Dining out: Sunflower Cafe

Sunflower Natural Food Restaurant

10344 Fair Oaks Blvd, Fair Oaks
10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Tuesday
Close 8:30 Wednesday through Saturday

The first thing I noticed was the sound of chickens. There seemed to be chickens scattered around everywhere in this little corner of Fair Oaks, adding to the feeling of having stepped back into time when you enter this section of the adorable 1950s-style small town located just off the American River bike path. Chickens pecking around in the nearby park, on top of a house with an Italian rainbow "PACE" (peace flag), and yes, crossing the road. The story is they are escapees who have lived around here for years-red, white, iridescent black and green, chickens everywhere.

Except on the menu, that is. Sunflower Natural Food Restaurant is one of those places that seems to belong in Midtown instead of in a far-flung suburb. The format-service through a plexiglass window, outside tables next to parking-is more typical of a burger joint, but the menu is strictly vegetarian.

We visited last Saturday after a bike ride along the American River, taking advantage of a window of nice weather. After 15 miles, we were ready for a big meal. I was brought by someone who grew up in Fair Oaks, who said that Sunflower has been operating continuously for over 30 years-placing it well ahead of the current trend of more people getting interested in healthy vegan food.

The signature item here is probably the nutty taco ($5.69). We each got one, and everybody else in line seemed to be getting one two. It's made with their own, homemade nutburger mix. The recipe is apparently a closely guarded secret, but we were able to confirm that it is both wheat and soy-free. It was one of the best veggie-burger concoctions I've ever had, dark colored, rich and moist. We had to eat our way through a huge pile of sprouts and other veggies to get at it, but the last few bites were amazing.

We also split a nutburger ($5.69), based on the same mix. This was served like a traditional burger, though with vegan mayonnaise (far less offensive than the real stuff, which I try to avoid). The nutty taste of the burger was more noticeable, and made a nice contrast with the bun.

That wheat bun was a rare departure from a particular kind of diet we've been trying to eat for a period (hence the question about wheat and soy). Which also caused us to miss out this visit on one of their other signature items-their milkshakes (we're also avoiding dairy). After 15 miles, this was a little heartbreaking-particularly when I realized I could have chocolate/peanut butter/carob. We compromised on fruit smoothies-which were fine, and dairy free, but just not the same. I've been promised a return visit, so I didn't complain too much.

There are numerous other menu items, including sandwiches and grill items (though, like I said, everyone seemed to be ordered the nutty taco). The clientele is an interesting mix of trail bikers and hikers, regular suburbanites and your more crunchy granola types (including an aging Volvo covered in liberal bumper stickers, as well as the amusing "In my world, you don't exist"). Sunflower has also won numerous consumer-voted awards, including "best vegetarian food" from CitySearch in 2004 and 2005. If you find yourself in Fair Oaks, it's definitely worth a trip.

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