Dining out was once so simple. You sat down in a restaurant, ordered whatever sounded good, ate it, and went on with your life. Now you need an advanced degree in epidemiology before you’re qualified to choose an entrée. Every day, we get bombarded with health warnings about food: too much added sugar will kill you if excess salt doesn’t get you first. Menus are loaded with politically charged, often slippery buzzwords: “sustainable,” “organic,” “locally grown,” “free range,” “grass fed,” “genetically modified,” “farm raised.” Go ahead and order red meat, but that cow had best been raised on tall-stem Texas blue grass handpicked by a nun.
Many area producers and restaurateurs have their hearts in the right place, but I can’t help but be suspicious of some who tout ingredients as “organic” or “local.” This is Texas. There is no such thing as a locally grown tomato in January. Organic is even more confusing. If your butterhead lettuce was sprayed with an “organic” pesticide such as a bacterial toxin or pyrethrum or rotenone, can it really be considered organic?
To be honest, I had similar misgivings about the latest food trend, gluten free, and I approached Company Cafe with a jaundiced eye and just enough knowledge about the subject to be dangerous. The basic facts: about 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. If they eat gluten, the “glue” that binds and structures starches, their intestinal tract, to put it politely, goes haywire. Then there are some healthy people, too, who avoid gluten because they say gluten saps their energy.
The folks at Company Cafe care about natural, locally sourced, organic food. They are also determined to serve healthy, “clean lifestyle” comfort food, including gluten-free versions of old-fashioned favorites. “There are a lot of people with celiac disease who have no place to go out and eat gluten free,” says Natasha Berlin, one of the chefs at Company Cafe. “One of our managers has it. And a lot of people without celiac have said when they cut gluten out, they do feel better.” To get up to speed on the benefits of going gluten free, I spoke with nutritionists, celiac sufferers, and several otherwise healthy people who have eliminated gluten from their diets. I’ll leave the gluten-free-diet-is-the-cure-for-all-that-ails-you discussion to Oprah and stick to reporting my dining experiences at Company Cafe.
Gluten free or not, this small restaurant on Greenville Avenue just south of Belmont is a fun and satisfying place to eat. If you’ve been to Kozy Kitchen, you’ll recognize most of the staff. According to one of our servers, five of the main employees at Company Cafe, including chef Fred Mesick, walked out of Kozy Kitchen. They were discovered by investors and first-time restaurateurs Jeff Wells and Stephen White, whose trainer convinced him to ditch gluten. On all three of my visits to Company Cafe, I was impressed by the friendly, tightknit staff who worked the kitchen and the floor. Every question I asked was answered with an intelligent response. When I remarked that it was unusual to see sweet potatoes on a menu that are deep fried in olive oil, our waiter said, “We use olive pomace oil with a higher burn point of 420 degrees so the polyunsaturated fat stays intact. If you use extra virgin and the oil becomes too hot, the polyunsaturated fat starts to break down and becomes carcinogenic.”
Won over by his mastery of gastronomic chemistry, we ordered the loaded sweet potato fries. We were stunned by a simple dish raised to brilliance by the quality of its ingredients. The mound of semicrisp sweet potato strips were tossed with a touch of olive oil, lime juice, bits of all-natural bacon, and fresh jalapeño slices, then covered with a thin layer of unpasteurized white cheddar cheese. Two of us fought over the last fry. When the bowl was empty, there wasn’t even a trace of grease on the plate. Were we too full to finish our meal? No, because, according to our waiter the food scientist, sweet potatoes aren’t as heavy as white ones. For the record, Company Cafe doesn’t serve white potatoes. If you haven’t discovered the glory of the orange spud, try the cauliflower purée.If you are accustomed to corn-fed beef, Company Cafe may disappoint. It uses three types of grass-fed beef: buffalo, regular steer, and longhorn, all of which are leaner than regular meat and almost impossible to serve medium rare because they cook so fast. The Belmont Burger, ordered medium rare, was served with a dark gray center. I found it dense and dry and had trouble swallowing it. On a return visit, an upgrade to the more flavorful buffalo patty between two gluten-free buns proved to be a more satisfying choice. Bottom line, though: I wouldn’t go to Company Cafe if I were on a mission to get a great cheeseburger.
