Cafe Verde rules for yummy and healthy 'slow food fast'
Photo | Kim Bayer
A map of where Ann Arbor eats would show the State Street area as budget-conscious student land and Main Street with the boutique high-end places for out-of-towners, power-lunchers and high rollers. But Fourth Avenue would be one location to see townies in their natural habitat — at the Farmers Market, Kerrytown Shops, and the People's Food Co-op.
One place on Fourth Avenue that a core group of residents holds dear is the Co-op's Cafe Verde. With perhaps the best soup and salad bar around, a hot bar, bakery, and a wall of made-from-scratch "grab and go" options, Cafe Verde rules for yummy, healthy and socially conscious "slow food fast."
Once the epicenter of hardcore lefties of the People's Republic of Ann Arbor, Cafe Verde (owned and run by the People's Food Co-op) is an increasingly mainstream destination. Walk into the long narrow space bathed in natural light and suddenly you're immersed in a colorful hubbub of parents with young children, older people in running garb, along with the frequently inked and pierced college-age food cognoscenti at their laptops, and lately office workers in business casual stepping in for lunch or coffee.
Signs denoting "local" and "organic," the large mural proclaiming "Community," and their Producer Profiles describing the local farmers and artisans they work with are among the only clues to the triple bottom line cooperative principles to which the Co-op and Cafe Verde adhere. Interim General Manager Kevin Sharp explains that the Co-op runs Cafe Verde "as a community meeting space" and also as "the only 100 percent Fair Trade coffee shop in town."
As a part of the Co-op, Cafe Verde may also be the only restaurant in town hewing to an "Ends Policy." This policy defines all aspects of its mission, such as "health and well-being for Members and the community for a cost justified by the results," and the directive to "give preference to local production, organic practices and certified Fair Trade (in that order) for a cost consistent with achieving earnings." Over the past few years they seem to have renewed and expanded the commitment to sourcing from local farms, and now with a new kitchen and bakery manager, the place feels especially energized.
216 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor, MI
- Hours: Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
- Plastic: Mastercard, Visa
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive. Soup is $3.99 for a big bowl. Hot bar and salad bar is $7.99 a pound
- Noise level: Sometimes loud
- Wheelchair access:Yes
Regarding their local sourcing, Cafe Verde Prepared Foods Manager Heather Stein says farmers often show up at the back door with a bushel of kale or flats of blueberries —whatever is in season.
"We have people pull up in back with a pickup truck all the time. Amish farmers come with their kids. They don't have phones so they just show up — we don't know when they're coming. We know almost all of the farmers, and we can usually accommodate anything people bring us. If you're a new farmer, there's a little we want to know first before we buy from you. But we have such great relationships, and they know if they have an abundance of something they can bring it to us."
That freshness is one reason I've always loved Cafe Verde's cornucopian spread of salad by the pound. The salad bar has many organic options, super-fresh greens and an impressive array of choices for your custom salad creation. That includes things like: cherry tomatoes, marinated tofu, green peas, chickpeas, beets, broccoli, green onion, feta, red and yellow peppers, spinach, shredded carrot, cauliflower, croutons, pita chips, sunflower seeds, and (whew!) olives. The salad bar also includes tasty prepared sides like marinated kidney bean salad, balsamic lentils, and potato salad.
At $7.99 a pound, Cafe Verde's salad bar is not only fresh and delicious, it's also one of the most reasonably priced in town. Since it adds an additional 24 ounces or so, just be sure to weigh your plate first.
Also in the "great deal" category are the cafe's homemade soups, with three choices made from scratch every day. Always one with chicken (e.g., chicken and barley or chicken and farfalle), one vegetarian (like corn chowder or minestrone), and one seasonal (which in summer means cold soup like chilled carrot orange or borscht).
A big hearty bowl of soup is $3.99 (with many to-go sizes as well) and comes with bread and butter if you'd like. I love to come in the winter for a steaming hot bowl of chicken soup — the big chunks of chicken, carrot, onions and celery in homemade broth is the perfect respite on a frosty, hectic day. They could add a little more salt, but I appreciate that the actual flavor of the ingredients doesn't need to hide behind a wall of salt.
