Veggie in the Box

Photo by Tenaya HillsIt's about 9:45 on a muggy Monday morning when a chubby guy pulls up a stool inside Esther's Place and notices that no one is manning the service counter. He hands out business cards—he's a masseur, it says—and asks Nydia and me, “Is this place open?” We shake our heads no and tell him the cook comes in after 10.

“I'm in a hurry,” the masseur replies. “Maybe I'll just go to Jack in the Box.”

Nydia grimaces. “Why corrupt your body with that processed filth?”

“If Esther heard you,” I tell the guy, “she'd be insulted.”

The masseur is intrigued. He tells us he entered the Huntington Beach health-food store Natural Health Tonic with the intent of promoting his business, then noticed Esther's Place. It's more a counter with three high-rise chairs located inside Natural Health Tonic than an actual “place.” Its menu of whole-grain sandwiches, veggie-only soups and nutrient-enhanced shakes impresses the health maven. But more interesting is that we've arrived half an hour early to buy sandwiches. Sandwiches! And we're so defensive about this Esther! The masseur looks at his watch; he has time to see what all the fuss is about.

Esther Kim arrives a bit after 10 a.m. wearing stylish high heels and a skirt she probably purchased on South Coast Plaza's fifth floor. The masseur leers. “Esther dresses elegantly every day, though all she does is prepare soup and sandwiches,” whispers Nydia. “Today, she's actually dressed down.”

Nydia—who has been coming here ever since Esther's Place opened six years ago—explains that Esther came from South Korea during the late 1970s to study nursing. “But she loved interacting with people, so she decided to enter the restaurant business. She combines her caretaker skills and food expertise and applies it to her work here. Just watch.”

Esther plops her purse on the floor. “Good morning, Nydia! Welcome back, Gustavo!” she cheerily greets us. Wow, I think—she remembers me. Nydia said Esther meets you but once and remembers you forever.

Re-introductions out of the way, we order. I had the grilled-chicken sandwich last time and found it rewarding: the chicken was juicy, lightly grilled, and brushed with smears of mustard and mayo. Today, I ask for the veggie delight.

Esther click-clacks across the kitchen tile, pulling from various containers sprouts, red cabbage bits, julienned carrots and tomatoes. She douses everything with vinaigrette and places the multilayered roughage onto two slices of bread. The sandwich looks like an overextended accordion by the time Esther hands it to me; I soon deflate it.

Nydia requests the same entrée all the time—a fabulous tuna-salad sandwich that's not at all pungent. But she's a bigger fan of Esther's soup of the day that accompanies every sandwich. On Wednesdays, Esther makes a split pea soup that could launch a canned empire. Today's Monday, though, so Esther cooks up a tomato pasta soup for Nydia. “Hearty” may be a cliché, but it's the word Nydia thinks best describes the broth.

“And what will you be having?” Esther asks the masseur. But before he can respond, Esther answers, “You're going to get the slim pockets!”

“She knows which sandwich suits you,” offers Nydia.

The newbie submits. He bites into the slim pockets, a half-pita bread stuffed with lettuce, sprouts and tofu slices brushed with a punchy soy-lemon sauce. Loud smacks assure everyone it's superb. He washes the bulk down with a shake—frosty with mushed ice and sweetened by banana, papaya and honey.

Everyone is content. Friendships blossom. Then I open my yap. “You know, Esther, he wasn't going to wait for you. He was going to go to Jack in the Box.”

Esther's smile drops, her pupils shrink, and she assumes a resentful posture. “You shouldn't eat there,” she sweetly scowls. “It's not healthy.”

“I know, I know,” the masseur apologizes. His face is pale. “I'll never eat there again.”

But then Esther beams. “What you need is another slim pocket!”

Nydia tells Esther to put the masseur's bill on her tab. He thanks everyone and leaves.

“He didn't say his name!” Nydia exclaims.

“Don't worry,” Esther reassures her. “I'll remember him.”

Esther's Place, inside Natural Tonic Center, 6789 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 841-4266. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. No alcohol. Lunch for two, $15, including drink. Cash only.

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