Not Your Typical American Cafe

By Gwen Ashley Walters | December 15, 2011
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retro cafe sign
Photo by RIRF Stock

Think of a classic American cafe and you might conjure up visions of a small-town diner with a creaky screen door, stools far too short for the worn Formica counter, and tattered Naugahyde booths.

Twangy jukebox tunes and apronclad waitresses who call you "Sugar" are just as ubiquitous as the hefty platters of runny eggs and hash browns and fat-dripping burgers that populate the plastic-covered menus.

Add a diacritical mark to cafe– café–and something happens. The imagery is elevated from roadside diner to something more sophisticated, something closer to the origins of the café, a French coffeehouse serving exquisite pastries.

There is a new modern American café emerging, and it couldn't be further from the typical greasy spoon. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a greasy anything within its contemporary confines. But it isn't quite the European coffeehouse either.

Redefining the concept with a bent toward healthy eats, these new cafés are catering to a largely vegetarian clientele concerned about where their food comes from, and capturing a slice of committed meat lovers looking to add healthy vittles to their steady diet of saturated fat.

Here is a look at three modern Valley cafés and how each came to the conclusion that the new American café is less about food-as-fuel and more about food-as-nourishment.

Two are vegetarian restaurants with heavy vegan slants. One focuses on gluten-free dishes as a result of customer requests. All three offer delicious, healthy fare and none of them comes across as preachy or judgmental in their quest to provide goodfor- the-body cuisine.

24 Carrots

Sadhana "Sasha" Raj opened 24 Carrots as a juice bar out of sheer frustration. She was working at a national franchise juice bar chain and felt constrained by corporate mandates of what she could and couldn't share with customers who were asking questions about the ingredients in the smoothies.

"I think any company has a purpose in society. They have a right to offer what they want, and people have a right to eat it, but you have to be honest with your customers, and that's what bothered me," she says. "I couldn't."

With a background in biochemistry, Raj knew that the smoothies she was serving weren't as healthy as they appeared to be. So in May 2008, Raj opened 24 Carrots, serving a handful of real fruit smoothies and juice blends. She gave them whimsical names, like "Berry Me Alive" and "Field of Greens."

Spotting fresh vegetables and fruit behind the counter, customers began asking Raj to make salads for them, and before long she was serving food in addition to beverages. She added soups, starting with a big pot of vegan chili. Granola and breakfast items weren't far behind.

"We didn't even realize that we were a restaurant until about a year ago," Raj laughs. The juice bar morphed into a vegetarian/vegan restaurant organically without a plan. There is no full-fledged kitchen. A lone rice cooker and an oven that cranks out vegan baked goods and granola were the only cooking equipment in the tiny, open kitchen until the recent addition of a single induction burner.

Vegan options dominate the menu, such as vegan eggs benedict, with tofu "eggs," sprouted kamut toast, avocado, vegan "bacon" and even a vegan aioli, made with silken tofu, mustard, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. For lunch, 24 Carrots creates a daily vegan burger. It might be eggplant or a falafel burger with confit (slow-cooked) tomatoes and vegan basil aioli.

There is a regular menu but also daily specials. Raj and her staff shop farmers' markets and even participate in a CSA. They don't always know what's coming, so creating daily specials is a way to use up unexpected ingredients.

How they come up with dishes is unusual, too. "We'll go gluten-free for three weeks or vegan for six months to be able to empathize with our customers. We get an idea of what we miss in our diet and what we crave, and that makes us better able to cook for those customers," she says.

"Our job is to cook great food, create happy bellies and happy hearts," she says, "and when customers come back, that's the best compliment anyone can pay us."

Pomegranate Café

Mother and daughter Marlene and Cassie Tolman dreamed of opening up a café for years before they actually did. Both women trained in the culinary arts: Marlene is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu's Patisserie and Baking program and Cassie is a graduate of the vegetarian Natural Gourmet Cookery School (now called the Natural Gourmet Institute) in New York City.

