Severe Grain Damage

Vegan cafe serves up a raw deal

Rawsome! is open for dinner just three days a week, and then for only four hours at a time. And for that, I say, thank goodness.

It's not just that I don't care for the food (okay, I hate it). It's not only that I have trouble getting into the cult aspect of the concept. (Subsisting on "live" foods — completely uncooked vegan dishes — is a crusade more than a cuisine. It's got groupies like Woody Harrelson. Enough said.) And it's not the annoying exclamation point at the end of its name — Rawsome! — which I'm leaving out of the rest of this review for the sanity of readers and my editor.

Mainly, I worry about the well-being of the followers of America's most recent dining fad. If the weary folks nibbling on the "rawjitas" at Rawsome are indicative of what results from such a harsh health menu, raw zealots don't look long for this world.

Pretty rawful: This food is hard to face.
Erik Guzowski
Pretty rawful: This food is hard to face.

Details

Rawjitas: $12.00
Desert garden burger: $6.00
Pasta sampler: $8.00
"Live" nut cheese pizza: $8.00

480-496-5959. Hours: Dinner, 4 to 8 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday.

234 West University, Tempe

Sallow complexions. Pinched cheeks and sunken eyes. Frames so wispy I bet their bodies bend and sway like saplings when the wind picks up. Scraggly hair and rumpled jeans. Many of the people I see dining at Rawsome — an extension of Desert Greens Cafe inside Tempe's Gentle Strength Cooperative health-food store — look like they would do well to get away from this restaurant and sneak a fat, juicy hamburger now and then. And nutritionists — not just me — are concerned that a strict raw food diet isn't healthy. It can be difficult to get enough protein, and some nutrients actually are better absorbed by the body when food is cooked.

Raw food is exactly what it sounds like — raw vegetables, raw grains, and, for some people, even raw meats and fish. The "movement" was considered a radical form of vegetarianism when it sprung up in the mid-'90s. But suddenly it's showing up in the mainstream, at gourmet restaurants and upscale food festivals, even on airline menus like Lufthansa. Chicago celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, a recent convert to the craze, predicted in a seminar at last week's Food & Wine Magazine Classic food festival in Aspen that "within five to 10 years, every serious chef in the country will have raw preparations in their repertoire."

Oh, please, I hope not, at least not in the style found at Rawsome, opened earlier this year with a dedication to serve food containing "the greatest concentration of life force." I adore fresh vegetables, grains and nuts, but these recipes are creepy, with damp, sticky dishes like uncooked garden burgers, dehydrated seed "pizza" crust and mock sour cream fashioned from pine nuts, water, lemon juice and olive oil. Forget flavor; it's a menu with a mantra, purporting to offer a life "as the Creator intended." Yet if this is living well, I don't want to live.

So why would people want to eat this compost, when perfectly wonderful vegetarian, and even dutifully vegan, recipes are so plentiful? Because believers feel that cooking has detrimental effects on food; heat destroys key nutrients and enzymes. At Rawsome, we're eating "sunfoods," ingredients that get their nourishment, vitality and fulfillment from the sun. By consuming things in their raw state, the thought is, we lucky diners absorb the sun's energy.

Which makes me wonder why the guy at the table next to me is sitting slump-shouldered, almost passed out over his stuffed red cabbage with sunflower pâté and Green an' Clean Vitamineral Super Juice. The most energy I feel here, actually, comes from the periodic live performances of local musicians.

The raw movement isn't for everyone — estimates are that only one million Americans are raw foodies of any consistency. Absolutely it's not for me, though I feel kind of guilty for admitting this after discovering that Rawsome owner Charles Thomas Mort is a really nice guy. Perhaps this is why his cafe management offers a support group for people wanting to sample its lifestyle.

I, meanwhile, have no support system at all. I'm all alone on my Rawsome adventures, in fact, because no one would agree to come after I shared the menu. I'd convinced Darren, a diehard vegetarian friend, to experiment, but he suffered some sudden personal crisis, quit his job overnight and fled the city. So much for spiritual peace through sunflower seeds.

Monday is sunfood day at Rawsome, when, if we don't know any better, we can indulge in "rawjitas," a perverse take on "meat" paste utilizing pecans, flax seeds, tomatoes, celery, onion, lemon juice and cayenne blended to baby-food mash and slathered on dehydrated flax seed crackers under mock sour cream.

One skeletal customer insists I try the desert garden burger, a specialty offered on Firstfood Thursday ("firstfood" is another inside term, referring to what our ancestors ate before fire was invented). But if this dish is benefiting my health, it's doing nothing for my happiness. The texture of the gray-brown heap is Alpo-ish (my dog, Santiago, in fact, is nuts about the leftovers), a disturbingly clammy pulp of sunflower seeds, zucchini, tomato, celery, flax seed, garlic, onion, red pepper and poultry seasoning. After blending, the muck is dehydrated for up to eight hours, then slapped on a plate. There's no bun, just a bed of lettuce, slabs of avocado, sprouts and such.

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