No matter. The short menu offers too many other unique and inspired dishes to worry about the burgers. Breakfast is served until 3 pm every day. The list of fresh and local ingredients offered to stuff a cage-free egg omelet is impressive: seven types of cheese; vegetables aplenty; buffalo, venison, and grass-fed beef; and all-natural bacon and chicken. One omelet is the size of a deflated regulation football. Ours was filled with tasty ground buffalo, feta, grilled onions, tomatoes, and spinach. We passed it around the table, and it vanished within minutes. The migas are a splendid concoction of tender chicken, bell pepper, and onion scrambled with eggs and strips of white corn tortillas. They were presented on a pile of black beans garnished with feta and hot Texas tomato salsa. But the best item on the breakfast menu is the Deep Bowl, a mound of sweet potato hash made with bacon, green onions, and cilantro, then covered with ground beef and sliced avocado, and topped with two eggs sunny side. I dream about this meal.
I’ve also had recurring fond memories of the braised short rib, which is served in the evening. The short rib, fresh from the green grasses surrounding Greenville, Texas, is slow cooked in a house-made barbecue sauce with hints of pomegranate and orange. A shallow bowl is layered with softly sautéed spinach, mashed sweet potatoes flavored with maple syrup and butter, and a generous short rib. Crispy fried onions are sprinkled atop. I recommend that you eat this meal from the top down, to appreciate the contrast of flavors and textures. It’s a genius presentation and as fine a meal as you’ll get for twice the $16 price at more upscale restaurants.
Two dishes, in particular, I feared would be disastrous, given the gluten-free preparation: chicken-fried steak and chicken and waffles. If you’ve experimented with other gluten-free foods, especially baked goods, you know the texture is different. I expected a funky mouthfeel to be followed by blandness. But both dishes blew me away. The thick waffle was a tad spongy, but once my tongue hit the jalapeños and bacon cooked in the batter, I didn’t mind the texture. The chicken strips, fried in olive oil, were lightly breaded with all-purpose gluten-free flour. They could have been bathed in Elmer’s glue for all I cared. The sweet, savory, spicy flavors exploded in my mouth like a strand of Black Cats. The chicken-fried steak created a similar effect. Sirloin steak is dredged in Mesick’s “secret batter” and topped with rich jalapeño-honey gravy.
“We have a customer who has celiac,” Mesick says. “This is the first chicken-fried steak she has eaten in 10 years. She thanked me because she missed her grandma’s cooking and she never gets to eat it anymore.”
I’m sure sufferers of celiac disease will also marvel at the wide assortment of desserts. Gluten-free baking is tricky and not always pleasing to new palates. The kitchen uses a variety of wheat-free flour blends and adds xanthan gum, a common thickening agent that, like gluten, adds volume and viscosity to cakes and breads. Results can vary wildly. Even fresh products can taste dry. Not at Company Cafe. The texture of the carrot cake was springy, almost elastic, and the red velvet clung to my teeth and the roof of my mouth. If you don’t have celiac disease, you will be pleased to know Company Cafe carries an all-natural cinnamon crumb cake produced by Dallas’ Crumbzz Bakery. The moist yellow cake is made with free-range eggs and rich butter made from local milk. The cinnamon cake is covered with a thick layer of crunchy brown crumbles.
Grab the sports section of the Sunday Dallas Morning News, sip a bottomless drip cup of Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters coffee, and enjoy a late breakfast at Company Cafe. Even if your small intestine isn’t overly sensitive, you’ll be glad you did.
For more information about Company Cafe, visit our restaurant guide.