It's the soup-and-salad idea done really well, for once, and it has the advantages and disadvantages of the form. You get your own choice of fresh, raw vegetables with a choice of dressings (including particularly good low-calorie versions), plus tasty hot soup if you want. On the other hand, there is a considerable temptation to pig out, and not all the salad items, dressings and soups are equally low in calories. At one time Souplantation placed a sort of menu on every table spelling out which dishes were approved by the American Heart Assn., but apparently they no longer do this.
I piled some spinach and a cup of julienne-cut Hubbard squash on my plate, dressed them with a tablespoon or two of low-calorie Italian dressing and four or five fresh croutons, and added half a cup of three-bean salad and half a cup of tarragon-tuna pasta salad, both excellent (why do most restaurants make dreary three-bean salad?). I had a big bowl of the beefy-tomatoey chili soup, a warm walnut-oat muffin, a couple of slices of melon and some strawberries.
Everything was very good, and I'd go here regardless of health considerations. Not for every sort of meal, though; the bright, echoey room with crowds of people passing through doesn't quite invite lingering for conversation.
Souplantation, 201 S. Lake St., Pasadena; (818) 577-4797 (other Los Angeles County locations include Arcadia, Alhambra, Torrance, Encino, Marina Marketplace, Beverly Connection and Brentwood). Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
RESTAURANT LOZANO is one of a kind: a stylish, candle-lit restaurant that features mostly low-calorie versions of Mexican dishes. It's located in the tiny, isolated business district of Sierra Madre, and it must be one of the few Mexican restaurants where the soundtrack is likely to be Pachelbel's Canon in D.
Amazingly, the menu bristles with American Heart Assn. symbols; just about everything, it seems, is AHA-approved. Way down at the bottom of the menu, however, it is disclosed that these dishes can be prepared according to AHA principles. Unless you ask for the AHA version, you won't get it.
For instance, the black-bean soup ($6.75) is fantastically luscious. The AHA version is delicious, too, though substituting yogurt for sour cream makes for a somewhat more austere dish. At any rate, both versions have an excellent black-bean flavor.
Lozano emphasizes chicken and fish in place of red meat. The excellent jerk chicken ($10.95) is dense-textured and flavored with hints of allspice and hot pepper. It comes with tomato rice, a sort of herbed yogurt salad and a rather sweet coleslaw.
The dessert selection is limited to cheesecakes and a yam flan. No AHA symbol here. Lozano is rather off the beaten track, and you have to watch how you order, but it shows that health food can coexist with elegance.
Restaurant Lozano, 44 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre; (818) 355-5945. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
FRAGRANT VEGETABLE also is elegant, with etched-glass windows and soothing green booths, but instead of creating an eclectic health cuisine, it presents (mostly) traditional Chinese vegetarian cookery. Usually, this amounts to Chinese food with mushrooms or Buddhist "mock meats" made of tofu or wheat gluten in place of real meat.
The result is definitely vegetarian, but while the menu claims that some of the dishes are AHA-approved, it doesn't tell you which ones--you have to ask. Many dishes are fried in oil (in Cantonese cooking, nearly everything is fried at some point in its preparation).
Fortunately, the owner, S. T. Cheung, is alert to modern health-food concerns. Fried dim sum such as fun gor can be steamed, and customers can request some dishes "fried" with water instead of oil. Many dishes are prepared with garlic, which is, strictly speaking, contrary to Buddhist tradition but in accordance with modern ideas of health.
I started out with a big bowl of yin-yang soup ($7.95), which is spinach and corn purees swirled in the traditional yin-yang pattern: pleasant and wholesome-tasting. For a main course, I ordered a dish not listed on the menu but always available, broccoli chicken ($8.95). The gluten "chicken," served in a black-bean sauce with broccoli and sliced carrot, tastes eerily like the real thing.
One shortcoming of the Fragrant Vegetable is the usual Chinese lack of desserts. The banana fritters are out of the question from a health standpoint, and the sweet soups require a minimum order of four. The best of them, made with a pleasantly crunchy substance called "white fungus," also contains coconut, which is not recommended for dieters.
So forget about dessert, and reflect on how far we've come from the days when health food was limited to dingy lunch counters.
Fragrant Vegetable, 11859 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 312-1442. Open 11:30 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday .