Food makes you feel better, right? Hence the term “comfort food.” But can food actually make you better? As in, physically well? As in, heal you of ailments and prevent major ones?
Chef Elizabeth Johnson, founder and a crusader of sorts for the healthiest kind of eating, says yes. She’s created one of San Antonio’s most innovative eateries and meal-planning services: Pharm Table, an organic restaurant that takes its motto, “Food as Medicine,” seriously.
If you wander into this cozy eatery, which stands at 106 Auditorium Cir. in the shadow of the Tobin Center downtown, you’ll have to study the menu. A shot of tumeric to start? Broccoli Spirulina Soup or a bowl of Curried Winter Katchari for your main?
The colorful, creative, plant-based dishes are designed based on research from Harvard School of Public Health, National Geographic Blue Zones, the Ayurveda practices of India, Chinese traditions, and other anti-inflammatory diets. The menu is built on foods that fight inflammation in the human body, the source, says Johnson, of many diseases.
Johnson says there’s really no other restaurant like hers in Texas — not even in Austin, from whence many of her loyal customers come, begging her to move her operation closer to them. There’s not even an explicit “anti-inflammatory” restaurant that Johnson knows of in culinary capitals like New York City or Los Angeles. At least not one like hers, which seeks to match customer body and digestive types with slates of ingredients that can cleanse and heal its patrons.
“I don’t know of another one that uses traditional, natural anti-inflammatory diets that are 2,000 to 3,000 years old, that only uses local produce, that only uses seasonal produce, that only uses cooking techniques that extract the natural goodness of food, and that serves food that’s good for everybody,” she says.
What you’ll eat at Pharm Table
Nothing on the menu includes wheat, dairy, sugar, or processed foods, and rather than cooking with olive oil, often considered one of the healthiest oils, her restaurant extracts oils from nuts and seeds. But Pharm Table isn’t vegan. You can add chicken or fish to many of the dishes. And it doesn’t even serve all the traditional “health foods” you might expect, such as tofu. “It’s processed,” Johnson explains.
Here’s what you can try: The Ayurveda Meal Starter consists of house pickled ginger marinated in lemon juice, turmeric, raw local honey, Himalayan salt, and fresh herbs. It’s described on the menu as hitting “all six flavors in the Ayurvedic flavor wheel” and a way to “jump start your digestion.” Or, you might sip a flight of four anti-inflammatory shots, including ginger — which is wonderful for digestion — and spirulina, high in B12 and protein. Follow that with a Macrobiotic Bowl, Asian black beans, pumpkin escabeche, radishes, beet noodles, pepitas and sprouted sunflower seeds, or winter greens.
If these dishes sound a little foreign to your Texas taste buds, just try them consistently and see how you feel later. Some people come back the next day because they feel better almost immediately.
Staying in San Antonio
Resistant to calls that would coax her culinary skills elsewhere, Johnson happily promotes her philosophy right here in the Alamo City. “I believe San Antonio desperately needs this concept because of our rates of diabetes and obesity and cancer,” Johnson says. The former Latin Food Specialist at the Culinary Institute of America here in San Antonio, she opened the restaurant first as a meal planning service in 2014. She had done research and become convinced of food’s medicinal qualities from her personal practice of Ayurveda and ancient dietary practices.
The restaurant won’t diagnose you. (Diners can take a survey here to learn their eating profile and the kinds of foods that could benefit them.) Pharm Table will, however, lead on you a three- to 14-day cleanse, offering meal planning and guidance as you go. “You get personalized teas and spices, for example,” Johnson says, adding you can be coached by an associated Ayurveda specialist. Pharm Table can even pair you with an Ayurveda specialist if you want to explore the lifestyle more fully or help you take advantage of monthly meal plans.
“A lot of people come here for preventative reasons,” Johnson says. “Our food system has become poisoned by chemicals and herbicides,” she says. “Sometimes you’re exposed to it just by being in the environment.”
Johnson says her joy is helping people find what works for them. She’s gotten media attention as a sought-after source for the New York Times and other publications. “All of the press is good and validating, but no recognition compares to when one person comes in and tells me they haven’t felt this good in years,” she says.
The community who work at Pharm Table share Johnson’s philosophy. “All of the rules we follow when we cook the food, we follow when we eat the food,” she says. Rules like no ice or carbonated beverages with your meal, for instance. Or, consume healthy foods the correct ways.”
For example, the Korean condiment Kimchi should be eaten in small tastes, though Johnson sees people eat way too much of it in one sitting. And don’t down an entire bottle of kombucha, the fermented drink that can help cleanse your gut. Johnson says it’s meant to be sipped in small doses.
Hmmm. Just like medicine.