Considering Food for Thought

    Food for Thought Cafe is without a doubt the hippest place to eat on campus. Churning out healthy vegetarian food at reasonable prices, students run this restaurant as a cooperative. Always full, the cavernous space is a favorite meeting place for everyone on campus, even faculty and administrators. But what about the food – is it worth a trip across campus?

    In a word: sometimes. Finished dishes run the gamut from perfect textures and robust flavors to bland and lackluster, sometimes on the same plate. Inconsistencies surface across the board in entrees missing important elements and unexplained outages of key ingredients.

    Almost all cry for a touch of refinement – a little more heat here, a handful of fresh herbs there, and those beautiful local vegetables they are so proud of would shine bright.

    A person’s got to wonder: Who would tolerate such unevenness? The answer is students who have a moral interest in seeing this politically correct nonprofit succeed. Not to mention that everyone has a friend who works at the cafe.

    Breakfast is, without a doubt, the best and most consistent feature on the menu, and it is served all day long. No one on campus can rival these offerings. Even sausage and bacon devotees cannot ignore the fluffy, plate-sized pancakes and cinnamon-spiked French toast. Pair either of these two with maple syrup, and we’re approaching nirvana.

    The only drawback is that there can be a wait – up to 20 minutes in some instances. But that’s not the rule.

    While waiting for breakfast, fill up as many cups of coffee as you’d like; it’s Stumptown, and the self-service setup is a miracle for those who are in a rush to get to their next class. Not to mention a great, local cup o’ Joe.

    Pasta is often on the menu. A recent puttanesca was made of diced tomatoes in their juice, cooked together with kalamata olives, onions and garlic, ladled over plain noodles. Watery and thin, it held little of the spicy bite and saucy richness that has made the traditional recipe well known. At $4.95 with parmesan, the bowl was plenty full, sprinkled on top with an indistinguishable graying, flavorless dried herb that looked like it might be better suited for a pipe than lunch.

    Posing a challenge to line cooks everywhere, cooked pasta is usually held cold until it’s ordered and then a small amount of sauce is prepared in a saute pan, with the pasta added for the final few tosses. This way the noodles don’t get overcooked, and the sauce is allowed to reduce while coating and absorbing into all those starchy surfaces, an important step.

    The three-cheese lasagna served Tuesday sold for less than $5, and must have weighed close to a pound. Layers of ricotta alternated with fresh chard and ribboned pasta topped with diced tomatoes. A few dashes of salt layered together with some freshly chopped parsley and basil would have pulled this together and given it the depth and fresh bite it needed.

    A recent tomato basil frittata lacked any basil flavor, but with slices of beefsteak on the top and a velvety texture, it would surely please an egg-lover. Naming it “tomato roasted garlic frittata” might have been better preparation for an unsuspecting customer, as the inside held whole chunks of roasted garlic.

    Paired with the frittata were sweet potato home fries. Crisped up and caramel sweet, they were fantastic on their own. More please!

    The signature salad of spring greens, toasted hazelnuts, currants and feta cheese can be a dream if all the ingredients are there, which doesn’t happen often. Monday’s salad had no nuts, and lacked that toasty crunch that offsets the acidic flavors of feta and vinegar. On Tuesday the recipe had changed: walnuts.

    In-house baked goods are all vegan, and while everything we’ve tried has been delicious, remember that delicious and vegan means oil instead of butter and eggs. A tasty chocolate chip cookie left oil marks on three layers of napkin – good to know if you are trying to keep the fat content down.

    If an item is on the menu two days in a row, consider that it is probably yesterday’s leftovers. Pizza ordered last week was thanklessly re-heated and came out tasting like cardboard.

    Employees often say, “We’re out of that,” as if it somehow excuses a menu item missing key elements. What’s a bagel if there’s no cream cheese in the house? Errr – I hate to mention it, but Safeway is down the street!

    As a nonprofit, financially, this cafe is only concerned with breaking even. Perhaps understanding that can explain why customers get so much high-quality food here at such a great price, even if it isn’t always perfect.