Casa de Luz Is Austin’s Health Food Heaven
The organic, vegan meals at this classic Austin wellness center nourish body and soul
By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
It’d been 20 years since I’d stepped foot in Casa de Luz. And after all this time, I wondered how much had changed. Not much, I happily discovered. It was still the hippie health food haven I remembered from long ago.
With so much of vintage Austin vanishing, Casa de Luz has stayed the course. Since 1991, this woo-woo wellness institution has been feeding Austin’s bohemian body and soul. And although it’s been three decades, Austin natives and newcomers alike are still discovering this Zen-like sanctuary for the first time.
There’s nothing else quite like it in Austin. To be clear, Casa de Luz is not a restaurant in the traditional sense. Instead, its dining room is part of a nonprofit community center that includes classes in yoga, meditation and healthy lifestyle education. Open to the public, the dining room is just one component of Casa’s offerings, yet undoubtedly its most popular.
Serving hundreds of organic, vegan meals per day, Casa de Luz was founded on macrobiotic principles that eschew dairy, oils, nightshades and meat. Ironically, it’s housed in a former meatpacking plant. And although it’s just a stone’s throw from the chaotic intersection of Lamar and Barton Springs, it remains an oasis of calm and tranquility. The discreet compound, along the edge of Zilker Park and Lady Bird Lake, is lined with shaded pathways and gardens, gurgling fountains and tinkling wind chimes. It remains sheltered from the downtown bustle and is surrounded by nature that is now surrounded by soaring new high-rises and paved parking lots.
The homey dining room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals are a set menu at a fixed price, served cafeteria-style and eaten at communal tables, thus fostering a shared, collective experience. The open kitchen is manned by a personable staff and volunteers who prepare the plant-based, whole-food meals. I’m no expert on the complex principles of macrobiotics, but I do know that the food looks beautiful, tastes delicious and that there’s plenty of it. Servings are so generous that some savvy regulars know to bring their own containers for leftovers. For those with smaller appetites, there’s a soup-and-salad option at a modified price, plus discounts for the kids.
The menu and portions are fixed, with lunch and dinner always served with a salad, soup and main dish. Whatever produce is fresh and preferably local is reflected in each meal’s seasonal, rotating dishes. For lunch one chilly winter day, we began with a warm, comforting bowl of silky kabocha-squash-and-coconut soup, followed by a salad of arugula, romaine and red leaf lettuces, tossed in a toothsome almond-and-basil dressing.
Next came the main entrée, a large plate loaded with an assortment of tasty, healthy items, including stewed red beans sprinkled with herbaceous cilantro and a medley of steamed broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, yellow squash and onions. There was also a hefty scoop of cooked millet, an ancient grain that looks like couscous or quinoa but has the fluffy texture of mashed potatoes or steamed rice when cooked. It was topped with a velvety, vibrant green sauce and crunchy seeds. My favorite item was a combo of tender blanched kale and collard greens topped with a flavorful creamy pecan-and-dill sauce. For a pop of color (and to aid in digestion), pink pickled radishes adorned the plate. Desserts cost extra but look tempting and include homemade pies, fruit cobbler, cookies, flan and pudding.
Like lunch and dinner, breakfast is a hearty affair that includes soup, dark leafy greens with nuts and seeds, mixed vegetables and beans. It also includes homemade tortillas (for DIY breakfast tacos, natch) and porridge served with granola and raisins. All meals include a variety of exotic hot and cold teas, plus fluoride-filtered, vortex-activated water (whatever that is, but I think it’s good for me). Every item, including the drinks, is labeled with nutritional info, making every meal a learning opportunity.
Casa de Luz is a nonprofit wellness retreat that just happens to serve great food. Every time I pass through its welcoming doors and enjoy a meal, it nourishes my stomach and my spirit. I must remember to return more often.