In February 2010, the duo opened Pomegranate Café with an all-vegetarian and vegan menu. "We chose the name Pomegranate because it has so many meanings for us. Pomegranates are high in nutritional value. They're beautiful, delicious and grow here in Arizona. All kinds of signs were pointing us to the name Pomegranate," Marlene says.

Pomegranate serves a variety of smoothies and juice blends, too, and many customers stop by for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon boost. "Our Island Green smoothie is amazing because it doesn't have that green taste," Marlene says, "but we sneak in green through kale. It's rich and filling, with a tropical taste."

How does Marlene work her indulgent baking background into this healthy menu? "It's been a journey," she laughs. "About three months before we opened, Cassie said 'Oh,Mom, I want all the pastries to be vegan,' and I thought, 'OK, but I want all the pastries to be delicious.'"

Marlene comes from a long line of healthy eaters. She says her mother, who is 90 years old and still teaches ballet, is the original health nut. Marlene took Cassie's challenge of vegan sweets and discovered she could make the pastries not only wholesome but also delicious.

The cowgirl cookie is proof. It's chock-full of oats, walnuts and raisins with a few dark chocolate chunks thrown in. "We start with spelt flour for all our pastries because it is higher in protein and easier to digest than wheat flour," she says.

The cupcakes, scones and cookies alone are worth the trip, but Pomegranate shines at brunch and lunch (and now dinner), too, with a can-this-really-be-healthy, decadent whole-grain French toast with fresh berries and toasted pepitas, and a grilled cheese (vegan or cheddar) baguette stuffed with sautéed local vegetables.

"Pomegranate is about celebrating food and giving people a healthy choice," Marlene says. "It's extremely rewarding when our customers come back and say how much better they feel after eating our food."

Tryst Café

Sami and Lisa Khnanisho didn't originally plan to open a cafe focused on healthy eats when they signed the lease for the north Phoenix spot. The Khnanishos are the owners of Mama Gina's in Glendale and Sami's Gyros in Tempe and, at first, plans were to put another Sami's in the strip center next to Humble Pie in the Desert Ridge area.

After signing the lease and getting to know the area, "We realized it wasn't right for Sami's," Lisa says. "There weren't a lot of great breakfast places nearby and we noticed the clientele was young, hip and health conscious, so we blended the two concepts of breakfast and health and developed Tryst Café."

They also didn't plan on focusing on a gluten-free menu, but customers began asking for gluten-free options. Not all, but a good portion of the lunch and dinner menus can be made gluten-free, and about half of the breakfast fare is glutenfree.

The Khnanishos also assembled a mostly organic bar, from beer to wine to tequila. Soon an organic Scotch will be added to the libations. Some of the produce is organic and some is even local, but Lisa says all of their produce is from the United States.

The menu changes seasonally, roughly four times a year, but some dishes are permanent fixtures, such as the lip-smacking Hawaiian breakfast featuring a bowl of sautéed cabbage, jasmine rice and slow-roasted kalua pork, topped with two fried eggs. Leave off the soy syrup drizzle and it's gluten-free.

Lunch includes fresh salads, sandwiches and burgers such as the outrageous turkey burger served with melted Brie cheese and strawberry jam on a tender brioche roll with a side of sweet potato tots.

Dinner options include stuffed beef tenderloin with spinach, roasted pepper, mozzarella and mushrooms and a crisp Asian beef salad with Napa cabbage, bok choy, baby corn and water chestnuts. Some desserts are gluten-free, too, such as crème brûlée or a gluten-free cinnamon roll, but the full-on gluten bread pudding is simply outrageous.

"People really appreciate having a healthy option and we have our customers to thank for sharing and helping us deliver exactly what they want," Lisa says. "Gluten-free has really become a big component of our café."

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1701 E Guadalpe Rd
Tempe, AZ 85283

Find it

4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Ste. 28
Phoenix, AZ 85048

Find it

21050 N Tatum Blvd #108
Phoenix, AZ 85050
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