It's January 2. Your clothes feel tight. You're afraid to step on the scale. You're trying hard to obliterate all memory of your holiday excesses: the buttery Christmas cookies . . . the Chex party mix . . . the eggnog and rum . . . the box of See's candy . . . the Texas fruitcake.
Well, cheer up, that's what the New Year is for: resolutions and diets.
And since the desire to eat right is as likely to surface after New Year's as mixed nuts are at Thanksgiving, I thought I'd bring you glad tidings of Flying Crane and Healthy Heart, two casual restaurants where healthy eating isn't just a motto, it's the modus operandi.
Mesa's Flying Crane draws from Cantonese, Szechuan, and Japanese cookery to create its "light and healthy cuisine." What distinguishes it from other Asian restaurants is an overt philosophy of healthful living and eating.
Flying Crane uses no artificial additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG). One unusual menu item is natural brown rice, considered inferior by most Far Eastern cuisines and typically found only in vegetarian and macrobiotic eateries. Even the white rice is above average. It's high grade and short grain, and as a rice connoisseur, believe me when I tell you, you can taste the difference. Flying Crane's white rice is fantastic: The grains are whole and flavorful.
Red meat is conspicuously absent from the menu. If you're craving a dish with beef or pork, look elsewhere. Instead, the kitchen concentrates on dishes celebrating vegetables, chicken and seafood.
Smoking is not permitted anywhere in the restaurant. Even the hot tea is herbal.
Flying Crane looks inconspicuous enough from the outside. Located in a fairly new, predominantly empty shopping center, the restaurant occupies two storefronts. Once inside, you quickly realize it is trying to be something more than just another fast-food Oriental restaurant.
For one thing, the decor is soothing, not stark. Blue and white ceramic vases filled with green plants line the large front windows. Photographic murals of rain forests, waterfalls and lush green foliage inspire serenity. Classical music calms the senses.
Okay, it's true that the white plastic tables and chairs look like they've been kidnaped from a poolside patio. But somehow, with all the plant life and greenery, they work. The underlying message is casual comfort.
As at most fast-food restaurants, there is no table service. Flying Crane's congenial owner and head chef Gan Jung takes your order at the counter. He is happy to answer questions about preparation or ingredients. He speaks enthusiastically and knowledgeably about his menu. He is--justifiably--proud of his food.
My dining accomplice and I order, then take a seat at a white table. In a few minutes, Gan calls out the name we have given him. We return to the counter to pick up our food. Plastic forks, disposable chopsticks and Styrofoam containers contrast oddly with the real china teapot and delicate cups we are given for our tea. Real bamboo trays are a welcome touch.
Five categories of dishes are offered at Flying Crane: vegetable, tofu, chicken, seafood and gourmet--a combination of seafood and chicken. Each is served three ways. The most inexpensive way to go is with the rice bowl, a generous single serving with your choice of brown or white rice.
The combination platter is slighty more expensive. With the single serving and rice you receive a sunomono-like salad of marinated cucumbers and pickled red peppers, as well as shrimp toast and chicken puff appetizers.
Finally, any dish can be ordered a la carte as a family-style entree. Rice must be ordered separately in this case. But if you're sharing with friends or family, this may be the way to go.
Everything is cooked to order at Flying Crane. The only sounds emanating from the kitchen are those of cleavers chopping and hot oil sizzling. Need I tell you I love the food?
I am particularly enthusiastic about Cantonese tomato "velvet" chicken with black bean sauce. This unlikely combination of ingredients is marvelous, especially over white rice. The "velvet" chicken consists of scrumptious, tender, all-white morsels. The quartered tomato is hot and slightly braised from stir-frying. Spring onions, bell pepper and black bean sauce add dimension and piquancy.
Equally lovely is the spicy tofu with Szechuan cabbage. Balanced with ginger and sliced bamboo shoots, this is a satisfying vegetarian choice--especially when served over brown rice. It is spicy enough to be stimulating, without setting off any fire alarms.
