By Soll Sussman
Photography by Andy Sams
The winding cafeteria line at Mr. Natural—the beloved longtime vegetarian and health-conscious restaurant and bakery on Cesar Chavez in East Austin—may be its most distinguishing feature. At $7.25 for lunch or $8.65 for dinner, the popular daily special includes one salad, one main dish and two sides. But please notice the sign that reads “NO SUBSTITUTIONS.”
“We had to build that system,” explains Jesus Mendoza, owner of Mr. Natural along with his wife, Luisa.
“We had to organize about the main courses, because everybody was asking for the main courses. You can have only one of this, because everyone wanted to try everything, you know, at once.”
On any given day, the main dish might be zucchini poblano, veggie fajitas or mole enchiladas, while the sides could be brown rice, black beans, refried pinto beans or spicy potatoes with tomatoes, onion and jalapeño. Aguas frescas (fruit or vegetable punches) of spinach-pineapple or watermelon and the traditional horchata (flavored rice milk) are readily available, and the bakery case features everything from gingerbread people to orange-cranberry and blueberry breads.
The Mendozas moved to Texas after helping to open a similar bakery and store in Monterrey, Mexico. They brought with them a dedication to offering healthier meal alternatives, a goal to spread the word that vegetarian food could be diverse as well as tasty and a holistic, spiritual approach to health and well-being. The choice of Austin as their new home was made, in part, as a metaphor. “We were thinking that Austin is the capital of Texas,” says Jesus. “And I thought, if we’re at the ‘head,’ then our message could be spread to the ‘body.’ We also knew that it was easier here—people were more educated, more prepared for [ideas about holistic health and food] than in San Antonio or Houston, or even Dallas.”
Once in Austin, their mission began with a small bakery and health-food store in 1988. “We started serving food once a month—buffet, all you can eat, on Sundays,” Luisa says. “I remember that we had the key at the door, and at twelve o’clock we used to open the door until two—just two hours—and the line was already there. They would come with their plates—their own plates! We didn’t have plates, so we were using those Styrofoam containers. That’s when I started to be more aware of the ecology.”
Luisa remembers that the sight of those people patiently waiting with their own plates inspired her to one day announce, “‘Today, we are going to have a contest to see who has the most beautiful plate!’ Everybody laughed,” she says.
The Mendozas both grew up in Monterrey, where Jesus became interested in vegetarian options when he was 13. They found they had similar interests after they met, and married young—when Luisa was 19 and Jesus 22. That was a little more than 30 years ago.
They started in Monterrey but worked in many Mexican cities, including Mazatlán, Torreón, Saltillo, Mexico City and Guadalajara, which Jesus describes as “the mecca of vegetarianism in Mexico.” “We were working to educate the people,” Jesus says. “But then, in that era, it was hard for the people to find something that was recommended to them. We were saying you had to eat more natural, more soy, more vegetables.”
Luisa recalls the puzzled reactions they drew in some places. “People were asking, ‘How can we prepare all these things?’” says Jesus. “We were also teaching classes, and we were invited by some governments to teach.” “The wife of the governor of Aguascalientes [a state in central Mexico] was a vegetarian,” Luisa says. “She promoted this among the people, so they were teaching to the rural areas. That was back in 1980.”
The Mendozas teach to this day through regular participation in Hispanic community events and health fairs where the Red Cross takes blood and doctors offer checkups. They also regularly appear on television and radio. In fact, they started their own radio show about 20 years ago—always on a Spanish-language station and currently on 1600 AM and 102.7 FM four days a week.
“We talk about health issues and people can call with questions,” Luisa says. “We also have a TV show. It’s on every day.” Their son Jesus Jr. (age 26) often offers recipes on the TV program (El Mundo de Mr. Natural, on cable channel 14 and KADF 20) but the elder Jesus is quick to mention that the show is not only about cooking. “We teach yoga, natural medicine. We are teaching about values—moral values—and everything.”
“What supplements for energy, for memory, for the nervous system,” Luisa interjects with examples, and further explains that many holistic principles stem naturally from Mexican traditions, such as the use of herbal teas for treating many different conditions. “In Mexico, you go to any market and you find herbal mixtures. In that connection with our Hispanic public, there is a very deep root in our ways of being. We like to take care of health issues [by] drinking teas.” Indeed, one whole corner of the retail section of Mr. Natural contains bins with a wide variety of herbs and teas, from flor de magnolia to epazote to slippery elm bark. In addition, for years Luisa has offered iris readings to discover what the body might be lacking in nutrients, and how homeopathy or diet changes can address that.
Luisa mentions that the Food Network recently filmed a segment at Mr. Natural. “They wanted to know how vegetarian food becomes Mexican,” she says. But she was quick to point out that there’s a long tradition in Mexico of not relying on meat. “After all,” she says, “it was the Spanish conquistadors who introduced beef cattle to the New World in the 1500s.”
The Mendozas decided to locate Mr. Natural in a traditionally Hispanic section of East Austin for a simple reason. “I didn’t speak English at all,” says Luisa. “So in order to open a business, this was comfortable. It took time to blend into the layers, into this city.”
More recently, they opened their second Mr. Natural on South Lamar because, as Luisa puts it, they “were curious to see how this would work on the other side of [Interstate] 35.” And the focus as a family business has grown as well. In addition to Jesus Jr., 27-year-old Isabel and 22-year-old Alex also work with Mom and Dad.
The East Cesar Chavez location is currently expanding with the addition of a three-story building to include a larger, more comfortable yoga studio, and an updated café, bakery and homeopathic pharmacy. And a small, off-site garden helps supplement the food offered at the restaurant—explaining a recent focus on pear empanadas, for example.
In 2008, the Small Business Administration recognized the Mendozas’ efforts with an award. “We went to the White House. There was a reception, an award from the President of the United States,” Jesus says with pride. “It was just so amazing,” Luisa says, beaming.
Healthy living in mind, body and spirit may run through each section of Mr. Natural, but it all spins forward from the food. “It’s Mexican American,” Luisa says of their menu. “It’s like a transition for someone who wants to become vegetarian. Before, people would hear there were vegetarians and they might say, ‘oh, vegetarians . . . give them lettuce, tomatoes, carrots.’ I think not! We need taste.”
“You are what you eat, you know?” Jesus interjects. “There’s a saying in Mexico: If you want to be strong like the bull, then don’t eat the bull. Eat what the bull eats.