Smooth Operator

When I live to be 130 years old, will you still be laughing about the fact that I drank liquid shrubbery?

When I live to be 130 years old, will you still be laughing about the fact that I drank liquid shrubbery?

During my cash-strapped college years, I worked at a sub shop that had hitched its trailer to the rising smoothie/fresh fruit juice trend. The store's efforts were dubious at best, yet for a short time, they proved lucrative to our chain. Billed as all natural, healthy, and frugal (at $5 a pop) our top-secret smoothie concoctions consisted mostly of TCBY-style frozen yogurt and scoops of frozen fruits that would sit in a plastic tray in a drawer until they had thawed into soggy sludge.

If something was billed as loaded with vitamin C? That meant that we had added a scoop of Tang powder. A "pick-me-up" smoothie meant we had dumped an individual packet of instant coffee into the mess. Most problematic, though, were the tricks we employed to ensure an overall killer sweetness, adding things like squirts of Hershey's chocolate sauce or packets of sugar to the whole shebang. Then we'd smack the blender on and pray it wouldn't jam for the hundredth time (the blades had been rendered impotent thanks to regular battles with improperly thawed blueberries).

Unsurprisingly, when I returned from winter break I discovered that the smoothie/sub shop had evacuated the premises amid a swirl of debt. Yet despite the fruit-flavored train wreck I rode for that brief time, my appreciation for the real thing continued. Though the faux smoothie has crashed many a party on the fruit-juice circuit, that doesn't mean the real thing isn't out there—"real" meaning fresh fruit juiced and made to order on the spot with actual healthy additions, not just mega-doses of Tang and Kool-Aid-like sweeteners.

With that in mind, the past few weeks I have sought new places to drink my vitamins and calories, straying beyond the usual worthy joints. (Locals are already well aware of the great smoothies at the Wedge and Jamba Juice, the latter being the Starbucks of smoothie shops.) So, for those of us too lazy to buy a juicer, too poor to house a grocery store produce section in the fridge, or too busy to even think about the first two, what follows are my recent discoveries.

My quest began early Saturday morning when I stumbled upon Ecopolitan (2409 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis; 612.874.7336), a cozy Uptown restaurant that is admirably fanatical about raw, organic, vegan food, which is all it serves. All the ingredients in these drinks are recognizable and easily pronounced; no chemical sweetener packets with cancer warnings are going into these suckers. Here they perk up the drinks menu with monosyllabic items such as figs and dates. Coconut milk works great in "milkshake"-style smoothies, and a couple of frozen bananas provide the thick and creamy consistency that's usually achieved with frozen yogurt or ice cream. Like a gourmet Jelly Belly, Ecopolitan has managed to capture the essence of something, and make it into something else.

Take the apple pie smoothie, for example. Who knew that banana, pear, and apple juices, dates, walnuts, and cinnamon could taste exactly like warm apple pie? The oatmeal raisin and strawberry shortcake smoothies manage the alchemical feat of transforming food into liquid as well. The vanilla almond and dark date drink combines ingredients that you almost surely wouldn't drop into a blender of your own volition—but which you probably should. And for those feeling super-adventurous, there's also the Eco-green smoothie, which comes with a hilarious warning stressing that it's important to look beyond taste when drinking something as nutrient-rich as this mega-smoothie. Okay. The Eco-version I tried was pretty drinkable, but you may have to acquire a taste for liquid salad to truly enjoy one.

Ecopolitan also has a variety of fresh juices squeezed to order (carrot, ginger lemonade, cucumber, and spinach, to name a few), as well as the obligatory health-food booster, the wheatgrass shot. What does a shot of wheatgrass taste like? If you ever finished mowing the lawn and unaccountably found yourself wanting to chew on the grass clippings, then this is the health shot for you.

Now, while I think it's safe to recommend most of what this restaurant has on its drink menu, people in a rush, be forewarned. The juicing process is sometimes slow (the wait can be upwards of 20 minutes or so), and if you want your drinks to go you need to buy one of their mason jars to take them in. But then if you're here for the wheatgrass shot, you probably already expected that.

Those who aren't fortunate enough to live in the comfortable bosom of the Wedge may forge their way, as I did, to Natural Escape (6417 Lyndale Avenue S., Richfield; 612.869.2900), a small yet lovely place that is spectacularly hard to find. A natural escape, in this case, is a strip-mall named Wooddale Plaza in Richfield, and the key is to look for the Golden Tan shop, which is across from the Christmas Wonderland and Hardware. Upon entering Natural Escape, you'll be whisked into a world of plastic butterflies, miniature water-fountains, and silk flowers. Yet despite décor that seems best suited to the unicorn crowd, Natural Escape specializes in some of the freshest, healthiest Mexican food and drink the Twin Cities has to offer. Order up any one of a dozen fruit and veggie combos and watch servers juice your drink to order. Veggie combos taste like health incarnate, and many have a surprisingly sweet twist thanks to a curative dose of fresh carrot juice. Other veggies available for juicing include beetroot, spinach, celery, and parsley.

The fruit juices here, though, were my personal favorite: pure, refreshing, and even a little sneaky (some have juiced veggies mixed in for added vitamins). And though they have the usual smoothie all-stars (strawberry, apple, banana, orange), they also juice fruits you don't see every day, like watermelon, papaya, and guava. Top off the experience with excellent customer service (someone even offered to walk me to my car), and it's quite easy to conclude that sometimes really good things do come out of strip malls.

I had heard rumors of a spectacular smoothie shop in Mercado Central, and so I set out there, braving the heavy Lake Street construction. Fortunately, there's always tons of free parking on the neighborhood streets if you're willing to walk a block or two. Once inside, the place is still a little difficult to navigate: There are two La Lomas in the bustling food court and shopping center. The smoothie La Loma counter (1515 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis; 612.728.5430) can be found not in the central food court area, but off on the side by the pastry shop. Here they serve up the classic fruit smoothie, either apple- or orange-juice based, with a scoop of ice and lots of fresh fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, bananas. (The exact mix seems to vary depending on the time of day and availability.) It's hard not to feel healthy while seated in a sunny booth with huge windows, absorbing rays of light and sucking fruit juice through a straw like a bumblebee that has discovered a flower loaded with nectar.