A WISE CHEF once told me, "If you want to know how the menu is doing, stand next to the dishwasher. Likewise, if you want to know what kind of business a restaurant is doing, sit by the door."
Recently, I had the opportunity to grab a seat by the door of the Native Café, a bustling little coffeehouse that does a brisk take-out business. People queue up out the door to buy coffee, freshly squeezed juice or an on-the-run pastry. It's easy to see why, since many of the coffees are organic and the extensive fruit and vegetable juice bar is impressive. If you need wheat grass to get you going in the morning, this is the spot to dash in and down it.
Still, if you want to sit and linger for a bit, you couldn't find a nicer room. Originally the Milagro, this venue has always offered up a haven for those who want a respite from the press of daily life. Personally, I miss Milagro's bookstore (easily one of the most intelligently stocked bookstores in Tucson); now not even a ghost of a bookshelf remains.
Enter the ultimate snowbird story. Chris and John Campabello, the current owners, live in Alaska in the summer and Tucson in the winter. Their other restaurant, Café Orca in Wittier, enables these entrepreneurs to live a dream life. Apparently the Campabellos have opened restaurants in these two far-flung locations to suit their penchant for fresh juice and strong hot coffee.
Luckily for us thirsty Zonies, Native Café's smoothie and juice list is extensive. Most of the drinks sport cutesy names, so if you can get around the initial embarrassment of having to ask for Jungle Love (a pineapple, coconut, banana and apple smoothie--$4.50) or a Follow Your Heart (apple, banana, strawberry and blueberry--$4.50), then order them. The juices are fresh and squeezed on the spot, and this makes a big difference. Enough of a difference that the vegetable juices, which typically turn bitter fairly quickly, were served up frothy and fresh. This was enough to lure us into sampling the carrot and beet juice, aka The Beetnik (sigh). It was excellent. Deep burgundy in color and suffused with the rich, earthy tang of fresh carrot juice, this was a delicate meal in itself. If this is what coffeehouses are supposed to do, serve up rich, strong coffee and great drinks, then the Native does a great job.
The menu, however, requires a bit of negotiation.
Make sure you've got some time on your hands before you navigate the menu, which is hand-written on a chalkboard. Even with time and patience on my side, I had a hard time deciphering that groovy psychedelic handwriting. Eventually, I took a seat at a table and read the pre-printed takeout menu.
It offers up plenty of sandwiches (cool specialties, hot specialties, vegetarian specialties), "modern burgers" (all vegetarian), soups and salads. There is a conscious effort to offer organic produce. When you place your order, be sure to ask what is organic that day, since the status changes depending on deliveries. This creates some confusion, but the servers are good-natured about trying to track down whatever information you might need.
Since the restaurant showcases so many fresh, organic vegetables, we started with a salad, the Asian Influence ($7.95). It was a generous mound of mixed greens, red bell pepper, carrot, cucumber and sunflower sprouts; we were a little surprised that the peanut noodle salad was a very small part of this offering. Still, the bean-thread noodles were tender and tossed in a delicious, tangy, gingery peanut sauce, and we only wished there had been more of it.
Out of the many sandwich offerings we tried the Corfu, which promised to be a Kalamata olive and French goat-cheese spread and basil pesto, gently melted down on Italian sourdough with fresh tomato, cucumber and sunny sprouts ($5.95). The sandwich was grilled correctly, stuffed with black olive tapenade, pesto, tomatoes and cucumbers. While the "French goat cheese" is really a feta mixed into the tapenade, this sandwich is intensely rich and certainly filling.
If you're looking for brunch, there are several egg dishes available. We sampled the Ole!--green chile, green onions, fresh tomato and natural cheddar ($5.50)--and the Athena ($6.25), which includes fresh spinach leaves, roasted red peppers and feta cheese. Both dishes were served with a choice of potatoes or brown rice, and toast with jam. Although the menu boasted the eggs were "from a humane and health conscious farm in AZ, less than 10 days old and no hormones," we found them fairly anemic. Whether or not it was the quality of the eggs or the inexperience of the hand that beat them, in both dishes, the eggs were cooked until rubbery. The fillings, however, were fresh, and the portions enormous.
While we ate, we were vaguely aware that someone was moving large furniture around. On closer inspection we realized what we were hearing was a soundtrack. Among strains of the Australian didgeridoo, which is alarmingly similar to intestinal disturbances, we were left to eat. After an especially enthusiastic solo, reminiscent of imminent gastric distress, one member of the party suggested we request a music selection change. No one dared, though, fearful as we were of sinking any further into some other New Age miasma, Tuva throat singing or whale song. No, we forged ahead with the didgeridoo.
Many of the dessert offerings are made with organic, whole-wheat flour. Just know this before you order dessert: Some are purchased out of house. But we decided to try the two in-house specialties that day, carrot cake and scones. Our carrot cake ($3) was moist and rich with visible grating of both coconut and carrot, which made for a velvety texture. The icing wasn't too sour or tangy. This was a solid choice. Several scone choices were available and we tried the orange cranberry ($1.75). Possibly because of the flour, this scone was plaster-of-Paris dry. True, there were dried cranberries stuck to the top, but for the most part it was, as one party member quipped, "hard as the back of God's head."
If you stick with the excellent roasted coffees and juices, then the Native can be a sunny way to start the day. Tucson has hatched one more coffeehouse that is on the friendly side, kind of spacey, well intentioned, and could use a few new offerings in the music department.
Native Café. 3073 N. Campbell Ave. 884-8881. Serving Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m.to 4:30 p.m. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1.75 to $8.50.