For about two years in the mid-90’s I wrote an almost weekly restaurant review for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student run newspaper for the University of Florida. I was on my third and fourth year as a junior at the time. I was loving the college experience and was all in favor of continuing on my self-prescribed academic track for a doctorate in non-essential courses. I figured I was close since there were no more sailing, guitar, or racquetball classes left to take.
The restaurant review column was a great gig despite the lack of a paycheck. It involved going out to eat, purchasing multiple entrees, and then hammering out 700-1000 words that were vaguely related to the topic at hand. By the end, with close to 100 restaurant reviews under my belt (old food critic joke) I’d built the Food Court into a well known column.
I wouldn’t say I was famous back then or anything… BUT, three days before Valentine’s Day, I got a call from the Melting Pot. A few days prior to the call, I ran a piece about how I’d waited too long and missed my window of opportunity to reserve a booth for their romantic fondue, champagne, and ice sculpture event, forcing me to instead decide on the most heart-warming pizza joint to take Shannon to. However, according to the call, the Melting Pot did have a booth for us. It was no big deal, probably just a booth they keep in reserve for world leaders, foreign dignitaries, and elite journalists with their fingers on the pulse of fine dining.
Fast-forward through almost four presidential terms and I find myself back in the reviewing game again. The computers are faster and I am slower, but writing a restaurant review is a comfortable coat. You know, that kind of coat that feels comfortable in any weather. Which, for lack of a better segue, was crisp and cool in Austin, TX when I visited last February and had lunch at Beets Living Food Cafe. It was excellent coat weather.
I woke up somewhat blurry from the previous night’s exploration of the city. I believe to really know a city, you have to drink its whiskey, so that is what my travel buddies and I did. The blurriness was a testament to how tight Austin and I had become.
Since most of my day was free and on my own, I sat down and Googled ‘vegan breakfast.’ I selected a restaurant based on the estimated taxi fare versus the quality of the pun in the name. Beets Living was a very long taxi ride from my hotel, but c’mon, my hands were tied. Also, they served lunch, which is what I saw I needed after looking at the time and seeing that I’d slept past breakfast.
The taxi driver gave me a very thorough tour of my new BFF, Austin, and dropped me off on a street that was just begging to be painted and hung in an art museum. Old and quaint mixed with new and chic in way that would make hipsters, yuppies and hippies swoon in unison. And that was just the street!
Once inside the door, I realized I was way out of my element. I don’t like to talk about my weaknesses because it seems like complaining and I prefer to keep the pain hidden. Please don’t feel sorry for me, because the pity almost hurts worse. You see… I, Jason, am neither hip, nor with it. Oh, what a glorious relief to get that off my shoulders!
Beet’s (Living Food) Cafe is steeped in coolness. I was shocked that a ‘Hip-Impaired’ Alarm didn’t sound when I walked in. The colors, funky light fixtures, and general decor were all well outside of my cool zone.
I was a vegan bull in a raw vegan china shop. It was dumb luck that I didn’t stumble over a table causing a chain reaction that brought the whole place crashing down, and then, while trying to climb out of the wreckage, making matters even more uncool by tripping over another table and starting another chain reaction that then caused the rubble to form into a poultry farm owned by a big corporation. I’m a clumsy guy, it could happen.
The very nice woman behind the counter was extremely patient with me. It seemed like she probably volunteered her time on the weekends helping uncool kids deal with their afflictions. She was very good at handling my bumbling questions and Dan Quayle moments.
Luckily I was there before the lunch rush so I was able to take my time and make an informed choice. After some patient hand-holding, a menu with pictures on it, and puppet show about almond milk, my order was placed and I had to chose a place to sit while lunch was prepared. I found the best seat in the house against the front window counter. From my vantage point I could watch the real, raw Austin walk by. I probably learned more about my new friend from that window than I did from a whole night on touristy 6th Street.
When lunch came it was more cool than anything I’d seen up to that point. I love eating at vegan restaurants because I get to order the kind of incredible food that I would never be able to make for myself. For instance, lunch: the Raw Reuben, dried chips made from sweet potatoes and Japanese yams, raw beet salad, and raw coffee with fresh almond milk. High temperatures and cooking hadn’t sullied any of the feast I was preparing to dig inhale.
Raw vegan is an extreme that I strive for. I’ve found that weeks when I eat 92% raw are much better than weeks when I eat in the 23% raw range. I have the personal data to show that raw is better for me. However, before lunch at Beet’s, raw never tasted so good or diverse.
The Raw Reuben was on par with its cruel and deadly counterpart. I loved real Reubens and judged many of them harshly back during my Food Court days. The raw vegan version tasted better than 95% of the standard versions I’ve had but it was 100% better in every other way. I can’t lie about that top 5%. I take my job as judge very seriously here, and a really good Reuben is hard to beat. It is all of the extra baggage that keeps me from eating them now.
The chips and beet salad were both new tastes for me. I devoured it all for the sake of science, and was glad I did. I felt my palate mature as the meal disappeared. I found the dried chips to be a very light counterpart for the earthy tastes that the beets bring to the party. I alternated through the raw fare while sipping a coffee that wasn’t boiled… and I was beginning to feel cool.
By the time the meal and window show were over, I was really feeling the love for Beet’s Cafe, raw vegan food, and my new best friend, Austin. I highly recommend stopping for a meal or two when visiting the city. I can tell you from first hand experience, they accept all kinds of people.