Upping the antioxidants: Making raw food accessible (and palatable) one "Beet"at a time
Beets Café doesn’t offer raw food. It offers “living food,” a term that more accurately captures how powerful this cuisine is. Just glance at Sylvia Heisey, who founded Beets about two years ago. The small, sprightly chef with a glowing creamy complexion is nearing 60 — though by appearances, you would think she was decades younger.
“I was ready to retire,” Heisey says, remembering the aches and fatigues she experienced years ago, right after leaving her last job as a consultant. “I was over 50… I thought I was pretty healthy in my eating then. I was very selective, and never ate processed foods. I thought ‘Maybe this is just what it’s like to get old.'” But when she transitioned to a predominantly raw food diet, the symptoms slowly vanished.
There is supportive science behind Heisey’s experience. Raw foodists consume primarily organic foods (which have a markedly higher nutrient density) that haven’t been heated above 118 degrees (to preserve the live enzymes and nutrients in food). It’s proven that people who consume 5-10 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily have significantly decreased levels of cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Raw diets are often prescribed for a number of ailments, including chronic fatigue syndrome and high blood pressure.
Even if health or vanity aren’t your concerns, raw foods are a daring way to delight your adventurous inner foodie while upping the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in your diet. Since ingredients can’t be prepared in conventional ways, chefs like Heisey (a graduate of the Living Light Culinary Institute in California) and her crew at Beets rely on dehydration, pureeing and lots of experimentation to create invigorating versions of comfort foods.
“We’ve recreated traditional foods, like tacos and pizza,” Heisey explains, showing off a menu full of familiar dishes. “When people come into the store they take a look at the selection and think, ‘Okay. I can do this.’”
When Heisey entered Austin's raw food scene around 2008, there were no sit-down restaurants specializing in the craft. Now, more are popping up, though they’re very different from Beets’ atmosphere (a sort of classy casual diner). Here, restaurant-goers can have a languid, seated meal or drop in and order out for lunch.
It’s all part of Heisey’s philosophy: Beets is a springboard into healthier eating, and she wants to make raw foods affordable and accessible in any way she can.
She lets me sample a reuben sandwich and a cinnamon roll, two dishes I’ve sorely missed since transitioning to veganism following my mother’s cancer diagnoses.
The “bread” (a dense combination of almonds, flax, and other seeds) has a rich, nutty complexity, woven with familiar hints of caraway. Caramelized onions and sauerkraut are layered over marinated portobello, and finished with a tangy, cashew-based Russian dressing (who’d have thought this could be done?) It’s paired with thinly sliced, dehydrated yams, which provide a muted floral crunch to the messy sandwich.
The cinnamon roll, a blend of spices, dried fruits, and flours, is soft and gooey to the core with sweet cashew cream. All of it is 100 percent organic, like every ingredient found at Beets.
While it’s infeasible for everyone to transition to a totally raw diet, it’s easy to make an effort to increase your raw food intake. “Most people already eat a lot of ‘raw’ foods,” Heisey explains. “Salads, smoothies, apples and bananas… I think just being conscious of it is what’s most important.”
She suggests eating 2-3 raw meals a week, and seeing how your body reacts. “We’re living in a fast paced world, and eating just to sustain ourselves from one moment to the next,” she says. “But slowing down and having an experience of what the food is doing to your body will really help you.”
Other Raw Restaurants in Austin
The Raw Bar at Whole Foods
525 N. Lamar Blvd.
The Raw Bar at Whole Foods Market downtown was introduced over five years ago, serving creative living food alternatives in a deli-case fashion. It has added table service, so patrons can either sit at the bar surrounding the prep station or at two-man circular tables dotted around the seafood venue. Most menu items range between $4 and $12.
Popular favorites include the Happy Tuna Sandwich (a blend of nuts, juices and dill on sprouted bread, so authentic I did a double-take) and the raw cheesecake (slightly fermented cashew paste topped with chunky fruit on a cinnamon-y graham “cracker” crust). Or, you can surprise your fellow potluckers with a mock sour-cream and chive dip.
4500 Duval St.
Daily Juice is one of Austin’s oldest "living food" venues. Their specialty is juice and smoothies — house favorites include the Curious George (banana and rice milk, I add pecan butter for a creamy boost) and Cool Hand Cuke (cucumber/apple/mint/lime).
However, DJ also offers a growing selection of raw cuisine, including crispy Thai “pasta” made from sweet potato noodles and enchiladas. Their raw desserts (truffles and cookies, most notably) are rich, luxurious and beg to be shared. Be sure to check out their raw kale chips (Rhythm Kale Chips), in most natural food stores in Austin.
Counter Culture Trailer
120 E. North Loop and Ave. F
OK, so Counter Culture's menu isn’t 100% raw. However, anyone’s who’s innovative enough to go raw while mobile deserves recognition. Raw items include bruschetta (with flax, tomato and cashew “cheese”) and the PacMan Caeser salad.
Bring your friends along for a Philly Seitan or the crusty, sharp Jackfruit BBQ sandwich (vegan). Check their website for weekly specials.