This self-conscious moment was the first of many I passed as an interloper at Café Latte. Even after several stabs at the mix of familiar cafe fare, vegetarian dishes and Sugar Busters-modeled health food, I was disenchanted. There were the menu misnomers, the frequent lack of freshness and the food with diet appeal that didn't translate to my taste. Besides a few top-notch beverages, nothing rendered me as content as the red brigade seemed to be on that initial mauve afternoon.
At my Café Latte best, I downed blackberry Italian cream sodas frothing with pink bubbles, I slurped mint-scented iced teas, and I sipped smooth cafe lattes made with Covington Coffee Works and whole milk. At my Café Latte worst, I was as fraudulent as a vegan on a dairy farm who fakes a smile and grabs an udder when she's honored with the morning's first milking. Every giddy customer seemed destined for the clean plate club. Employees ribbed each other in debate over the most delicious sandwich, salad or sugar-free dessert. I managed to feign a grin over my "mushroom burger" (soy-logged sauteed mushrooms on an onion roll with browning alfalfa sprouts) and vapid sugar-free cheesecake with soft cinnamon crust. In the end, listening to the smitten diners taught me more about Café Latte's appeal than following their ordering acumen did.
A friend who frequently lunches at Café Latte first insisted that I check out the Amazonian salads; an employee suggested the "Santa Fe." It was large. Chunks of smoked turkey were as pink and sweet as the romaine and red cabbage were snapping crisp. But black beans and hominy weren't fresh. Given the salad's sugary honey-lemon vinaigrette, sour cream dollopped on top was perplexing. And "spiced chili noodles" (Chow Mein noodles to you and me) tossed into the mix were incomprehensible.
Assisted by my friend the next time, I remained on the straight course to disappointment. Mexican "focaccia" was not focaccia nor particularly Mexican. A mini pizza built upon whole-wheat pita bread, it hailed from the same dubious region as the above-mentioned "Santa Fe": black beans, chicken, ripe black olives, cheese and pickled jalapenos. Admittedly, my friend's pasta was an agreeable bowl of cheese ravioli, sweet marinara, mild Alfredo and the anise sting of basil pesto. She appreciated that her side of toast was the whole-wheat variety. Another point for the Sugar Busters.
Which clearly is one of the restaurant's strongest selling points. On a separate Sugar Busters menu, diners are encouraged to make special dietary requests. There are inexpensive, equally healthy meal options at the sushi joint across the street and the Middle Eastern place down the block. But a large portion of Café Latte's followers seem to want more than those few options. They want a dining environment that validates their health decisions, a place that nurtures their dietary concerns and a forum in which they will be heard.
So I listened (OK, eavesdropped). I immediately caught a woman label-surfing. She was outraged that the cafe's "No Guilt" muffins, which she eats daily and which list partially hydrogenated oils and egg yolks in fine print, aren't as healthful as they sound. "Never read labels," I said, offering my brilliant solution. "I have to ... religiously," she replied, visibly irritated. "For my health." She paid for her lo-cal salad and left.
Minutes later, waiting for a grilled cheese and mayonnaise sandwich on whole wheat with ruffled potato chips (one of the cafe's more unusual and hi-cal concoctions), I overheard a woman grasping a vegetarian tortilla wrap at the next table say, "My father has had two triple bypasses." "I know how that is," replied her elder companion, forking at a spinach salad. "My mother was deathly ill with arthritis at 40." "Walking's not good for my hips," chimed in a man in the group, twirling angel hair pasta between zucchini moons. I moved before the fourth member could start in on his bunions.
Perhaps Café Latte's grossest offense is that its particular approach to health-conscious eating isn't my style. My most pleasurable moment there, in fact, was digging into a deadly mudpie of chocolate brownie and mini-marshmallows covered with Duncan Hines-style chocolate frosting. While I do succumb to cold-sweat panics about cholesterol levels, blood sugar and cellulite after such indulgences, I'd rather just steam a head of broccoli than learn the whole-wheat-n-protein dance of the Sugar Busters. That is, until I'm forced to eat my own greasy words.