Wavy Vegetarian Gravy

Located in the historic Tustin Company Building since 1978, Rutabegorz has the groovy feel of a restaurant on Berkeley's Solano Street. Some of the loyal staff predate it; they started even earlier at the Fullerton location. Veteran server/ manager Sarah Dickerson won't reveal just how many years she and her friends have racked up at Ruta's, only that they began calling themselves Las Viejas long ago. Employee turnover is rare, according to Dickerson. Whether that's due to the kitchen conga lines, laid-back atmosphere or right-on vibe, such loyalty makes the place cozier for diehard customers.

I was reminded recently that I have begun to take the place for granted when I called for a takeout order. I had been sick.

“I'm going to need a lot of soup,” I sniffled.

“We're all out of all of the soups,” Dickerson deadpanned, seeming to sense desperation in my voice.

A soupless Ruta's: the mere thought produced goose bumps on my already clammy skin. Thankfully, she was only joking.

I fantasized about having someone roll me down Main Street in my bed—Monkees-style—so I could wallow in my decrepitude on Ruta's patio until some kindly waitress took pity and served me potato-cheese soup while I nestled in my PJs with the covers drawn to my chin. I imagined convalescing peacefully there, in the breeze generated by the hand-painted rutabaga-themed ceiling fans, regaining strength with each bite of carrot cake.

But my bed doesn't have wheels, so I picked up the order, smiled feebly, and carted it home with the happy assurance of someone possessing four days' worth of health-restoring tonics.

I started with the potato-cheese soup, an alternately smooth and chunky pottage glittering with Cheddar and abundantly flecked with aromatic dill. Delicious. The chicken-vegetable is Ruta's best-selling consommé, a vigor-imparting broth full of fresh broccoli, rice and bits of white-meat bird. I much prefer the Italian chicken, though, a tomato-based wonder loaded with crispy homemade croutons and topped with Parmesan cheese. The white-bean-with-ham, a deeply flavored purée, is hearty. I felt better already.

Ruta's is also known for massive salads packed with all manner of succulent tidbits. But caution: most of these are built for two. The garlic-chicken salad—still big but smaller than most—is my favorite. With its ideal proportions of white-meat garlicky chicken, mixed greens, avocado, crunchy Chinese noodles and caramelized walnuts all topped with a balsamic vinaigrette, it's irresistible.

Seventies nostalgia rules at Ruta's, where such things as fondue and crepes are big sellers. The chicken version of the latter is a clumsy pile of white meat with nary a crepe in sight. I prefer the spinach crepes, delicate egg-based wrappers filled with freshly sautéed leafy greens in silky cheese filling. And I'll take the curative eats at Ruta's over the doctor's office any day.

Rutabegorz, located at 158 W. Main St., Tustin, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 731-9807. Dinner for two, $18, food only. Beer, wine and some mixed drinks. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted. Also in Fullerton, (714) 871-1632.

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