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EAT YOUR VEGGIES

Sprouts offers healthy food with flavor.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS

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The door swings open nonstop at Sprouts Natural Foods Café, one of the busiest eateries in South Lake Tahoe. It just goes to show: Fresh, good-for-you food has a healthy following.

This lively place draws more than just people in Birkenstocks. Winter and early spring bring skiers in Nordica boots, and with summer come vacationing sun worshipers in flip-flops. With locals of all ages, Reno folks, families, and first-time and returning tourists, all talking and having a good time, it feels like a big reunion.

The busy staff behind the counter joins in, welcoming you with a smile or a personal greeting: "Hi, Robert. How was the birthday?" or "How ya doin', Tami?"

At Sprouts, check chic at the door. It is informal: knotty pine framed with green and cranberry trim and walls to soften the woodsy-ness; mismatched tables and chairs; family-friendly touches of books and games for kids. And servers, wandering about with orders to deliver, calling "Katie?" "Brent!"

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Not Just Vegetarian

Some folks, misinterpreting the café's name, expect vegetarian fare and are surprised to see turkey breast in several dishes. While Sprouts doesn't serve strictly vegetarian fare, it remains true to its philosophy of offering natural, unadulterated foods. The turkey is preservative free, not your typical processed deli variety.

The menu of 42 items has something for every taste; ranging from sandwiches to salads and many house specialties, it includes kids' fare, smoothies made with fresh fruit, and juices made on the spot.

"We go through a lot of wheatgrass," owner Tyler Cannon says, referring to juice-bar supplies, "and use from 200 to 300 pounds of carrots a day."

You can order your carrot juice straight or in a blend — carrot-cucumber-apple, anyone? Try the kicky carrot-and-fresh-ginger combo. Red Bull, you are passé.

More Organic

Cannon makes every attempt to buy organic foods. But quantity, availability, prices, and quality of produce are variable, and Cannon is a stickler on consistency.

"We do what we can do with our goal," says Cannon, who opened Sprouts in 1990 as the sole proprietor until his wife, Cheryl, came on board in 1998. "But the carrots, I can say, are 100 percent organic."

So are the beans, a blend of pinto, black, and kidney, cooked to perfection and used in many tasty dishes. One is the ever-popular Mexican Volcano, a constructed salad of organic brown rice and beans with the following vegetables (take a breath): carrots, red cabbage, red onions, tomatoes, and sprouts. Another bestseller is the Cadillac, a rice bowl. A hearty meal, it features rice, beans, veggies, and Jack cheese. Topped with green onions and house-made salsa, mellow with well-rounded flavors, the dish is deserving of its name.

Regulars rave about the tempeh burger, a Dagwood sandwich of amazing proportion. Stuffed with six types of vegetables, Jack cheese, and the burger somewhere in there, it's a destination dish as well as a meal.

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Soup, Beautiful Soup

But wait. Here is one more signature dish that folks drive miles for: Sprouts' soup. A vegan wonder, the soup is made with a water base and loads of imaginative combinations of seasonal vegetables, herbs, legumes, beans, and more, to make it different every day. It may be tomato Florentine or Thai peanut, carrot-lemon-ginger or corn chowder.

Working in a revolving arrangement, kitchen staff members take turns being soup cook. On each person's assigned day, he or she prepares the soup from scratch with an original recipe, ready to serve by noon.

At Sprouts, you'll never leave hungry. Servings are substantial and whatever you order, guaranteed, it will be fresh, flavorful, and chock-full of beta carotene; antioxidants; vitamins A, C, and K; and lots more to cover the nutritional pyramid.

In other words, it's full of stuff that's good for you.

Reno-based food writer Sandra Macias is neither a vegetarian nor a vegan, but she is an advocate of healthy eating and foods. She'd drive in snow to South Lake Tahoe and Sprouts just for carrot-ginger juice and a bowl of soup.

Sprouts Natural Foods Café
3123 Harrison Ave., South Lake Tahoe
530-541-6969
Open daily 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Soup-Making Tips

At Sprouts, 20 soup cooks take turns making the daily vegan variety. Each has three or four specialties, made from original recipes that vary with the seasons and/or creative whims. The cooks keep their recipe cards close to their vests, so owner Tyler Cannon offers, instead of a recipe, some of their soup-making techniques.

First is the soup's base: water, spices, and herbs. Bring to a simmer, then move on to the tips below (for non-vegans, substitute chicken, beef, or vegetable broth for water):

• Juice vegetables of your choice (e.g., carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, celery, etc.). Add to soup's base.

• For a green soup, juice spinach and kale. Add to the soup's base.

• Add diced vegetables of your choice and maybe, too, rice or pasta. (If pasta, cook separately and add at the end of cooking.)

You may stop there, or add a creamy texture to the soup without using cream. Consider adding one of the following:

• Garbanzo beans puréed in a blender or food processor with a little water. Organic canned garbanzos work well. (Drain and rinse first.)

• Rice Dream, a nondairy rice beverage, found in natural food stores or supermarkets' natural food sections or coconut milk.

• Steamed or boiled potatoes, puréed in a blender or food processor with a little water.

• Cooked beans (e.g., pinto, black, cannellini, cranberry, etc.) puréed in a blender or food processor with a little water to make a watery paste.

• For a south-of-the-border theme, corn or sesame chips and chili powder puréed in a blender or food processor (use a little water for a loose paste).

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