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.
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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.