Eating in the shadow of Mitzi's, an outdoorsman's outfitter and an optic shop marks a distinct departure for regular customers of the Tree House Pastry Shop and Café.
One of the city's only all-organic, always local and entirely vegetarian cafés, the Tree House's previous digs on the grounds of a garden center in the funky Lena Street lofts perhaps better fit its name. But its new home spans a corridor in the DeVargas Center (163 Paseo de Peralta, 474-5543) and caters to a reinvigorated crowd, which its last two locations couldn't sustain.
The pastry shop and lunch counter serves breakfast until 4 pm, when the menu shifts to sandwiches and sweets. A big bowl of yogurt topped with a loose, oat-and-cranberry-based, house-made granola ($6.95) makes for a healthy dessert to the fresh mozzarella, spinach and red chile pesto sandwich ($7.95 à la carte; $10.95 with a side salad).
Make a note of Tuesdays—TGF day (Tree House Gluten Free day)—all ye who shun flour, as the café's pastry case is full of gluten-free muffins, cakes and cookies. Many of the gluten-free sweets are available all week, but Tuesday is set aside as the day for wheat-free treats.
Back to my lunch bowl of granola.
Turns out, the Tree House's version is more grain than "glop," showing no signs of having been drizzled or baked. It has a spice-bread kick to it, and the yogurt-and-granola mound comes topped with fresh strawberries and apple slices.
As for the sandwich, the red chile pesto makes it. Blended with walnuts, the pesto is mild and mellow: perhaps mixed with red bell pepper or sundried tomato to temper any red chile heat? And, in keeping with its farmers market feeling, the café throws in a hefty handful of locally grown sunflower sprouts to garnish the plate.
Another day, the café had sold out of its bread and "had an issue with its yeast." What might have been a day-wrecker for a bakery/sandwich shop was gracefully troubleshot by the friendly suggestions of the café's counter help.
A gorgeous three-inch-deep quiche triangle ($12.95) dominated one plate that exited the kitchen alongside a pile of salad greens. A retired couple at the next table tucked into a bowl of chilaquiles ($6.95), ooohing and aahing with abandon over the egg-topped saucer of corn tortillas and red chile pocked with slaw.
A friend and I split the tempeh wrap ($10.95 with a side salad). It is earthy and spicy, and tastes like a Tree House fixture should—a "hippy, crunchy, healthy option" combining hummus, bell and jalapeño peppers, brown lentils and aioli in a wheat tortilla, topped with those ever-present sunflower sprouts.
The greens are fresh and punchy, with a vivid red dressing that isn't in the least bit sweet, despite its appearance.
The Tree House dishes up a full menu of egg options, does a dozen or so coffee drinks and teas and makes a daily soup ($4.50 cup; $6.50 bowl) that comes with a slab of fresh-baked bread.
Any given day, shoppers, matinée moviegoers and all those diligent, silver-haired mall walkers can catch the café's owner, Maria, in action behind a big-picture window where she decorates commissioned cakes and folds and twirls her beloved croissants and nut-plugged cinnamon rolls, which are best savored as mid-afternoon snacks.