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Scrubs and grub



On Thursday, Italian dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs are available at Café Navarro. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

Café Navarro proves hospital cafeteria food can be good

Hospital food and healing have never seemed to go hand in hand; how much sustenance is there in Jell-O? Jell-O does appear in the line at Café Navarro, Nix Hospital's open-to-all cafeteria, but it is the only obvious vestige of sorry-you're-sick food. Surprisingly, Café Navarro has gourmet aspirations, and they aren't altogether misplaced.

The sixth floor at the Nix looks much like any other; there are no obvious clues to anything out of the ordinary. The floor, polished to a mirror shine, seems perfectly at home, and the clientele, from maintenance men in jeans to medicos in suits and scrubs, is just what you'd expect. But a quick glance at the menu board reveals that there's more at work here than Salisbury steak with creamed corn. Though I began cautiously with a turkey chipotle wrap and a bowl of potato-leek soup, other options that day included flounder with peppers and onions and beef fajitas with "fixings."

Rhula Mitcheltree, director of Food Services, is credited for envisioning the changes which have recently taken place at Café Navarro. In August 2004, the cafeteria received a face-lift not only to its menu, but to the decor as well.

I'd give the soup a couple of stars right off the bat. It was chunky and creamy, robustly flavored, and supremely satisfying. The wrap wasn't far behind in satisfaction points, either; there was an abundance of deli-sliced turkey, the chipotle mayo was just spicy enough, and the fillers of shredded carrot, lettuce, and chopped tomato were right in balance. The wrapper, a large, herbed flour tortilla, lacked any of the leathery toughness often associated with envelopes. Only the single peanut butter cookie was less than memorable. The total tab was $5.66.

Determined to try some of the more ambitious entrées, I returned on a Friday for the scallops in a tomato-basil sauce. (Had I gone on Thursday instead, Hunan Chicken with fried rice or Sesame Pork Tenderloin would have been contenders.) Branches of fresh basil adorned the steam-table container, a positive sign, and available vegetable sides included asparagus in lemon butter and roasted red potatoes. Okra and tomatoes, Lyonnaise potatoes, cornbread, refrieds, and cut green beans - with Spanish rice, the major throwback to classic cafeteria - have been options in the past. Seafood always strikes me as something to be wary of in a cafeteria line; it turns to mush so easily, which was the main reason I ruled out the

After grabbing a tray, customers who came in on Thursday could choose between several Italian entrées, including Chicken Parmesan.

catfish with almonds, although it didn't look mushy, mind you. But the scallops held up beautifully: The fresh basil added the gourmet touch the chef is apparently seeking, and the surprise discovery of artichoke hearts yielded bonus points. At $4.95, including a side dish, this was both a bargain and a beacon of hope.

The asparagus wasn't as crisp as it might have been at a $20-entrée joint, but it was still within tolerable limits, and the potatoes were right on target. Feeling end-of-the-week indulgent, I also snagged a piece of coconut cream pie. Ignoring the difficulty of eating pie from a wedge-shaped container, I'd have to hand it to the pie person: The flavors were fine, the textures good, the total experience, if not platonically pie, at least far from plastic. Apple was another option, and it looked equally real.

   Café Navarro

Nix Hospital
414 Navarro
Breakfast: 6:30-10am Mon-Fri, 7-10am Sat-Sun.
Lunch: 11am-2pm, Mon. to Fri; 11am-1:30pm Sat; 11am-1pm Sun.
Snack: 2:30-4pm Mon-Fri.
Dinner: 4:30-6pm Mon-Fri
Handicapped accessible

The week's menu is posted just outside the entry to the Café Navarro, so if you're tempted, you can take the elevator up for a look. Heart-healthy entrées are indicated, yes, with a heart. As with all cafeteria lines, gourmet glimmerings or not, it pays to be rational in one's choices; if the green beans look limp, don't choose them (unless, having grown up on overcooked beans, that's the way you like them). Otherwise, this is a cafeteria that surprises, and if the attitude makes its way up to the convalescents on higher floors, it will also be revolutionary.

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