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Simple Cafe in Ashland serves it up fresh

There’s more to Simple Cafe than its name implies.

Chef-owner Javier Cruz could get by serving a straightforward menu of burritos, burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and rice bowls at his walkup window in Ashland’s Railroad District. Adding no fewer than four specials each week keeps customers’ interest piqued.

Behind the scenes, Cruz shops for seasonal produce at local farmers markets, chooses organic and free-range proteins, supports hunger-relief charities and champions waste reduction. He’s also pitted his skills against formidable competitors in the “Iron Chef”-style competition in past years’ Ashland Culinary Festival.

Working his way through the food service ranks, Cruz attained the position of dining room manager at the erstwhile Il Giardino. He attended Le Cordon Bleu’s program at Medford Culinary Institute and, after graduating, became chef at Ashland’s Standing Stone Brewing Co.

Cruz’s formal training shows in every item, prepared not only to order but with precision — the doneness faultless. Rather than relying on heavy-handed seasonings for his housemade salsas and sauces, Cruz allows ingredients’ freshness to shine though. In fact, “fresh” arguably is a more accurate descriptor than “simple” for his cuisine.

The business caught my eye when Cruz opened in late 2017, but I pigeonholed it as too basic, compared with other Ashland restaurants. In reporting on a number of other eateries that participate in the Rogue to Go program, I realized Simple Cafe must have more in common with its better-known compatriots. Given that it’s one of the few spots in town geared toward outdoor dining, I had even more impetus to give it a recent look.

Bright orange chairs pulled up to stainless steel tables in front of Ashland’s Ace Hardware mark the spot of Simple Cafe. Diners peruse the menu board posted above the window, place an order and grab a seat, if they’re not taking it to go.

For takeout orders, a significant number of customers choose Rogue to Go, an initiative that Cruz helped to pioneer last year in Ashland, giving it momentum for expansion to Medford. The program affords customers — investing a one-time fee — a green, durable BPA-free plastic container for use at participating restaurants. Containers are exchanged at Rogue to Go’s member restaurants, where they are washed, sanitized and ready to fill with patrons’ food.

Green container — prewashed at home — in hand, my partner was directed toward a dishwashing tub outside Simple Cafe for depositing containers before requesting his order in a restaurant-cleaned replacement. The special steelhead tacos ($12) were his choice.

I rarely order burgers, but Simple Cafe’s chicken burger ($12) riffs on Buffalo wings, a flavor profile I enjoy. Cruz’s other burgers combine grass-fed and finished beef patties with jalapeños and bacon jam, each priced at $11. The “simple burger” with lettuce, onions and “simple spread” costs $9. Each comes on a locally baked bun with freshly cut fries.

Fries don’t typically excite me much, and I very often find freshly cut fries, in particular, lackluster. But the shorter, stouter specimens that Cruz produces were the best freshly cut fries I recall ever tasting. Crispy on the outside, mealy on the inside, with just a few bits of skin, the fries had a superior potatoey flavor.

The burger, likewise, was a perfectly proportioned amalgam of blue cheese, Buffalo sauce and mayonnaise with the moist chicken patty. I requested mine without lettuce or onion.

The tacos layered ruddy fish — spices seared to the exterior — with magenta-hued pickled onions and verdant avocado slices and cilantro leaves inside corn tortillas. The accompanying brown rice gained flavor and subtle, smoky heat from Cruz’s housemade salsa.

Mingling umami and acid in ideal ratio, the tacos have become so popular that Cruz has left them on the weekly specials menu for most of the past year. I’m keen to sample the fish — hailing from the Columbia River — as a burger, which Cruz added to a recent specials menu.

Breakfast was in order, however, for my second foray to Simple Cafe. Preferring egg-based burritos, I selected Cruz’s housemade pork chorizo ($10) from choices of chicken sausage ($10), mushrooms ($9), avocado and bacon ($10) or just eggs and cheese ($7). Eggs are from free-range hens, and each burrito is stuffed with freshly cooked potatoes, among other ingredients.