Public-minded placards label items on the salad bar and the hot bar to tell you what you're getting. They list the ingredients (many of which are organic), and any common allergens. Also above the salad bar are the "greenest" to-go containers in town, their all-compostable clamshells and cartons, along with stainless steel tiffins.
Because of Cafe Verde's new prepared foods manager and now a head baker (Keegan Rodgers) on staff, I had heard they were really working on kicking things up a notch in the ready-to-eat department. So I was especially interested in trying out their hot bar and baked goods in particular.
While soup and salad is offered every day from 9 a.m.-9 p.m., the hot bar's hours are a bit more limited - Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., and for brunch on weekends from 9 a.m -2 p.m. One nice thing they do is post their monthly menu so you can see when to go for chicken (or eggplant) with white wine asparagus, or spaghetti bolognese, or for buttermilk pancakes and huevos rancheros.
When we went on a recent Saturday, we found that many options on the hot bar are really delicious. But some do suffer a bit in the way that any kind of cafeteria-style food does — it often doesn't stay hot gracefully. That said, I love their healthy options for hot food fast, and found that the simplest choices are often the best.
For example, the simple roasted chicken was absolutely delicious. I feared that, following the rule of cafeteria food, it would be rubbery and dessicated, but the half breast on my plate turned out to be tender, hot, and juicy with great chicken flavor. Likewise, the bright green organic kale with olive oil and sea salt was wonderfully full of unapologetic brassica flavor, color and texture. A side of kidney beans was similarly unembellished and yet had plenty of honest bean-y flavor and texture. Big chunks of home fried potatoes were nice too, just browned and lightly sprinkled with rosemary.
Things that didn't work quite as well were some of the dishes that would have preferred being served immediately. For example, in the chickpea crepes with mushrooms, the filling was savory with sauteed onion and portabellos. But the thick, tortilla-like crepe was leathery by the time I got it, likely because it was the last one in the pan. The spinach and red pepper scrambled eggs also suffered for having stayed too long in the pan — the egg had nice bits of spinach and red pepper, but the dish felt and tasted a little too much like a sponge.
I did enjoy the saucy tempeh stir-fry with pepper and onions, which had chewy strips of tempeh and crisp sweet peppers, and the hearty pasta with canellini beans with bits of tomato and zucchini mixed in with the tubetti and beans.
As for the baked goods department, we went a little crazy trying out an excellent array of cookies. Some favorites were the chocolate crackle cookie, soft and spicy with a hint of chipotle and cinnamon. Big chewy oatmeal cookies had nice chunks of dried fruit and nuts. Almond cranberry quinoa cookies with whole wheat, oats and almonds seemed healthy enough to eat for breakfast.
They also have choices for gluten-free and vegan folks, including sturdy gluten-free vegan maple date cookies, which were crisp and sandy with sweet spots of chewy date inside. The smaller vegan and gluten-free Sunbutter Greenies with an eye-catching emerald sheen on top were surprisingly unobjectionable. The tiny vegan chocolate chips in this are not as good as regular ones though. The vegan carrot raisin cookies were a bit overly moist on top, but had nice spicy flavor and golden raisins reminiscent of carrot cake.
From the deli case at the coffee bar, the actual carrot cake was everything that's good in this genre — brown spices in a moist (yet not too heavy) cake studded with walnuts and flecks of orange carrot, then layered with fluffy cream cheese icing. Really excellent. The lemon bar was also amazing with its light silky custard that delivered a mouth-punch of bright citrus flavor. The crust was perhaps not as crisp as I would hope, but the ethereal filling made me unwilling to quibble.
I'll have to leave the ups and downs of the many beverages available at the coffee bar for another time, but I do love that all the coffee is Fair Trade and all their milk is organic. Somehow they don't even seem to have to charge more for it. Makes me wonder why all the coffee houses in town don't manage to do those things.
Right now the hot bar is only doing breakfast items on the weekends, but I hear that the next thing they're working on is Monday morning breakfast burritos (probably by the time this is published), and if those are successful they'll have them all week. Even though their kitchen space is tiny, they're close to making all their baked goods in-house and may be going to round-the-clock production to have warm pastries available in the morning soon.
I used to go to Cafe Verde for a quiet hour of contemplation over a coffee and croissant, but now it seems that the calm at the cafe is much more intermittent than it used to be. I'm glad it's bustling and busy — the food is healthy and yummy and just keeps getting better all the time.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.