Over the years, my bodily temple has taken a considerable beating. It's been ransacked more often than Tutankhamen's tomb. Just ask my friends in the organic and vegetarian movements. They say I've been corroded by chemicals, fouled by fish, polluted by poultry, maligned by meat and defiled by dairy.
It's true: When it comes to healthy eating, I'm about as pure as the driven slush. And that sure makes my life easier. The nut-and-berry folks don't have too many eating-out options in this town. Generally, their bill of fare seems to consist of massive piles of sprouts, cucumber and bean curd, served by the rail-thin acolytes of a sect that meets expenses by selling dead flowers at the airport.
No wonder the two most popular words at Valley restaurants are "medium rare." Two new places are trying to fill the local good-for-you gap. Each targets a different segment of the healthy-minded: One aims at strict vegetarians; the other caters to the organic crowd.
Ching Hai is the name of a spiritual leader (a woman, by the way) who has a worldwide following, at least according to the eponymous restaurant's helpful pile of informational pamphlets. Phoenix disciples have decided that our community is now ready to benefit from the vegetarian philosophy of the Supreme Master. It's a rigorous one: no meat, no poultry, no fish, no eggs, no dairy and, not surprisingly, no alcohol. What's promised, according to the menu, are "transcendental delicacies," all made "gently and lovingly."
The place occupies the site of a defunct Chinese restaurant, and more or less looks it. The room, ringed by booths with tables in the center, has a fresh coat of paint. Well-worn Asian art hangs from the walls, as do photos of the Supreme Master. The patrons are a mixed group, ranging from the curious to the true believers. The guy at the next table, overhearing our questions, told us he had seen the Supreme Master on Dimension Cable's Channel 22 one afternoon, and that the encounter had transformed his life.
Intrigued, I tuned in to a 4:30 p.m. broadcast a few days later. I can report that Channel 10's rating for Jeopardy, which is on at the same time, is unlikely to experience a significant decline. While my first televised brush with the Supreme Master didn't change my life, the kind of meatless cooking she espouses did dent some of my stubborn skepticism. Vegetarians accustomed to sprout-laden platters might do a double take when they get their first glimpse of the Pan-Asian menu: There's Vietnamese roasted "eel"; Thai-style lemon-grass "chicken"; and Chinese twice-cooked "pork." Tofu and wheat gluten are the principal ingredients employed to try to trick the tongue into believing there's animal protein between the chopsticks. There's nothing tricked up about the Heaven Rice Rolls, though. This Vietnamese-inspired appetizer featured two rice-paper wrappers stuffed with fresh vegetables, nuts and greenery. A tart dunking sauce furnished a pleasing taste contrast. An even better starter, I thought, was vegetable roasted eel, layered sheets of bean curd with a crispy, charred edge. Vegetarian goose is somewhat similar in taste, but lacked the crunchy texture. The leaden, pan-fried dumplings, however, didn't compare well with the pork-filled pot stickers you get at any Chinese restaurant.
The menu lists some 50 main-dish items, which should please variety-starved vegans.
Among the better items is spicy lemon-grass chicken, a full-flavored platter with a hot-pepper kick. The "chicken" comes in thin slices, not chunks, but it was close enough to the real thing to fool my kids.
Twice-cooked pork can also deceive the unwary, since it somewhat approximates pork's taste and texture. Mixed with the usual Chinese-restaurant veggies, it tastes like your basic, neighborhood-chop-suey-parlor fare. Actually, the dishes I enjoyed most were the vegetable dishes that didn't emphasize ersatz meat. Two-flavor stuffed tomato brought three fresh tomato halves filled with the delicate scents of tofu, mushrooms and vermicelli. Yui-shan eggplant, a Chinese-restaurant staple, is well-prepared--the not-too-greasy model served here presses both taste and nutrition buttons. The house chow mein does a decent job satisfying noodle fans. Thick, starchy noodles come sprinkled with vegetables and chewy bits of "chicken," "pork" and "shrimp." The least appealing of the entrees highlight "seafood." The kitchen does an amazing job of concocting something that looks like shrimp. But while it passes the eye test, it won't tantalize nonvegans' other senses. The seafood sizzling hot plate relies on seaweed to bring out the briny aroma of the sea, but it's a pretty pale substitute.
