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Viva la Vegan!

Home-cooked vegetarian fare with gourmet flare



Vegans and vegetarians, rejoice. Even those of you who are only partial vegheads -- eating fish and chicken on occasion, but no red meat! -- should partake in celebration, too. Manitou Springs' Organic Earth Caf (formerly Spiritworld Caf) entered the dining scene at the beginning of summer, becoming not only the first vegetarian-only cafe in the area, but the first completely vegan cafe in the Pikes Peak region.

For those of you who may be new to the terminology, being a vegan means sticking to a plant-based diet and renouncing all animal byproducts. No eggs. No dairy. No leather.

If you've ever gone out to eat with -- or tried to cook for -- a vegan, you know that it's no easy task. But you can now take them to Organic Earth, which prepares flavorful, home-cooked vegan meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

In an old Victorian house along Fountain Creek on the west end of Manitou, the restaurant is essentially divided into three spaces. The Tea Room, dimly lit with soft orange-ish walls, consists of just a few tables, some reading materials and an old boxy radio/record player unit, circa 1950s. Farther in is the Cosmic Earth Room, a partNew Age and part-psychedelic space. Overlooking the garden, this room is bright and open during the day and transforms into a community jam or poetry reading space complete with glowing lava lamps at night.

The streamside garden dining area is where it's at, though. Shaded by large trees, filled with flowerbeds and small ponds, and lined with stone paths that lead to each table, it is like dining in a storybook garden. And by surrounding the garden with a vine-laden fence, they've done a good job of stifling street noise.

Good food accompanies the atmosphere. Though the menu is not huge, its choices are sufficient. For breakfast, try some homemade granola or organic cornflakes (these are no Kellogg's flakes), topped with organic fruits ($4.95). Add soy/rice milk if you'd like (though if you're new to this, be forewarned; no matter what your friends tell you, it is not at all like cow's milk).

My personal favorite is the hemp waffles, with real maple syrup and veggie butter ($4.95). Standards like tofu eggs, hash browns and toast are also available, as are a variety of organic juices ($1.95-$3.95), coffees, teas and espresso drinks ($1.65-$2.75).

Post breakfast, Organic Earth features a variety of soups, salads, appetizers, veggie burgers and sandwiches. Specials are prepared daily, as are the soups and desserts.

Appetizers ($3.95-$5.95), for the most part, are limited to blue corn chips, salsa, hummus or a combo of all three. The white bean hummus is outstanding. Creamy, garlicky and spiced to perfection, it's good for chip dipping and on sandwiches. Hopefully, appetizer selections will expand as the menu grows.

Sandwiches and veggie burgers ($6.95-$8.95) are the most plentiful on the menu and have playful Zen names. The Tao of Turkey is your basic turkey sandwich, save for the fact that it's veggie turkey (again, don't listen to your friends when they tell you it is just like the real thing). It comes with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, onions, mayo and mustard. The Inner Rich Boy (Poor Boy) is similar, only add soy-a-roni, veggie cheese and Kalamata olives. The Metaphysical Grinder takes the prize though. It's a combination of soy-a-roni, meatless meatballs and soy cheese, topped with a sweet and tangy tomato sauce, grilled onions and peppers. A salad and a pickle accompany all sandwiches and burgers.

There are usually only one or two daily specials per night ($8.95-$10.95), and they rotate. (Not surprisingly, good vegan recipes are hard to find, and they welcome any new recipes.) What I have tried thus far -- a black bean burger, vegan pasta with Alfredo sauce, and an eggplant dish -- were all good, though the pasta was a bit clumpy. The eggplant dish -- sauted with carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms and onions, served over barley rice -- was the table favorite. Portions are large and come with a colorful garden salad and choice of homemade dressings. The featured dressing the night we visited was a blueberry vinaigrette, quite tangy, with just a hint of sweet.

Organic Earth also has a full bar, including organic wines and liquors. For beer, they feature both local and imported microbrews.

Beyond providing excellent fare and education on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, Organic Earth also hopes to become a community center of sorts. They currently feature social activities seven nights a week, including movie nights, drum circles, open-mike poetry and what they call a universal jam (all styles of music welcome).

There is one final note worth mentioning. Organic Earth is a laid-back place. Food is prepared fresh, per order. While everyone working there is ultra-friendly, wanting to provide you with a good dining experience, it may take a bit longer than you're used to. If you tend to be uptight or impatient, you may not have the intended Zen experience.

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