Healthy Spice: A Veggie Oasis on Battleground
I settle into a quiet corner table for a late lunch at the ‘vegetarian and semi-vegetarian’ restaurant Healthy Spice and survey the open dining room. Behind me a chatty trio of middle-aged women discuss the role of US diplomats in Latin America, then later switch topics to dogs. A curly-haired woman with a white brimmed hat hangs her coat on the back of her chair and orders an iced tea. I can imagine the same tranquil scene at a summer garden party ‘— friends gathering to eat fresh food, leaning back comfortably in their chairs and gossiping.
The dining room is not a far throw from a summer garden. Its dÃ©cor is brimming with life: bamboo leaves sprout from behind mirrors on one wall; potted plants placed in the windows soak up the afternoon sunlight; and all eyes float to the purple irises poised on the center island table that sections the room in half.
‘“It’s an oasis in the middle of Battleground,’” notes Julia Kimmel, a slender waitress who attended the three women behind me. ‘“With all this fast food around us, we’re the serene little vegetarian restaurant with healthy food.’”
The food reflects fresh, organic simplicity. The entrÃ©es replace meat items with soy-based alternatives, including soy-based versions of chicken, ham and beef. The dishes are infused with traditional Thai elements: lime, ginger, wasabi, peanut, carrot and coconut.
Healthy Spice’s owner, Joe Thoopsamoot, also runs the nearby Taste of Thai restaurant, but is careful to separate the two businesses for their individual concepts. While Taste of Thai represents the foods of his Thai heritage, Healthy Spice’s menu is grounded in his philosophy of body and mind.
An avid newspaper reader, Thoopsamoot saw an article linking certain types of cancer to meat consumption because of its difficulty in breaking down during digestion. He explains that the concept of Healthy Spice is one part presentation and another part healthy living.
‘“Everything is very good for health. Like the salt,’” he announces, picking up an egg-shaped shaker. ‘“We use the sea salt although it’s more expensive than chemical salt.’” He stares down at a hand-written bill of ingredients and boasts a few more: brown instead of white sugar, olive oil in the pasta, soy-based cheese and no trans-fat.
Each menu item is delicately presented with green leaves to aid digestion and to look nice, says Thoopsamoot. The Whole Earth, a simple appetizer of skewered veggie balls, is displayed on a slim, rectangular plate accompanied by a small garden of greens and carrot flowers.
Another called Healthy Wrapped comes on a glass dish separated into small samplings of diced ingredients: onion, roasted coconut, peanut, lime and ginger cubes. The diner piles a spoonful of each onto a two by two inch square cut of collard green, tops it with sweet peanut sauce then rolls it into a delicate Thai burrito easily consumed in two bites.
Tastic Spa is a slim roll of asparagus, ‘ham’ and seaweed dipped into a pungent sesame wasabi sauce. Soups on the menu vary day to day, including creamy pumpkin, Mediterranean and black sesame.
I chose the most popular entrÃ©e, a combination of Italian and Asian influences called Natural Balance. Angel hair pasta wok-fried in olive oil and herbs sits next to strips of meatless ‘chicken’ doused in a garlic miso sauce. The dish also includes fresh baby vegetables ‘— string beans, carrots, corn and mushrooms that didn’t come from a can.
While customers chat, dine and sip on ginger lemonade and cool aloe drinks, Thoopsamoot hovers over the island, measuring and cutting sections of white paper for the dining tables. Unlike the personable servers who often lean over customers to point out their favorite menu items, Thoopsamoot maintains the cool and customary distance of a man who has spent his life in the service industry.
At 19 he secured a busboy position at a five-star government hotel in Thailand. He moved up the ladder over the years working as server, cashier and manager. Since 1968 Thoopsamoot has oscillated between his home country and the States, settling now in Greensboro and working a full seven days a week without complaint.
Thoopsamoot seems reserved about discussing his life outside the restaurant, responding to inquiries with brief, self-effacing statements, then telling me that the green curry contains the cancer-fighting herb ‘galangal’ or that he uses wheat bread instead of white. Presenting his restaurant well is his primary concern ‘— in diet and dress, he lives the healthy regimen Healthy Spice stands for. His dishes are innovative and accommodating: Noodle Time is a special lunch menu containing rice noodles instead of pasta, an adjustment made to the menu after he discovered many customers have wheat allergies.
‘“It’s not a new concept to have a vegetarian restaurant,’” admits Kimmel, ‘“but there is a new market opening up. We get people who are hardcore vegetarians and have been for years who say they are glad they found this place because there’s not anywhere else like it in Greensboro.’”
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