Carrot Express: Wholesome Food (And a Car Wash?)

"Eat hummus and get gas" might be an appropriate marketing slogan for Carrot Express, a health food counter located in the Texaco station at Alton Road and 18th Street in South Beach. Or maybe not. Some might misinterpret this as a reference to the gastro-intestinal effects of garbanzo beans, as opposed to the notion of filling your car with fuel while enjoying a nutritious snack.

"Cleanse yourself with wheat grass while your car gets washed" could be an alternative motto. Some patrons seem to enjoy sitting at the Carrot Express counter and sipping a "power shot," fresh-squeezed fruit or vegetable juice, or a tropical fruit smoothie while their automobile goes through the car wash just outside the door.

"Tasty salads, sandwiches, spinach pies, and fruit juices from the same folks who brought you Gourmet Carrot" is definitely the most accurate way of putting things, even if it doesn't quite roll off the lips like poetry. Gourmet Carrot's own tagline "Serving wholesome food since 1994," isn't bad either, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Mario Laufer, who operates Carrot Express with his parents Manuel and Sara, does tell the whole story behind this new venture. It begins on New Year's Eve, 2012.

The Gourmet Carrot on West Avenue had been sold ("the recipes, but not the name"), and Mario was "doing nothing" at the time. He had worked in three different restaurants, "But it wasn't for me." So he goes to this New Year's Eve party, "and my cousin was there with her husband, who owns the Texaco station. He told me about the idea of setting something up in a station. I met him here the next day, and he wanted to show me this other gas station he had in mind. But this is my neighborhood, I've got four kids, I didn't want to travel far. I looked around -- they used to have couches back here -- and I said 'This is it for me.' He says 'Fine.' That started my 2012 incredibly."

Mario, Manuel and Sara work behind the counter together. Mario was born in Cuba, but his family moved to New York when he was four years old; they moved to Miami in 1971, when he was 12. That was also the age when Mario became a vegetarian. "I had cut a chicken's head off, and that was it. I eat fish, but haven't eaten chicken or meat for 40 some odd years."

Which, finally, brings us to the tasty and nutritious offerings at Carrot Express. There are nine sandwich selections served on whole wheat pita bread or as a wrap: Tuna salad, chicken salad, baked organic tofu, avocado, hummus, mixed veggies, veggies and feta cheese, 98% fat-free turkey breast, and a veggie burger ($4.50 to $6.99). We sampled the veggie burger, plunked into pita with romaine lettuce, red cabbage, bean sprouts, alfalfa, tomato, cucumber, and choice of dressing -- we went with carrot-ginger, which is addictively good and turned a tasty veggie burger into a very tasty veggie burger.

The other sandwich option is a bit more unique due to the "bread" used being a whole wheat spinach pie. Choice of topping (hummus, avocado, chicken salad and so forth) is then placed within the halved pie, which has cheese melted upon it, and voila! -- you've got a sandwich ($3.75 to $6.50). We tried the tuna salad melt, which was freshly made and surprisingly satisfying when paired with the spinach.

We enjoyed a strawberry smoothie with fresh-squeezed apple juice, banana, honey and ice, but in retrospect should have gone with Julie's Smoothie, named after Mario's 6-year old daughter. His other daughter, Jessica, had a burger named after her at the old Gourmet Carrot ("Jessica's Favorite"), and Julie "never forgot"; she wanted something named after her, and came up with the smoothie idea herself. Smoothies, and fresh-squeezed juices, are $3.50 each.

The gas station aspect of Carrot Express makes it distinctive, but it's the family aspect that makes it special. Manuel and Sara now have 11 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren, and conversation about the business always drifts back to family life. For instance: The outlandishly delicious slice of freshly baked coconut cake with guava glaze (vegan and kosher, as are other items; $3.25) -- alone worth the trip here -- is made by Sara.

"My mom makes the cakes here," Mario says with obvious pride (he also pulls out photos of his wife and kids). "That's all we ever had growing up. That same base (coconut), but without the toppings. Now she makes toppings with banana liqueur, using those small bananas and she flambes them. Incredible. She also used to make great soups, but we don't have the exhaust hood here to make them."

Carrot Express is currently open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- which is when the car was closes. "His customers are thrilled," Mario says of the car wash owner. "They come for a car wash and lunch. He's happy about that."

Everyone should be happy about Gourmet Carrot coming back as Carrot Express, especially those looking for a wholesome meal at a good price.

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