It's never been easier to eat healthfully in Los Angeles. Half the new restaurants in town seem to be Italian, so garlic, olive oil and fresh vegetables are always within easy reach, to say nothing of complex carbohydrates in simple sauces. The non-Italian restaurants are rushing to put pasta primavera on the menu, and even a coffee shop may surprise you with an ultra-low-fat option or two.
So, if you can get all this at mainstream restaurants, why bother with a health-food establishment? Two reasons: Health-food restaurants offer a greater variety of healthful dishes, and they generally dangle fewer temptations before customers' eyes. Fortunately, the range and variety of health-food eating places has been increasing.
OREAN EXPRESS, for instance, is a vegetarian fast-food restaurant. Vegetarian places have always offered nut-burgers and the like, but in a lunch-counter environment; Orean Express is a flat-out Hollywood hamburger stand gone meatless and dairyless but remaining pretty fast.
The utilitarian fast-food style does coexist strangely with the traditional wild-eyed quality of vegetarianism. Scattered around the take-out counter are signs recommending raw-nut "cookies" with the usual forced enthusiasm.
There's a choice of burgers: a regular (brown rice) burger, another made from the tofu-like substance tempeh and a gluten "chip" burger in barbecue sauce. The man in line before me recommended the bean-filled tamale ($2.75), and it wasn't bad. Not memorable either (except for the odd greenish-brown tinge of the masa ), but it did have a warm, meat-like chili filling and a pleasant topping of soy cheese, which actually had the texture and some of the flavor of cheese.
I'd looked forward to one of the non-dairy soy cones, but Orean Express was out of them. Instead, I had a granola-rum shake ($1.75), a rum-flavored shake with a few bits of granola in it. It also wasn't bad--at least, I'm sure it was better than the traditional leaden carob brownies that were the principal alternative. In short, the food here is no more exciting than you'd get at a traditional vegetarian restaurant, but it is faster.
Orean Express, 1320 N. Vine St., Hollywood; (213) 462-9945. Open 7 a.m-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.
NATURALLY FAST is not a fast-food restaurant--the name seems meant to suggest fitness--but it has a remarkably wide vegetarian menu, prominently signaling dishes approved by the American Heart Assn. Adjoining a big health-food store, it's much brighter and sleeker than the usual health-food restaurant.
It has "burgers" and "untuna" sandwiches and a number of dishes credibly adapted from Mexican and Italian recipes. Spaghetti ($2.95) comes in your basic marinara sauce with mushrooms and bell peppers, no more acidic than at most restaurants. It would be nice if they offered Parmesan cheese (OK, make it rennetless Parmesan) to sprinkle on top.
With some dishes you can order a sauce a la carte, such as jambalaya sauce ($1.40). This turns out to be not exactly from Louisiana but tasty, much like the marinara sauce but with some hot pepper in place of the mushrooms. I had it over steamed vegetables ($2.75), of which the zucchini, broccoli and cauliflower were a little overdone and the carrots a little underdone--chewy, that is, but with the unexpected bonus of a sweet raw-carrot flavor.
Desserts are very much in the health-food tradition. I had a peach "cake" ($1.50) shaped like a thick cookie that consisted mostly of oats, peaches, figs and raisins. There was a pleasant peach flavor somewhere in there, but it had the crude texture--mushy and chewy at the same time--that shows up so often in health food that I have to think health foodies positively like it. It hits your stomach like a bowling ball.
There's room for improvement here, but I do think Naturally Fast is trying to make health food more palatable. The wide selection and cheerful environment certainly help.
Naturally Fast, 11661 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (213) 444-7886. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.
SOUPLANTATION is a chain of restaurants where a pleasant environment is one of the greatest attractions. Like the Pasadena branch we visited, they all have well-lit salad bars of impressive scope, kept scrupulously clean; no wilted spinach or spilled sprouts and no fermenting day-old coleslaw. At the end of the counter, you buy beverages, pay for salad and decide whether to have soup as well (salad alone is $5.95, soup and salad is $7.10). Then someone actually escorts you to a seat in a bright, high-ceilinged dining room.