'Raw collard greens, man. They're the wrap around the wrap. I swear. You'll love it!" I have created a monster. Yes, I'm the one who started Hank on his health kick. But now the guy never stops, 'specially since I confessed that, the other week, I chose Max's Deli across the road over this nutty, twiggy Kung Food joint.
I follow Hank into a spacious courtyard behind a trellis, giving onto a terracotta-red frontage. One end is bricky, with climbing vines, a, like, xeriscape garden with native grasses and a couple of bottlebrush trees with scarlet flowers. People sit out under square white canvas umbrellas. Everyone looks disgustingly healthy.
Then it all comes back to me. "Hank!" I say. "We've been here before. Remember? Vegetarian Zone? But it closed down."
"Well, looks like it's sprouted again," says Hank.
The inside looks fresh-painted, with washed peach walls, green leaves painted around the top, a cream-colored ceiling. Signs promise a "100 percent plant-based menu." There are cabinets with "live" raw food and a rack of steaming chafing dishes.
Lumpy creations fill serving plates, like one made up of tempeh, celery, red onion, scallions, pickle, "veganaise" -- a kind of mayo, for sure -- and a bunch of other things such as dill and ginger and tamari and rice vinegar. It's called "Bye Bye Birdie." I guess it's supposed to taste like chicken. But Hank has one thing in mind for me, and it ain't Bye Bye Birdie.
"No, no, next to that," Hank says. "That's your lunch right there. The green wrap?"
Lord. He exaggerateth not. A big plate is loaded with "Collard Wraps." Instead of a tortilla, each burrito has one giant collard-leaf wrapper. The veins crawling up the leaf's back look like the veins on your hand.
A card beside the dish says that inside they've stuffed cashews, agave -- the nectar, for natural sweetness -- alfalfa, cilantro, mango, red cabbage, avocado, ginger...
"He'll have a collard wrap," Hank says to Erica, the girl behind the counter.
"Good choice," says this other girl. Name's Scorpio. Huh.
"And I'll have some of that curried veggies, and the beans with 'chorizo,' the 'soyrizo,' " Hank says. "Oh, and some lasagna."
"Why don't you have some hot stuff, too?" Scorpio says to me. "We sell everything by the pound, $7.95. Just put what you want on the plate."
Well, this is Hank's party. I start with steamed quinoa -- the Incas' "mother grain" of the Andes, Scorpio says -- then a chunk of "chicken" pot pie (with vegan "chick" nuggets and great pastry), and a scoop of that "Bye Bye Birdie." The tempeh looks crunchy, without that tofu wobbly-milky thing about it.
We go pick out a table in the dining area. Techno-beat loop-music's on the soundtrack. The room has tie-dye--type art on the walls and ceramic bowls for sale on the shelves. Each bowl has a message ("Awareness is a candle in the darkness of our forgetting'"). Plus they have ads up for, like, a "Holistic Integration Entrepreneur Business" mixer.
Everything tastes great in its brave attempt to be like "the real thing," the pie, the tempeh, even Hank's "soyrizo" and lasagna. But -- and I hate to give Hank so much credit -- it's my "live" collard wrap that takes the grand prize. Yes, it's like biting through a banana frond, but inside you get all these surprise taste rewards. The cashews, the almonds, the sweet mango, the savory ooziness of the avocado. And the miracle is, you don't miss the tortilla. A creamy nuttiness carries you through.
I'd had coffee (organic, $1.45), but now Hank wants one too, so I decide to go for something I saw on a written sign above the cash register. "Feeling sick? Need to clear up your sinuses? Try Israel's Tonic! Garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, lemon, apple, beet and carrot."
While we're waiting for Erica to concoct that, I pick up one of the plastic card-holders they've put on each table. On the back is a poem.
KFCruelty. Colonel Sanders was a slave trader for animals...
If a rooster tried to eat your breast
Would you be pissed?
He's the world's harmer
Imagine if there was no beef
Would the earth seem calmer?
I think so.
The guy who wrote this turns out to be Joe Cortez. He works here. He's young, a kid, really. Tells me people don't realize chickens can be as intelligent as dogs. "I've protested so many KFCs," he says. "The point is, these animals are not respected."
I pick up my Israel tonic ($3.50) and Hank his organic cawfee ($1.45). Zowee! That tonic's red, rich, and peppery. "How can you not love this place?" says Hank. We're sitting outside now. "They heat their water by solar panels, they send food leftovers to local farmers to add to their compost. These are the Robin Hoods."
"You don't need to preach, dude," I say. "I'm willing. It's just that...."
"Next time I'm outside a greasy spoon, starving for eggs, bacon, grits, and cawfee, what am I gonna do? Find some expensive organic place 20 miles away?"
"I know, I know," Hank says. "As Kermit the Frog says, 'It's not easy being green.'"
"Unless," I say, "you have green."