Meatless
By Miriam Wolf

It's alive!

TURKEY GOBBLERS HAVE their big holiday in November, but we meat-free folks also have a celebration, and it's coming right up. Since 1977, vegetarian activists, gourmets, and animal rights adherents have commemorated World Vegetarian Day. The official date is Oct. 1, but on Sept. 26 the San Francisco Vegetarian Society hosts its annual World Vegetarian Day blowout in Golden Gate Park. Speakers include such ethical eaters as cattle rancher-turned-vegetarian activist Howard Lyman and Diet for a New America author John Robbins.

I happen to love vegetarian festivals. You run into such interesting people, like the teenage boy who had been raised on the hard-core vegan McDougall diet and said he found the thought of cake and cookies disgusting, or the middle-age guy who was eating only about 500 calories a day on a putatively life-extending restricted-calorie diet. Plus, you get to try out lots of delicious new veggie foods and groovy new products. And you can go home with a shelfload of new books to help you live healthier and more ethically.

My only problem with events like this is that the yummy veggie foods are in way too close a proximity to the horribly affecting vegetarian propaganda. You know the kind: slaughterhouse movies, photos of mass debeakings, et cetera. After checking out a few of those pamphlets, the thought of indulging in even the most guilt-free food is profoundly unappealing.

But speaking of yummy veggie food, the last fest I went to was this June's Veggie Fest at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Franklin Street. (Dapper older gentleman behind the greeting table: Are you Unitarians? Us: No. Dapper gent: You will be. Us [backing away slowly]: Uh, OK ...). While there, I got to try some of the raw-food crackers and savory vegetarian pâté served at one of San Francisco's newer vegan places, Alive! The stuff was so tasty, I had to visit the restaurant.

Although Alive! is also known as the Lombard Coffee Shop, it's about the furthest thing from a greasy spoon. The small, semi-elegant restaurant features a mostly raw, vegan menu prepared with organic produce.

But don't be in a big rush when you get there: I'm not complaining, but have you ever noticed you always have to wait a superlong time for your food in a raw restaurant? The food is raw; you should get it faster because they don't have to cook it! No, I'm just messing with you. At Alive! everything is prepared to order. Lovingly cleaning, chopping, and arranging ingredients for each individual plate can take time.

The wait is worth it, though. The house salad is a big pile of fresh greens (mostly romaine and spinach) dotted with small squares of sweet, raw red and golden beets and the best tomatoes we've had all summer. The cashew "ranch" dressing is creamy without being too rich. We also loved the "sunny scallion paté," made with sunflower seeds, tahini, and scallions. It's served with Alive!'s signature veggie flax crisps. Now, I've tried a few varieties of raw crackers in the past year, and have even tried making flax crackers on my own (a total disaster), and Alive!'s are the only crisps that can compete with actual baked crackers. They're savory, crispy, and seasoned just right, substantial enough to scoop up the pâté but not overly burly.

For entrées, we had two "noodle" dishes that on the surface seem similar but are actually very different. The cold soba noodles are, as far as I could tell, the only cooked item on the menu. Dressed with a velvety sesame sauce and dotted with pine nuts, they make up a perfectly satisfying plate of food. Our other dish was composed not of noodles but of slivers of carrots and zucchini. I was expecting a fiery dressing from the dish's description as a "Korean spicy salad," but it was disappointingly tame. Still, the toothsome vegetables and spicy-salty (in a good way) dressing made for some very good eating.

But wait! There's more. Both noodle dishes came with four mind-blowing minibowls of Asian-style appetizers: lightly wilted, super fresh spinach, refreshing cucumber and mango in a vinegary dressing, preserved umeboshi plums, which provided a saline hit, and best of all, a little dish of mushrooms and dried goji berries. I'd never had goji berries before ("They're supposed to be good for the blood," our waitress explained). Slightly sweet with a hint of tartness, the berries are grown in Tibet and Mongolia and apparently have off-the-charts levels of certain vitamins and amino acids.

For beverages, Alive! offers made-to-order almond milk and an intriguing, mostly organic list of rarely seen teas. If you're feeling righteous after your raw feast, you can press your nose against the glass of Alive!'s pastry case, where raw delights such as chocolate torte, nondiary cheesecakes, fruit pies, and other desserts beckon.

Alive! 1972 Lombard (at Webster), S.F. (415) 923-1052. Wed.-Sun., 1-9 p.m. No alcohol. MasterCard, Visa. Wheelchair accessible. Takeout available. World Vegetarian Day festival takes place Sept. 26, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., San Francisco County Fair Building, Golden Gate Park, Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way, S.F. $5 donation. www.sfvs.org.

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E-mail Miriam Wolf at miriam@coolcopy.com.