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The Cafe at Medford Co-op is quick and wholesome

In this season of dietary excess, it’s a comfort and joy that fresh, healthy meals are handy at Medford Food Co-op’s cafe.

It’s been nearly two years since the Co-op opened the cafe to complement the organic, sustainable and locally grown and produced foods in its store.

Coinciding with the Co-op’s mission, the cafe offers items prepared from scratch with seasonally fresh ingredients and plenty of options for vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and other special diets — “wholesome meals for busy schedules,” according to The cafe’s menu.

For customers pressed by the holiday rush, the cafe’s house-made soups, hot-entrée bar and build-your-own salad bar are enticing options. There’s even a breakfast bar with hearty, plant-based items available from 7 to 10:30 a.m. weekdays, until noon on weekends. Prices are $9.99 per pound for the hot, salad and breakfast bars.

Custom, made-to-order sandwiches, however, don’t add all that much time to the dining experience. Prices run from $6.99 for grilled cheese to $10.99 for the Free Bird or Co-op Reuben. The build-your-own sandwich for $9.49 includes a choice of bread or wrap, protein, cheese, vegetables and two spreads. Add-ons run from 50 cents per spread to $3 per protein.

Plant-based proteins done well appeal to me, although I’m not vegetarian. I love a traditional Reuben’s rye, Swiss and sauerkraut; its corned beef not so much. So the opportunity to enjoy a Reuben with dense, nutty tempeh and unconventional sun-dried tomato spread couldn’t be passed up.

I also strolled past the hot bar to peruse the day’s two soups. “Garden vegetable” failed to entice, and Irish stew breaks my “no beef” rule.

Happily, a helpful employee mentioned that she had a couple of servings of carrot-ginger hot on the stove. I told her I’d take a cup for dine-in ($2.99). Bowls of soup cost $5.99 for dine-in. To-go prices are a bit higher: $3.49, $6.49 and $11.49 for 8, 16 and 32 ounces, respectively.

Entrees featured on the day’s hot bar were chile-lime chicken, vegan black bean-corn quesadillas, sweet potato-chickpea curry and the Indian potato-cauliflower dish “aloo gobi.” Brown rice and roasted seasonal vegetables are among the staple side dishes.

The Indian-inspired fare would have won me over, if I hadn’t just dined at an Indian restaurant the previous evening.

I’ll make a point to check out the hot entrees on future visits.

My soup was being ferried to the cash register before I had finished making my sandwich order. It was just the right temperature, which is to say hot enough to barely burn the tip of my tongue on the first slurp. Unlike some versions of carrot-ginger I’ve tried, this one was pleasantly strong on ginger but imperfectly pureed.

Several bites harbored tough bits of unpeeled ginger that stuck to my tongue and were better left on the side of the saucer than swallowed. If fresh ginger is simmered in such a soup, straining it through a fine-mesh sieve should be standard practice.

My sandwich preparation also was less than precise, given its grilled red onions contrary to my request for their omission. Those at least were visible, allowing me to excise them from the melted cheese.

That lapse aside, the Reuben was a delicious amalgam of savory Swiss smothering a hefty slab of chewy tempeh brightened by the tomato spread judiciously slathered onto impeccably grilled bread.

It didn’t occur to me until afterward that Russian dressing is the de rigueur Reuben condiment, which I clearly didn’t miss. I may venture that the thicker and slightly sweeter sun-dried tomato is a more appropriate substitution in the classic sandwich, which can verge on sloppy and salty.

The cafe’s thoughtful approach to sauces and other seasonings also is evident in its house-made, organic mayonnaise, vegan pesto spread and such house-made salad dressings as Caesar, green goddess, red-wine vinaigrette and golden balsamic.

What it can’t make, The Café pledges to offer minimally processed, allergen-aware and free from artificial additives and preservatives. It also promotes several food artisans, namely the Applegate’s Rise Up! bread, Ashland’s Griffin Creek Coffee Roasters and tinctures from Herb Pharm in Williams.

A dose of herbal tincture highlights each of the cafe’s “Wellness Elixirs.” Priced from $3 to $6, the beverages are geared both toward cold-weather consumption and cold season.

When I’m feeling under the weather, I’ll plan to stop in for a “golden milk,” steamed with turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and black pepper, or the black elderberry toddy with a squeeze of lemon. There’s also a “maca mocha” and “cold-busting hot cocoa” with peppermint and Herb Pharm’s Daily Immune Builder tincture.

Located at 945 S. Riverside Ave., The Cafe at Medford Food Co-op is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Call 541-646-3686 or see medfordfood.coop/cafe

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Tempeh Reuben at The Cafe at Medford Food Co-op. Photo by Sarah Lemon