Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Natural Cafe, Santa Barbara: Shhh, don't tell anyone...It's healthy!

It's hard to describe the Natural in fair terms. I adore it madly. I go once a week, without fail, to have the albacore tuna salad with lemon herb vinaigrette. Lower State Street is where people go to sit on the patio of a nice restaurant, have a beer, and people watch. There are a lot of tourist traps here...places where you can sit on the patio and pay a fortune for very mediocre food. Yet many people end up at those places because they have passed by the slightly less glamorous exterior of the Natural. It has a perfectly good patio on the sidewalk where you can sit under the umbrellas and eat...but it doesn't have that "we are so cool you'd be lucky to get a seat" vibe that its neighbors do. That's because it is...a health food joint. I know, most foodies (including me) will often go out of their way to avoid falling into over-priced "skinny" hell-holes, sinking under the weight of their whole wheat buns and tofu this-and-that. But...hey girl (or guy), you're in Santa Barbara, and part of the food culture here is heavily focused on being healthy (yoga, sunny beaches, know, California!). And the thing is, health food or not, the Natural makes comforting, yummy food. It's the kind of place where you feel kind of like your mom made you a nice's not super glamorous, but she made sure you'd get some good food and nutrients in your tummy.

And the Natural is adaptable. If you're a carnivore, they'll do you a nice chicken or salmon dish. If you're vegan or vegetarian...well, you've arrived in heaven. It's the kind of place that puts Bragg's, olive oil, sesame seeds, spike, yeast flakes, and a hundred other healthy condiments out by the water bar (self serve water with lemon slices and ice). You can get a salad with grilled tofu and brown rice on top. But you can also get a super tasty pasta primavera with garlic bread that will make your mouth happy.

The decor is very casual, as is the vibe. You order at the counter, grab your number and a glass of ice water, and then pick a seat at a booth, table, or the patio. It's very airy and relaxing...the kind of place where you can go solo and nobody will look at you funny for sitting by yourself. Long ago, when I was a college student, I would bring my books here and study while I ate. Now I bring my laptop and write for a leisurely hour while I enjoy a nice meal. So that's 15+ years this place has felt like home to me. If I haven't been clear enough yet, let me spell this out: LOCALS LOVE THE NATURAL. I see people I know from around town there pretty much every time I go. There are visitors to Santa Barbara too, but it is the kind of place where locals come back week after week. Perhaps for the black bean enchiladas?

Or the wild salmon salad, if they have it on special?

Not to pick favorites, but you can't lose ordering one of their salads. They come in enormous bowls, with tasty salad dressing (the lemon-herb vinaigrette is the best) and can be had from vegan to carnivorous, depending on your preferences. It's about ten dollars for a salad, and you really will be having the Santa Barbaran experience here.

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