One Dish Wonders: Mr. Natural

Lunch special ($7.25) and a small agua fresca ($1.25)

From the outside, Mr. Natural looks like little more than a small vegetarian cafe next to a yoga studio, with painted windows that welcome you to try its juice bar and soy ice cream. Inside, though, you realize everything the cafe, the health foods store and yoga studio are connected, making Mr. Natural a destination for both physical and mental health.

The restaurant side is cafeteria style, just like the school days. Even the seasonal decor might remind you of your elementary school cafeteria, with bright orange pumpkins lining the back wall and Thanksgiving-themed decals adorning the windows. But instead of chicken nuggets and rectangular slices of pizza, Mr. Natural offers completely vegetarian breakfasts, pastries and Mexican dishes. The menu is expansive, ranging from wheat waffle breakfasts to chile rellenos to cherry pies and pumpkin empanadas for dessert.

Walking down the line, you'll notice the colorful row of aguas frescas with enticing fruit flavors like cantaloupe and watermelon and the more unusual barley-horchata and pineapple-spinach. And before you get to the register, the strategically placed bake case begs you to pick a gingerbread cookie or chocolate chip muffin for dessert.

One of the best deals is the daily lunch special, which includes a main dish, a salad and two sides. For a main dish, the cheese enchiladas and vegetable enchiladas are a good standby, but if you're looking for something more unusual, try the vegetarian Milanesa. This wheat-protein version of the thin steak common to Mexican, Italian and German cooking, is breaded and fried like the real deal.

The options for sides include basics like Mexican rice taken to another level with peas, carrots and lima beans. Another side, a black bean and tofu gordita in a palm-sized blue cornmeal mash, is filling but tasteless, needing a little cheese or sauce to add flavor. Slightly tart nopalitos (strips of cactus) are served in a mildly spicy sauce and taste similar to green beans.

Mr. Natural offers the usual spinach salad, but its carrot salad is one of the best options. The shaved carrots and coconut are sweetened even more with raisins and tiny chunks of pineapple, like a delicious and healthy dessert. Or you can try the pineapple-spinach agua fresca. If the dark green color doesn't weird you out, the drink is refreshing and sweet.

On the other side of the restaurant is a fairly typical health-food store, its aisles filled with vitamins and herbal elixirs plus organic groceries and foods for people with special dietary needs. Mr. Natural also sells packages of its own granola, cinnamon and pecan cookies, as well as puffed amaranth a gluten-free seed full of protein that can be eaten as cereal or used in recipes. Mr. Natural also offers meditation and hatha yoga classes for beginners and seniors three times a week in its meditation room. And after class, you can reward yourself with a vegan Bavarian cream cone.

(1901 E. Cesar Chavez St. 477-5228. Also at 2414 S. Lamar Blvd. 916-9223, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Closed Sundays.)

Amira Jensen