“Super-Soy Me” for Pasadena Weekly

Orean’s Health Express proves fast natural food is good—and good for you.

February 2009

Surrounded on its corner of North Lake Avenue by a McDonald’s, a KFC and a Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, Orean’s Health Express is more than simply an alternative drive-thru for the health-conscious—for some, it’s a way of life. 

Vegetarian is perhaps one of the words least often linked with fast food, but even carnivores have become believers. Named after founder Orean Thomas, the original Orean’s started on Hollywood and Vine and had a location in Santa Monica and one in Beverly Hills before Thomas downsized to the one Pasadena location to spend more time with his daughters, who were young at the time.

Surprisingly, the landscape of fast food hasn’t changed much since Orean’s began in 1979, even though vegetarianism has become more socially fashionable.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s and even the ‘80s, being a vegetarian was almost like being a communist or, even worse, a chiropractor,” jokes Thomas, who became a vegetarian over 40 years ago, after taking a part-time job butchering meat at an East LA deli.

“You would be amazed at the amount of chemicals and antibiotics that were in the meat at the time, and it’s gotten progressively worse since then,” says Thomas, who once attended a lecture at LA City College by Upton Sinclair, author of stockyard expose, “The Jungle”, founder of the ACLU of California, unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and onetime Pasadena resident. 

The menu at Orean’s Health Express offers some typical fast-food selections such as burgers, fries, burritos and shakes, but it substitutes soy protein for meat and dairy products. Tasting some of the top sellers—the chicken burger, Philly cheese steak or the hot-o-dog—makes it clear that the taste has not been replaced by anything inferior. In fact, you may suspect there is still meat in there somewhere.

Even the “air fries” are tasty while being a healthier alternative to other fast-food fries.

“We have a machine we put the fries in—it’s like a hot air convection oven that cooks the fries with hot air,” says Thomas. “You get an eighth of the oil you’d get at McDonald’s.”

This fast food usually takes a little longer to prepare. “At most other places it is under heat lamps and cooked before you get there,” says Thomas. “We prepare all our food to order. We don’t even have a heat lamp or microwave.”

In this case the adage, “Good things come to those who wait,” is especially true. A large fast food chain may get food to customers at lightning speed, but with what consequences to their health?

Another value—especially in this economy—is price, though Thomas says he may have to raise some of his prices due to rising food costs. “My prime venture is to make sure it’s healthy but I have to be aware of costs,” says Thomas. “People want things but they don’t want to pay for them.”

But another cliché, “You get what you pay for” is also true here—the negative practices and effects of fast food have been well documented, as in the film “Supersize Me” and the book and film “Fast Food Nation”.

As for vegetarianism’s effect on Thomas personally, he says, “My endurance and general health are great and I sleep well.”

But Thomas also stresses that diet alone won’t guarantee good health. “A lot of us don’t exercise anymore, says Thomas. “We are behind a desk and snacking on Pepsi or Coca-Cola or popcorn heavily laden with butter, oil and fat. It’s important to exercise and have some sort of meditation to relax and get sleep.”

Some fast-food chains have added vegetarian or seemingly healthier items to their menus in recent years, though a glance at McDonald’s nutrition facts shows some salads containing as much as 20 grams of fat and a 32-ounce chocolate triple thick shake tops out at 1,160 calories, sending a mixed message about concern for customers’ health.

While fast-food giants try to be trendy and offer healthier selections, Orean’s Health Express stands out not only for it’s all-vegetarian menu, but also because Thomas has shown decades of faith in his food by maintaining the conscientious meat-free lifestyle he promotes. His single fast food restaurant is a beacon of health in the dim world of high-calorie and chemical-rich mystery meat. Others, we can hope, will join the revolution. 

Orean’s Health Express is at 817 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 794-0861 or check out Orean’s menu and some of his health philosophies at oreanshealthexpress.com.

 

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