So Good It Makes You Happy!
Story and photos by Marsha Mann
For Sylvia Heisey, owner of Beets Living Foods Café, food = happiness. “I want people to be happy when they eat my food.” And happy they are. Ask anyone who’s eaten at Beets Café (even meat-eating types who previously referred to raw veggies as ‘rabbit food’) and they’ll describe in mouth-watering detail their favorite item or dish on the menu.
For some, it might be a cool & creamy Do You Love Pina Colada or Choco-a-la-na-na smoothie ($5.50). For others, it’s the crunchy, avocado-luscious Cha-lu-pas ($11.95), or the sweet & spicy Asian Noodle Salad ($7.25), made with a rainbow of marinated vegetables and delicate kelp noodles. And then there are those who drop in strictly for the desserts – Chocolate and Lemon Cheesecakes made without dairy or tofu ($6.75) with a texture and flavor nothing short of amazing! As Sylvia likes to say, “It’s not grass, sticks, and seeds anymore. I want to change the ‘60’s image of raw food as something only hippies eat.”
In keeping with this updated vision and an eye toward broadening her clientele, Beets Café has a modern, open feel that’s curvy, colorful and fun. Everything on the menu tastes delicious, looks beautiful, and comes in a generous portion, often large enough to share...decidedly gourmet without the preciousness of haute cuisine. Local farmers provide all of the top-notch organic produce necessary to create ‘living food’ dishes that burst with flavor and actually deliver a natural energy high - one of the reasons Sylvia became a convert in the first place.
Originally from Houston, she moved to Austin in 1969, when it was pretty much The Campus, The Capital, and a small but thriving sub-culture. She eventually went to work for JMJ & Associates, conducting training workshops in Leadership Development and Safety in the Workplace, but after 16 years of being on the road, she was burned out - both mentally and physically. In 2003, a friend encouraged her to try a raw food diet and almost immediately, the aches & pains disappeared and were replaced by more energy than she’d had in years.
A ‘foodie’ by nature as well as an accomplished cook, she began playing with the idea of opening a living foods restaurant, but as Sylvia points out, “Preparing this kind of food is labor intensive and I didn’t want to be doing it by myself.” After conquering some initial fear and doubt, she began negotiating in January of 2008 on the yet-to-be-built space at 1611 W. 5th Street that Beets Café now occupies.
Once the building was underway, she flew to California for professional training at the Ft. Bragg Culinary Arts Institute, followed by a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico for the annual Raw Food Festival, where she met Alicia Ojeda. Sylvia recalls, “We really hit it off at the festival, so when she called a few months later and said she was moving to Austin (she’d fallen in love with an Austinite), I realized I’d found my second chef!” When Alicia arrived in January of 2009, the two went to work developing recipes, determined to make ‘flavor’ their highest priority. The final piece fell into place when Ellie Grivas, a friend of Sylvia’s daughter, joined the team as Administrative Manager. Last August, Beets Café finally opened its doors and has since been making both customers and food critics very happy indeed.
What makes Sylvia and Alicia’s approach refreshing is the variety of ingredients employed – they don’t let any one vegetable (like the carrot, for instance) dominate the plate, and even more importantly, each dish has a distinct flavor all its own. They also avoid the overuse of nuts, which occasionally show up as a garnish but are primarily reserved as the base ingredient for their rich and satisfying desserts. They’ve eliminated soy products altogether, with the exception of a stellar miso dressing, and manage to downplay the role of acid-forming beans as well – even the Hummus appetizer ($7.25) is made from pureed zucchini instead of garbanzo beans, yet still tastes amazing.
Sylvia reiterates, “Everything in life revolves around food…it brings people together and acts as a glue for society. If your food makes you happy, society as a whole becomes happier.” When asked if everyone should be eating raw food at every meal, her response is quite reasonable - “Even a few meals a week will start to make a difference in your energy level and overall health. Gradually, you just start making different food choices because you feel so much better. It’s not about becoming a fanatic.”
Another popular item on the menu is the E.L.T. Sandwich ($11.95) -eggplant, lettuce & tomato w/avocado. Using thin strips of crispy, dehydrated eggplant instead of bacon, and a signature flat bread ingeniously made from almond pulp, sunflower, and chia seeds, it’s remarkably good, as are the zesty veggie chips that come with it – probably the BEST veggie chips ever.
The Kale, Sprouted Lentil, and Cabbage Kraut side salads ($6.25) are all outstanding as well, and the ambrosia-like flavor and texture of the Curried Carrot Soup ($3.75/$5.50) is truly a revelation – why does a pureed soup ever need to be cooked? But top prize goes to the Creamy Spirulina Salad Dressing that’s an option for the Mock Tuna Salad ($7.25). It not only has a brilliant flavor but also packs an energy rush I felt the entire day!
On a final note, since Beets Café is a ‘green’ restaurant, any wasted food is composted, and all non-food materials are biodegradable or can be recycled…which will no doubt make the whole planet happier. 1611 W. 5th St. (free parking in the side lot). Open all day, Mon-Sat. Call 477.2338 for hours.