Augmented with pepper jack cheese, grilled onions and peppers and sour cream, my burrito also boasted Cruz’s housemade roasted pepper salsa. Hefty and hearty, the burrito was more than I could manage in a single sitting. I saved half of it for later and decided to order “spicy” next time, instead of “medium.”

Mild-flavored, my partner’s special rice bowl with roasted pepper cream sauce was a wholesome lunch of free-range chicken and organic carrots, zucchini and spinach over brown rice ($12). Subtly seasoned, the dish tasted predominantly of fresh vegetables, cooked until just tender, contrasting with raw spinach on the side. My partner wasn’t sure if the spinach was supposed to be a salad without dressing. I readily dipped the vibrant leaves into the silky sauce.

Also strong on flavor, the horchata ($3.50) proclaimed its origins as rice, distilled into milk, its flavor prevailing over cinnamon and vanilla. Cruz’s beverage is organic, sweetened with organic cane sugar. We did crave more fresh ginger and lemon in a hot, seasonal variation on the typical lemonade ($3.50) served cold at Simple Cafe. Summer brings watermelon-mint and pineapple-ginger-turmeric.

Located at 249 A St., Simple Cafe is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. See the menu at simple.cafe. Call 541-488-6210.

Tempo Tidbits

A pastry chef’s selection of decadent treats is available monthly by preorder from a new pop-up bakery.

Herb & Flour Patisserie started its monthly pastry box program in January, along with owner Kali Kennedy’s custom cakes for birthdays, anniversaries, special occasions and weddings. Kennedy is pastry chef for Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine in Ashland and also has worked at Larks’ sister restaurants, Luna Cafe & Mercantile and Larks Kitchen & Cocktails, which closed this month, along with Inn at the Commons in Medford.

Containing six assorted pastries and baked goods that change monthly, the box is promoted for small dinner parties, sharing with family and friends, gift-giving and customers’ own indulgence. Kennedy says she focuses on seasonal items using local ingredients. Pickup is at Over Easy, 21 N. Bartlett St., Medford, five days after ordering online.

Highlighting Middle Eastern flavors, March’s box contains a “tuxedo tahini cookie,” mini loaf of ras el hanout buttermilk bread, slice of basbousa cake and pistachio baklava, along with a gluten-free Meyer lemon macaron with Meyer lemon buttercream and a slice of Thai tea tart with cookie crust and pistachio crunch.

Each box is priced at $43. Order at herbandflourpatisserie.com/pastrybox. Email herbandflourpatisserie@gmail.com for cake quotes.

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A new wine tasting room in Jacksonville is dubbed The Inspiration Station.

Nestled next to the historical McCully House, Awen Winecraft’s new wine garden and tasting room features a fountain, fire pits, tube-style heaters and a menu of light fare to pair with its award winning wines. The establishment opened Saturday for outdoor food and beverage consumption at 240 E. California St.

Awen has been making wines and winning awards for almost two decades. Customers previously purchased bottles at local farmers markets, special events and other retailers. Tasting room hours are 3 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. See awenwinecraft.com/Tasting-Room. Call 541-702-2164.

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A downtown Medford wine bar and bottle shop is relocating to Jacksonville.

The Rogue Grape’s new digs are planned for Bigham Knoll Crossing, the multifunctional campus owned by Brooke and Mel Ashland and home to the School House Grill. Outdoor dining options at the site will allow The Rogue Grape to resume operations amid statewide restrictions in response to the coronavirus. Its former location limited business growth and the ability to safely serve guests, according to the business’ social media posts.

Exclusively featuring wines from the Southern Oregon American Viticulture Area (AVA), The Rogue Grape offered more than 100 wines by the glass or bottle from the Rogue, Applegate and Umpqua valleys. See theroguegrape.com and bkcrossing.com for updates.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole. dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

The chorizo burrito is one of five breakfast burritos at Ashland’s Simple Cafe.{ }
Fish tacos are prepared with Columbia River steelhead at Simple Cafe in Ashland. Green, durable takeout containers are provided through the Rogue to Go program. Photos by Sarah Lemon.