Couleur "Alive" Café7820 BroadwayLemon Grove619-697-0036
When it comes to vegan and vegetarian eating, why does there have to be such a strong emphasis on total commitment? I dabbled in strict vegetarianism for a while, and although I could feel that my body physically appreciated the extra vegetables, I ultimately decided that life without the savory flavors of carne asada fries, barbecued ribs, Thai steak salads and mom's pot roast was a life less lived. On the other hand, even though I went back to the beef, I still have plenty of room in my heart (and my stomach) for tofu curry, tempeh tacos, broccoli and kale pizza, Portobello mushroom burgers and many other meatless treats.
It was because of these contradicting appetites that the online menu of Couleur "Alive" Café caught my eye. I had been trolling for vegetarian-friendly places, hoping to find something off the beaten path where vegans and the meat-eaters they love could break some bread-or flaxseed crackers-in harmony. So when I found a café in Lemon Grove that served turkey and bacon subs and raw, vegan and organic fare, I knew I had found my next lunch. I also knew that my friend Lisa, who avoids meat as a rule but makes frequent exceptions for beef jerky and pork rinds, would be the ideal companion for such a meal.
Our shared first impression was that Couleur "Alive" Café seemed out of place in a sea of fast-food chains and local greasy takeout. The right place for any health-oriented hipsters stranded in Lemon Grove-the menu, the abundantly planted patio and the eclectic, unpretentious décor-made us feel like we'd never left North Park.
We were a bit surprised to find that the café operates more like a coffee shop than a restaurant, given the extensive variety of the menu. But there were just as many couches as there were tables, and we placed our orders at the register before settling into a table near the window.
We shared a delicious Couleur Passion smoothie-made with organic apples, lemon, ginger and strawberry ice cubes-while we waited for our food. Vigorous blender noises emanated from one of the two kitchens as our meatless, cheeseless, heatless food was assembled.
Unsurprisingly, the low-maintenance non-vegan BLT sandwich was the first item to emerge, followed immediately by the raw vegan Cool Cucumber soup. The tasty BLT came on a soft wheat roll instead of the traditional toasted white bread, which I appreciated because it didn't grate my gums with every bite like toasted sandwiches sometimes do, yet still retained the delicious simplicity of the original.
The cucumber soup, served cold in "avocado broth," garnished with cilantro and dulse (a nutrient-rich sea vegetable) could have used more lemon juice, but it was refreshing. It tasted best as a dip for the multi-seasoned flaxseed cracker that accompanied it.
Our stuffed mushroom appetizer, probably our least favorite item, arrived next. The subtle flavors of the filling were overpowered by the mushrooms themselves, which had been dehydrated "to preserve their flavor," according to the menu. They tasted exactly like certain other types of dried mushrooms-the kind not usually served in restaurants-whose taste is much too earthy to be enjoyable. This strong flavor could be eliminated if the mushrooms were marinated (but still not cooked), perhaps in some kind of vinegar or soy sauce. However, we did enjoy the salad the mushrooms topped. It included big pieces of cucumber and tomato on a bed of greens in a zesty, creamy, lemon-dill dressing.
Our hunger had mounted along with the heat on the way into Lemon Grove, and now I have to admit that in our ravenous state, we failed to notice that there was a backside to the vegan menu. Had we seen it then, I would have liked to try the raw "tacos" or the "tostadas" (made with vegan corn tortillas, mock carne, cabbage, avocado, red onions, cilantro and salsa).
Instead, we chose a lettuce-wrap sampler, which turned out to be big leaves of romaine topped with three large dollops of "pâté," essentially coarse blends of different nuts and vegetables. The Asian pâté (our favorite) included celery, red pepper, sprouted seeds, lemon and parsley and was topped with Nama-Shoyu (a thick, organic soy sauce).
"So," said Lisa as we lingered over our remaining pâté, "are we going to McDonalds after this?" For a moment or two I wanted to, because as much as I'd hoped to love it, the raw vegan fare at Couleur "Alive" Café turned out to be much more suited for the diehard set than for my fair-weather vegetarian taste. But then I noticed my stomach was satisfied. I didn't feel like purging or napping as I often do after most other meals, and my breath had probably not been fresher since my trip to the dentist last fall. So we happily bypassed all the drive-thrus on our way back home, our bodies humming with proper nutrition. And it was a very nice way to feel, if only for that afternoon.
Couleur "Alive" Café is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. You might want to call ahead on Tuesday-the place might open late and close early.
Marcie Rothman is on vacation.