mental capacity of five-year-olds. I once saw a grown man there wearing a faded orange Care Bears nightgown, sandals and neon green glasses. No pants. Never pants.

The second thing you'll notice is that there is no meat on the menu whatsoever. To quote its website, Mr. Natural offers "a variety of vegetarian, vegan, ovo-lacto, non-dairy, wheat-free or gluten-free specialties." In other words, if you're a picky eater or think that cows have souls, you'll be in heaven at Mr. Natural.

You can order straight off the menu or go through the cafeteria-style line to the right of the cash registers, where you're at the mercy of whatever food is on the buffet that day. I prefer to order off the menu for this very reason. Owing to the part of town where it's situated -- and the fact that it is, at least in part, a Mexican panaderia -- the Mexican food on Mr. Natural's menu is your best best. The creamy, vegetarian refried beans and nutty, Spanish-style brown rice are a treat. But, being in Austin, I wanted to give some of the vegan barbecue a shot, too.

The "meat" is actually textured vegetable protein (TVP) and in no way resembles real barbecue. I dread to think what would happen if this stuff was smoked for any length of time. It comes smothered in a sweet barbecue sauce that's a little too overwhelming. But scraping it off, I was faced with TVP that looked like dessicated human flesh, so I quickly piled the sauce back on. I ended up wrapping the meat inside the corn tortillas that came with the meal, which absorbed a lot of the sauce and made the entire meal quite tasty. I still felt dirty afterwards for eating vegan barbecue and liking it, though.

I cleansed my palate (and my food-loving soul) afterwards with a delicious sweet potato empanada, its dusky filling and crispy, graham-inflected crust leaving no hint of the vegan products with which it was made. Now that's good baking.

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