Amor y Salud

Live long and prosper

Natural Escape
6417 Lyndale Ave. S., Richfield
612.869.2900

 

Café Limon
611 W. Lake St., Minneapolis
612.823.5149

 

Hildegarde is dead. I didn't actually know that Hildegarde was alive until I read her obituaries, but she was, at least until she died a couple weeks ago, at the age of 99. I am in complete awe. According to the New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she was a singer, a cabaret performer, perhaps the very first of the one-named stars, and, generally, one of the greats of her day--that day stretching from the 1930s through the 1950s. She was on the cover of Life magazine in 1939, for instance, toured the country with her own orchestra, handed out long-stemmed roses to her adoring international audience, and was pulling down $17,500 a week plus 50 percent of the gross over $80,000 in 1946, when numbers didn't actually even go that high. Most mind-bogglingly though, Hildegarde, back in 1961, published a book called Over 50...So What!Can you imagine coming out with a book whose subject is, "Well, I'm pretty old now; I know you can't believe it, as I've been so famous for being young." And then you go and live for another 54 years?

All of which makes me feel that, yes, life is very short. But on the other hand, life can also be surprisingly long.

For instance, would you believe we have all lived long enough to see the birth of healthy local Mexican food? Seriously. The Twin Cities, home to the sour cream in-and-out chimichanga (with fries), the home to mayonnaise-based guacamole, is also suddenly home to not one, but two places serving quick, healthy, authentic Mexican fare just like what your mama, your yoga teacher, and your cardiologist want you to eat.

The more remarkable of the two is called Natural Escape, and it is completely and utterly hidden from ordinary mortals. You know that strip of Lyndale Avenue just south of Highway 62 in Richfield? Across from the Lyndale Garden Center? Well, go there and you'll see a strip of buildings that look solely like office space. But one of those offices is not like the others, one of them just doesn't belong: It's not an office site, but instead a place offering the best vegetarian Mexican food in the region. Find it and you'll find Claudia Zermeno, the one-woman whirlwind who serves as the tiny restaurant's sole host, cook, server, server's assistant, juicer, and pastry chef.

The menu is brief, but excellent in what it does offer: A dozen juices, run through the juicer to order by Claudia, ranging from sweet treats made of guava and melon, to super-healthy options, with beets, carrots, parsley, and such. (Most juices cost around $4.25.) There are a few tostadas, topped with lettuce, diced tomato, and your choice of tender sliced cactus, a chicken topping of the day, or Claudia's special Mexican-style tuna salad, a mayonnaise-free concoction made with circles of black olive, cilantro, onion, and some secret magic that makes it taste far more special than the words "tuna salad" suggest.

After that, the menu is all, more or less, sandwiches. One of the best is the hot, open-faced mollete ($5). This is, simply, two large slices of bread, warmed, topped with Claudia's homemade warm, earthy black beans, and then with a made-to-order mélange of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and olive oil, and a scattering of melted queso fresco and Muenster. That's it--beans, bread, a little more. But, like so many foods, sometimes when a very simple thing is done very well it achieves its own little bit of magic: A meal of mollete is incredibly satisfying, earthy, clear, and direct, and, in the simplest possible way, excellent.

Other sandwiches are simple variations on all of this. One likeable vegetarian example has lettuce, tomato, spinach leaves, and slices of just-cut avocado; another has slices of nopal, the tender cactus, subtly, almost imperceptibly spiced with serrano pepper, and piled in the bread with black beans, mayonnaise, tomato, onions, cilantro, and the two sorts of cheese.

Claudia prides herself on her healthy cooking. Her black beans, she says, have no added salt, and no fat. "I was working really hard, with two full-time jobs, and found myself looking for a place to eat healthy, to find normal Mexican food, healthy food, like we eat at home in Mexico," she told me in a phone interview. "If you're a woman, you don't want to eat all these things that give you extra pounds, but everything I found here was too salty, fried, or greasy. And you never see what's in the kitchen--who knows what's going on back there? So I just decided to have a place with a kitchen in front of everybody so anyone can see what they're getting."

Indeed, the kitchen at Natural Escape is a simple prep area with chilled containers for the cold vegetables and warm steam-trays for the warm ones; it is truly a place with nothing to hide. The two chicken dishes she offers are the absolute essence of scratch cooking. To make them she cooks whole chickens, picks them clear of bone, skin, and fat, and blends them up with a dusky, piquant achiote spice mixture for her chicken pibil, or with a sweet mole sauce for the mole sandwich. They taste like food that's been fussed over by someone worried about your health: clean, pure, appetizing, filling, and not one unnecessary gram of fat. (There's also a case to be made that Claudia worries equally about your wallet: The sandwiches are enormous, and one of the $5-ish vegetarian ones or $6-or-so chicken ones easily provides lunch for two.)

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