Yes, Nuttyish
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Lordy. Just lost my veg-inity.

Gulp. Sitting here at the green counter. Biting into my first-ever raw taco. Looking ahead to start the New Year off right, healthy.

Angie watches me like an anxious mother hen from behind the counter. "Actually, it's not just vegetarian, but vegan."

Okay, truth is, this is happening only because I had a few minutes to spare between buses up here in Hillcrest. Thought I'd stroll down Fifth to the St. Tropez for a quick cawfee. But then I spotted this place with an inside wall full of hanging potted plants so green they looked artificial. Outside, I didn't notice any sign saying who da heck these guys were. Must have a captive audience.

Then I recognized the handwritten name on a markerboard.

"Cilantro Live!"

Oh, right. I remember now. Hank and I had gone to the original Cilantro Live! four years ago, down in Chula Vista. We found ourselves munching on a flaxseed burger and a walnut-mushroom "meat" loaf. And met Cristina Guzman. Her message: Raw is Beautiful. "The secret is the enzymes," she'd said. "Because there is so much more life in [live, uncooked] food, you need to eat less of it." Live enzymes, she meant, help your body turn food into energy. Anything cooked over 105 degrees Fahrenheit starts killing them.

It seemed a little, uh, twiggy, nutty Garden of Eatin' back then. And Carla didn't help, when I tried to convert her. "Eating meat created our larger brains!" she yelled. "You want us to become sheep again? They eat grass. There's a reason they're stupid!" The gal's a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore.

But today -- heck, seems a lot of people don't agree. Even though the Chula Vista place has closed, Cristina has opened three new raw restaurants, in Lemon Grove, Carlsbad, and Hillcrest, with invitations to open in L.A., Seattle, Japan, and on the East Coast.

You can smell success as soon as you get inside. It's big and cheery. There's that wall of greenery (yes, real CO2-gobbling plants), a whole gaggle of big glass-globe hanging lights, lots of wood, and lime-green and white walls. This counter is curvy and topped with green mosaic, with a hole for a fern to grow up through.

Soon as I sit down, Angie recommends the tacos as a good re-intro to raw food.

Now I'm trying to analyze this first taste of the "heavenly tacos," as the menu calls them. They're soft, and yes, nuttyish. But I like it 'cause the flavor's strong, not insipid. If I didn't know better, I'd say hops. Beer. That kind of delicious molasses-deep sugar-sharp taste.

"It's the chipotle," Angie says. "It has a smoky atmosphere, and it gives a kind of a cooked flavor. Actually, the tacos' main filling is a nut 'meat' made out of almonds and walnuts and sun-dried tomato, plus chipotle and avocado."

She says they make their own tortillas, too, out of dehydrated vegetables such as tomatillos, corn, and the nopal cactus. And their own salsa fresca. "And we make the sour cream out of almonds and lemon juice." That's just the beginning. The complete recipe, she says, is a super secret.

'Course, listen long enough to eloquent Angie, and pretty soon you're a disciple of the movement. "Since I switched to the vegan lifestyle," she says, "my energy levels have been through the roof, and especially with raw foods, it's like electricity through your veins."

I picked the tacos, but the choice is pretty huge. They have soups such as coconut, carrot, or avocado and cilantro ($4 cup, $6 bowl); a big salad section with maybe the most interesting-sounding items on the menu, like Spicy Thai salad in a sweet almond sauce with spicy cashews ($10, $7 for a half-order); Japanese Sea Vegetable salad with arame and dulse -- brown and red seaweeds -- ($10, $7); or nopalitos salad with nut-based feta cheese ($9, $6). They have a bunch of $8 pâtés in wraps such as the walnut-fig pâté, or "Fortuna," a sunflower-pumpkin pâté, or the "Asian" (an almond-fig pâté). You can understand the pâté thing: A lot of what they do here is crush nuts and seeds. The entrée section seems to show off the veggies. A green enchilada ($13, with house salad) combines marinated cabbage, mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, corn, avocado, and nacho "cheese" (it's nondairy, nut-based). "Roma Raw-violis" ($12) are thin slices of tomato stuffed with the same "cheese" and pesto sauce. The cheeseburger's patty is made of tomatoes, flaxseeds, bell peppers, garlic, and mushrooms. It comes on a bun made of almond pulp and buckwheat, $13.

Whack -- 13 Washingtons? Brilliant improvisation, but better be a great burger. And my two tacos, with "Mexican wild rice," also cost $13. That'd buy 13 regular tacos not two blocks from here.

So why does it have to be so expensive? "The preparation's really labor intensive," Angie says. "You have to cut up all the vegetables, and pound the nuts and seeds, and then they have to go in the dehydrator. It takes a lot more work to prepare than ordinary food."

But dollar for dollar, protein for protein, McDonald's must be a far better deal for the ordinary guy, right? Angie shakes her head. "It's not a sustainable or compassionate way of living. Or healthy. Heart disease is the number-one killer in America now."

I pay my $13. It suddenly strikes me. The next fortune's gonna be made by the guy who can make eating healthy like this high volume, low cost, and way cool. Who wouldn't want to feel as charged up with "electricity through your veins" as Angie?

The Place: Cilantro Live!, 3807 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-325-1949. Also in Lemon Grove and Carlsbad

Type of Food: vegan, raw, mostly organic

Prices: Soups, e.g., coconut, carrot, avocado and cilantro, $4 cup, $6 bowl; lunch special soup 'n' half-salad combos, $10-12; walnut-fig pâté wrap, $8; "Fortuna" (sunflower-pumpkin pâté wrap), $8; green enchilada with marinated cabbage, mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, corn, avocado, with house salad, $13; raw vegan cheeseburger, $13; nutmeat tacos, $6 (one), $9 (two), with wild rice, $13; fat-, flour-, and sugar-free desserts, e.g., carrot cake, $8 (with ice cream)

Hours: Noon-9:00 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m., Friday-Sunday

Buses: 1, 3, 10, 11, 83, 120, 120A

Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and University (northbound for all buses, and both directions for 10, 11); Fourth and Robinson (1, 3, 120, 120A, southbound)

[2009 Editor's Note: Cilantro Live! has since closed.]

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