"To eat vegetarian food often," proclaims the menu, "will be beneficial to your health, and remove miscellaneous matters from your bodies and help enhance happiness and wisdom." Well, maybe. But if I were a taste-conscious Valley vegan, I wouldn't care about removing bodily impurities or enhancing wisdom. I'd be thrilled just to have a place to eat outside my four walls.
C. Steele for the Farm at South Mountain, 6106 South 32nd Street, Phoenix, 276-6360. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
C. Steele's latest Valley venture is a clever, back-to-nature enterprise--in more ways than one. Remember the advertising tag line of the Du Pont corporation, "Better living through chemistry"? No one believes that anymore, especially when it comes to eating. Now C. Steele has tapped into the pure-food Zeitgeist. Everything's organic: the breads, baked goods, produce, soups, sandwiches, salads and even the coffee. The setting reinforces the fare. It's positively bucolic. The restaurant occupies a restored barn, set amid a soothing grove of pecan trees. A small stream flows along the front, past a little vegetable garden. Country-themed merchandise--wind chimes, birdhouses, flowerpots--is for sale outside. Inside are a small organic-produce section, cutesy bottles of dressings and honey and more country gimcracks.
Eating is outdoors, picnic-style, with all the attendant dangers and pleasures. Among the former are flies, mud and a horse that wandered over to one startled group and nibbled on their sandwiches and gulped the iced tea. And at this time of year, if you sit at one of the tables that doesn't have a shade umbrella, management will probably have to scrape you off with a spatula. On the other hand, the birds are madly chirping, South Mountain looms nearby and the food's more than good enough to offset the paper cups and plastic cutlery. It's not exactly soup weather, but the models here can tempt you to disregard the calendar. The thickly stocked black-bean and vegetable soups don't rely on salt to provide flavor. Instead, tasty chunks of vegetables do the job. But the soups ought to come with a hunk of bread. Don't look for massive main-dish platters to fill up on. You're limited to dainty sandwiches and salads. While these portions will satisfy the ladies-who-lunch crowd, folks who have spent the day working the lower forty may find themselves looking at the horse and thinking unwholesome thoughts. The mesquite-grilled organic turkey in the curry turkey sandwich is cooked right there at the farm. How do I know? Because I saw an employee struggling mightily to set a massive bird on one of the ancient outdoor grills. For the first few rounds, at least, the turkey appeared to be winning. Be careful not to confuse organic food with Weight Watchers cuisine. Just because there are no chemicals, it doesn't necessarily follow that there aren't plenty of calories. The turkey sandwich, for example, comes dripping with curried mayo, as well as raisins, red cabbage and carrots. It's all set on some first-rate five-grain bread. The routine tuna sandwich, too, goes pretty heavy on the mayo. The Oriental sandwich is a less-caloric outlet. It's a flour tortilla filled with bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots and jicama, moistened with a peanut hoisin sauce. Or perhaps you'll be fortunate enough to come on a day when the kitchen offers the eggplant special, grilled-and-charred eggplant strips layered with fresh mozzarella, yellow peppers and tomatoes on Italian bread. Salads don't seem quite as zippy as the sandwiches. (They come already prepared and sealed in plastic containers, with the dressings on the side.) And if you don't want to be hungry 30 minutes later, you'll have to buy a small loaf of bread to go with them. Sesame turkey salad combines organic greens, red pepper, jicama and fried noodles, with the only zest supplied by the ginger soy dressing. The caesar salad is just a pile of lettuce coated with a few croutons and a small amount of shredded cheese. The misnamed haricots verts salad--it's mostly spinach--is dulled by a weak lemon vinaigrette. Desserts, however, are very enjoyable. The home-baked apple cobbler and sugar-glazed scones provide a good excuse for lingering. And it's reassuring to know the pounds they're adding are strictly organic.
C. Steele's wholesome fare may not convert every diner to the pure-food movement. But its rustic charm seems certain to win a loyal following.