When Ruby's Neighborhood Restaurant opened a year and a half ago, customers were "dumbfounded" that local, organic, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free foods could be had for several dollars less than elsewhere in Ashland.
"We were inundated because of our price point," says co-owner Christian Senf.
Eighteen months later, Ruby's remains just as popular with crowds that Senf always intended to feed — local, working people who appreciate wholesome, homemade food — not the tourists that most Ashland restaurants serve.
"Local people are often ... looked over," says Senf, describing Ruby's fare as "global proletariat cuisine."
"Sustainable and organic isn't just for the wealthy."
It's a model that Senf, 40, and partner Aura Streett brought to Ashland from the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Senf remains part owner in two "burrito shops." He stumbled into the restaurant business 12 years ago, after a career in carpentry, to help a friend who eventually became a business partner. He says he and Streett, 29, relocated not only for Southern Oregon's warmer climate and family-friendly lifestyle but for the quality of locally grown foods.
"We knew we could do well in Ashland."
And Senf knew his burritos would go over well, too. For breakfast or lunch, burritos and wraps (from $6.50 to $8.50) are Ruby's flagship items — perfect vehicles for housemade hot sauce.
"I'm a huge hot-sauce fan," says Senf. "We literally go through multiple gallons a week of this stuff."
Ruby's signature flavors are habanero-carrot-ginger and the sriracha-like "rooster sauce." Both are made with produce from Blue Fox Farm in Applegate and American Ruralcraft on Ashland's Eagle Mill Road. And both lack the preservatives in commercial sauces.
"We can make it locally, and we take out half the ingredients," says Senf.
One especially insidious additive — gluten — is absent from Ruby's other housemade sauces and dressings. A trend totally unknown to Senf when he first arrived in Ashland, gluten-free is customers' most frequent request, he says. In Wyoming, he adds, it wasn't on the radar.
"It was a slap in the face; it really woke me up," he says. "It was a tremendous education."
He points gluten-free diners toward huevos rancheros, which has naturally gluten-free corn-tortillas. Any Ruby's burrito can be made with a gluten-free teff wrap for 75 cents extra.
Ruby's also satisfies demand for meat- and egg-free dishes and dairy alternatives with scrambled-tofu burritos, tempeh sandwiches and burgers, even a vegan, cashew-based burrito sauce. Some vegan items, however, are purposely underadvertised, particularly when paired with mainstream dishes like eggs Benedict.
"A lot of it is not intentional," says Senf.
Ruby's vegan version of hollandaise sauce, which typically contains eggs, is more about streamlining a process and avoiding health-inspector scrutiny. A blend of tofu, lemon juice and zest, it's thinner and tangier than the average hollandaise, which garners some complaints but an equal number of admirers, says Senf.
"It's not for everyone."
Some criticism, though, has influenced Ruby's operation. Before Ruby's current formula, making English muffins was disproportionately labor-intensive, requiring rising, frying, then baking the dough. For all that work, diners dubbed them greasy, says Senf, who confirmed the opinion on Yelp.com.
Hand-cut french fries also evolved, with Ruby's "nailing" them over the past few months, says Senf, adding that he now can concentrate on sweet-potato fries. To entice Ruby's regulars, Senf also devised seasonal specials, such as eggplant Parmesan and whole, roasted, mild chilies for an appetizer or snack.
"We have a loyal following; they run through the menu pretty quick."
Among Ruby's most popular items are the tempeh cheesesteak, marinated in soy sauce, citrus and spices, and falafel in a wrap or on a salad. The vegetarian fritters consist of whole, dry chickpeas, fava beans and black-eyed peas that are soaked, cooked and mashed.
Tempeh and tofu are organic, although not explicitly identified on the menu, says Senf. Beans, excepting black beans, are organic, too. Organic eggs can be substituted in any dish for 75 cents.
"We go through piles of organic eggs," says Senf, adding that the top seller, however, is the "whole hog" breakfast burrito with three types of pork, none organic.
"You have to serve the neighborhood."
Applying the philosophy to his restaurant's name, Senf quickly made the 1920s-era, 900-square-foot cottage within walking distance of downtown and the Railroad District a neighborhood fixture.
And many patrons are quick with accolades.
"The Reubens are the best ever here," says Ashland resident Xavi Panneton, who comes every week for the classic sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye with Russian dressing (Ruby's is spicy). The "Reubenstein" has tempeh instead of meat.
"And the fries," says Snow Panneton, of Ashland, "are a 10."