RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : 2 County Establishments Mete Out Some Pretty Good Vegetarian Fare

Vegetarian friends visited me last week, and with them came the problem of finding a restaurant where they would be comfortable. It's not that vegetarian dishes are hard to find; any Chinese, Indian or Middle Eastern restaurant, for example, has a good variety of meatless specialties. But for many lacto-ovo, vegan, macrobiotic and other label-specific vegetarians, variety is not the issue.

Rutabegorz in Fullerton looks as if it belongs on an ivy-covered New England campus--a dark, wooded shed-like dining room on a quiet, tree-lined street just a block or two, in fact, from the campus of Fullerton College. It's a casual place; you seat yourself, and all the waiters wear T-shirts and comfortable shoes. Our waiter had a pony tail, and a calming, professional demeanor.

The menu is a 15-page paper booklet that includes several non-veg items, mostly of the salad/sandwich variety. My friends, David and Caren, begged me not to try them--and a misbegotten seafood salad, topped with a tasteless mixture of crab and shrimp, told me I should have listened. Meanwhile, David and Caren busied themselves with crisp tossed greens with tomato, sunflower seeds, alfalfa sprouts and sliced cucumber. The dressings on their salads--tahini poppy seed and a sesame honey ginger--were delicious.

Next came main courses, and more points for their side. I bit into a sandwich called "the walnut that kissed the chicken" (chicken, walnuts, sprouts and lettuce on squaw bread) and wondered why I could barely taste the large hunks of chicken. When I asked the waiter if the chicken had been frozen, he replied, "Yes, but it should be thawed by now."

David just smirked as he enjoyed a simple, well-prepared vegetarian chili: pinto beans with two cheeses, sliced onion and fresh olive in a strong, hot sauce. Caren sympathetically offered me some of her giant stuffed mushrooms with vegetable-bread crumb filling; I accepted gratefully.

And that's about what to expect: The restaurant's meatless dishes are a far better indicator of the kitchen. Stuffed squash and vegetarian lasagna make filling, tasty meals. The tostada, enchilada and Mexican casserole, despite a surfeit of gooey cheese, have a nice mix of flavors. My advice is not to bother with the restaurant's frozen turkey breast, tired cubed chicken or tasteless, shredded seafood. They will only serve to make your veggie friends say "I told ya so."

Desserts at Rutabegorz taste like goodies from a church bake sale. Cheesecake is light, lemony and fresh. Carrot cake, a tall square piece cut out of a giant loaf pan, has lots of nuts and a moist, springy texture. Apple pie is served in a gigantic slice, with a dry crumb topping and finely chopped fruit, Pennsylvania Dutch country-style. There is an interesting assortment of creamy cappuccino drinks (heavily doctored with ice cream and/or chocolate and/or cinnamon) and ciders, too, even if they are not entirely in harmony with the purists. Caren smiled beatifically when I kept my order simple and had a nice cup of herbal tea instead.

The Greenery Natural Kitchen looks more like what my friends are used to: a modest, unadorned restaurant with abundant potted plants, a few plain tables and some scuffed-up wooden chairs. This time, I promised them that our dinner would be entirely meatless.

The first things to arrive via the sluggish service were the fresh-pressed juices. Carrot juice was sweet and fresh, but aloe vera juice was less appealing--it may be great for sunburns but as a drink, well, it tastes vaguely like a cranberry-flavored health tonic.

The salads were next, and, as at Rutabegorz, they were fresh and crisp. But this time, the tomato was remarkably flavorful and the dressing, a delightful creamy herb, was virtually oil-free. A side order of cottage tofu with abundant dill made an interesting if eccentric side dish.

David tried the unburger (a throwback to his days as a meat-eater) and seemed to like it. It's large patty made from ground nuts, brown rice and seasonings, topped with a grilled slice of onion and a thin slice of melted cheese. I found it interesting and a bit on the heavy side, with a texture at once crunchy and creamy. It does not taste remotely like the real thing.

Caren, meanwhile, busied herself with the lentil burrito, a savory mixture of stewed, spiced lentil with guacamole, salsa and melted cheese on a whole-wheat tortilla. I tasted it and it was delicious. I would happily forswear most meat dishes in its place.

Although the Greenery is more subtle in its use of cheese than most vegetarian restaurants, I noticed that, as at Rutabegorz, cheese was present on almost every entree. Perhaps this is because the kitchens are trying to satisfy the richer diets of non-vegetarians like me. But I, for one, could do without it.

Now, in fact, whenever I drop by these restaurants, I look for cheeseless dishes. The Greenery has a few: eggplant quiche, light and custardy with a thin, buttery crust on the bottom; Popeye salad--fresh spinach, mushroom, carrot, tomato, green onion and egg with a tangy lemon and honey dressing, and steamed vegetables with brown rice. That last one is best; pinto beans are cooked together with the rice, like a Cuban congri , and the vegetables are fragrant with clear tastes.

The kitchen here is considerably more accomplished than the one at Rutabegorz. Most of the dishes are delicate, and someone behind the stove has a real way with combining flavors. As at Rutabegorz, there are tuna, chicken, and turkey salads, but I didn't taste them. Sorry, Caren. Next time I want a protein-rich meal, I'm going out for a steak.

Both restaurants are inexpensive, with few dishes over $5. Rutabegorz has beer and wine; the Greenery does not.

RUTABEGORZ

211 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton

(714) 738-9889

Open 7 days, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

THE GREENERY NATURAL KITCHEN

119 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton

(714) 870-0981

and 323 S. Magnolia Ave., Anaheim

(714) 761-8103

Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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