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It's Good For You 

But imagination and range lag behind mission at The Tao Café

Not many restaurants have mission statements printed on their menus. The Tao Café and Juice Bar advises us to "take a deep breath and indulge yourself with our organic pesticide-free feel-good fresh food, nurturing and vibrant, lovingly prepared with prayer and mindfulness." Phew. That's a lot to ask for.

The Tao is the latest reincarnation at the corner of Tejon and Dale streets, half a block down from the wildly popular Wooglin's, and across the street from the successful Dale St. Caf. Ownership and theme have changed as frequently in this locale as have the graduating classes at CC. Perhaps a feng-shui consultant could explain why none of these ventures have lasted. Perhaps The Tao Caf will break the trend.

But I fear not, if the owners don't expand their own mindfulness by spicing up the food selection.

For starters, the menu is as dull as the dcor, a generic pastiche of blond wood tables and shelving, counter-seating along one wall, struggling plants on a few tables. The interior hasn't changed in years. And other than the yogurt and juice shakes (more on these in a moment), there's little on the menu that you haven't had a thousand times before in a thousand other places: veggie burgers and raw veggie sandwiches (greens, onions, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, sprouts, cukes), curried chicken salad, tuna and egg salads, hummus. Early morning choices include the daily quiche, like mixed vegetable or Greek; granola; scrambled eggs wrapped burrito-style in a tortilla; and bagels. Three daily soups (vegan, turkey chili and one that changes daily) and three salads (the Tao, the Grand Tao and the Greek, distinguished from the first two by the addition of feta cheese, olives and red onion) are perfectly fine, if uninspired.

Sandwiches and salads (except for the little Tao Salad for $2.75) are priced from $4.50 to $5.50, soups from $2.50 to $3.75. Box lunch specials that include any sandwich, chips, fruit, licorice candy and a Blue Sky organic soda cost $7.50. Adding an extra, like cheese (tofu cheese or dairy cheese) or avocado to a sandwich will add 75 cents to your bill.

On a first visit, we tried the turkey chili and the curried chicken sandwich. The chili had lots of green peppers and ground turkey, not enough red or black beans (but a couple of random chickpeas and stray kernels of corn), no distinctive chili flavor and an unsettling metallic aftertaste. The curried chicken had raisins, cashews, and apples, and the sandwich was mild but tasty, garnished with tomato, lettuce, and finely sliced onion. The bread is the wonderful sunflower wheat from Manitou Bakery and Caf (source of other baked goods offered here). The fine print on the menu indicated a choice between multi-grain chips and a side of Tao salad, but I hadn't read that far and the guy working the counter wasn't forthcoming. My multi-grain chips were yummy -- blue corn, sweet potato, and possibly carrot chips.

So, you place your order at the counter and take your number to a table, seeking in vain for the one farthest from the speakers spewing too loudly with jazz and DJ drivel from a local radio station. Soon food appears in wax paper-lined plastic baskets. Abandoning hope for the transcendent, I'd have settled for simply peaceful. Still thwarted.

I got smarter and luckier on a second visit. I went straight to the Rejuvenation Station (am I in a Disneyland of the Mind?) and got some items to go. Here are the strengths The Tao Caf ought to emphasize. Fresh organic juices in delicious combinations like the zingy Red Rocket made with carrot, beet, tomato, and flavored with ginger and cayenne (all juice drinks for $3) and imaginative, beautiful smoothies ($3.50) like the Orangesicle and the Purple Dream (rice milk, blueberries, yogurt) make a liquid diet seem almost desirable.

I wish the four owners well, but I also wish them some imagination. It's getting easier and easier to live a vegetarian lifestyle, and tougher for an organic restaurant to distinguish itself. Resources like Wild Oats Community Market, Mountain Mama Natural Foods, and Manitou Natural Foods offer astonishing assortments of organic and fresh ingredients. Every restaurant worth a visit offers wholesome, delicious (and in many cases, like Gertrude's and Adams Mountain Caf, organic) vegetarian and vegan dishes.

Thirty years ago we'd all have marveled over a place like the Tao Caf. Since then, however, Molly Katzen opened Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, and Deborah Madison and Edward Espe Brown started Greens in San Francisco. Both of these innovative restaurants produced many cookbooks (Espe Brown's earlier books, The Tassajara Bread Book and The Tassajara Cookbook, reflect his years cooking "with prayer and mindfulness" at the Tassajara Zen Center in California) and inspired new directions in healthy cooking in and out of the home. If the Tao Café is to succeed, it's got some catching up to do.

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