Though I admire the generosity of its ingredients, Precious Three is my least favorite of the dishes I sample. A light sauce of ginger and green onion disappears when applied to the prawns, scallops, "velvet chicken" and ample number of snow peas in this combination. A small adjustment in seasoning is all that is needed to fix this problem.
Flying Crane accepts phone orders. On the night we visit, this seems to be a popular option with folks from the neighborhood. They stop in to pick up dinner and chat with Gan. I am envious of them. If Flying Crane were closer to home, I have the feeling I would quickly become a regular.
There are a million excuses not to eat right. But Flying Crane is proof that healthy eating can be painless, attractive and convenient.
That said, what's your excuse now?
Healthy Heart is another health-oriented East Valley restaurant. Tucked away in an Albertson's shopping plaza in south Tempe, this little cafe might appear sterile if not for the homey flowered wallpaper, college-dorm-room curtains and small vases of dried flowers on each table. Still, it's hard to escape the bright, yogurt-shop feel of the place--especially at night.
The primary reason to come here is not the ambiance, but chef-owner Gladys Brown's cooking, which is homemade and definitely healthy. As at Flying Crane, no additives are used. She prepares everything with non- or low-fat and low-cholesterol ingredients. Meats for sandwiches are steamed, braised or roasted, and all soups are defatted.
While the menu doesn't list calories or cholesterol counts, Brown has a stake in ensuring that all of her preparations are truly "heart healthy." A year and a half ago, her doctor told her she had high cholesterol. "I ate out every day, but it was hard to find a restaurant where I could stay under 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day," she explains. Opening Healthy Heart was her solution. "I felt it was time for a different type of restaurant."
A dining accomplice and I stop by for dinner one rainy evening when the temperature is dropping. We give our order at the front counter, then take seats at a windowside table. A neon sign facing onto the parking lot is on the fritz. Its pink reflection sputters in my accomplice's glasses. It doesn't seem to bother him, but I'm glad my back is to it.
Our order is soon ready. We pick up our two laden plastic trays and carry them to our table. Eventually, the only other couple in the restaurant leaves and we are alone.
The tricky thing about cooking healthy is making people feel they're not missing anything. In this regard, several items at Healthy Heart are quite successful.
The ground-turkey chili, for instance, is great. I don't feel in the slightest like I'm eating something dietetic. In fact, it's one of the best versions of chili--"healthy" or not--I've tasted. I like its sweet-spicy flavor and the use of corn in addition to pinto beans.
A vegetarian sandwich on oat-bran bread is also very good, if elementary. Frankly, it's a lot like something I make at home, but that's okay. I appreciate its professional, yet homemade quality. A sprinkling of sunflower seeds adds both flavor and crunch.
The confetti coleslaw and "no egg" potato salad are pleasant alternatives to the usual unimaginative, mayonnaise-heavy side dishes. Though both salads are dressed in the same light, homemade dressing, I prefer the coleslaw. I like the inclusion of fresh apple with the slivered cabbage.
Less winning is one of the daily specials, chicken with mustard and herbs. Big eaters may be disappointed with this choice. The boneless, skinless chicken breast looks, well, small--as if something is missing. Vegetable lovers may be similarly let down by the overcooked carrot-pea-and-potato "stew" that accompanies the chicken. I know I am.
Even though you're being good to your heart, sweets needn't be out of the question. It's hard to believe the delicious peanut-butter oatmeal bars with cocoa icing are, gulp, good for you. They're simply too good. The fruit and nibble bread, a tasty concoction of cake layered with a cream cheese-like substance, is also very nice.
So, if you think you'll feel deprived by eating right, think again. Healthy Heart offers food that is delicious, nutritious and very satisfying. Give your arteries a break. Your taste buds won't mind. Honest.
Flying Crane, 730 East Brown, Suite 116, Mesa, 835-6073. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 4:30 to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, 4:30 to 9 p.m., Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Healthy Heart, 6340 South Rural, Suite 120, Tempe, 831-6464. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
The desire to eat right is as likely to surface after New Year's as mixed nuts are at Thanksgiving.
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"It was hard to find a restaurant where I could stay under 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day," Healthy Heart's owner explains.