Is This For Real? 'Healthy' Chocolate Cake at True Food Kitchen and The Compound Grill

Forget acai berries and pomegranate. Chocolate is our "superfood" of choice": decadent, rich and packed with antioxidants and endorphins. Hell, it's like taking a vitamin and a happy pill all at once! It's also delicious whether it's eaten in traditional bar form or used as an ingredient in cakes and cookies. But add in all that high fructose corn syrup, refined white sugar and bleached flour and heath nuts will argue any benefits have been outweighed by these processed additives.

So for this week's Battle of the Dishes, we went in search of the most healthful chocolate cakes around. Can you really get a decent chocolate cake without gluten or refined sugar, or will these imposters crumble under the weight of this battle?

In One Corner: True Food Kitchen
2502 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix

Dry Humor: Hey, waiter, did I say "desert" instead of dessert?
Dry Humor: Hey, waiter, did I say "desert" instead of dessert?

True Food Kitchen offers fresh, healthful cuisine that incorporates local and seasonal produce. The entire menu is based on bestselling author and health guru Dr. Andrew Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet & Food Pyramid, which focuses on overabundance of fruits and veggies (3-5 servings of each per day), beans and pasta and smaller amounts of "good" fats, lean meat and soy foods. Need to borrow a cup of white sugar? Don't look to True Food, as they don't have one teaspoon of the stuff on-site.

The place isn't as granola-crunchy as it sounds, though it does have a modern, outdoorsy vibe. The dining room is open and airy, with massive drum lights, wood flooring and a semi-open kitchen with prep stations and sinks. Two walls of glass windows let in light, and the patio offers a tree-shaded respite from daily life.

Dr. Weil's pyramid allows for small amounts of "healthy" sweets like dark chocolate; thus, they offer a flourless chocolate cake. My dinner date and I ordered the dessert after a scrumptious meal of curry noodles with vegetables. A miniature round cake topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel arrived a short while later with two spoons. It looked exactly like several other local restaurants' chocolate lava cakes, minus the lava

That's the big problem with this baby. Chocolate lava cake has a gooey center for a very practical reason -- without it, the cake is as dry as the Arizona landscape. This is supposed to be dessert with two s', not desert with one s. We took a bite and immediately noticed the crumbly, dry texture.

"Thith is tasty, but dwy," my companion mumbled unintelligibly through a mouthful of cake. "It tastes like real chocolate, though."

With 72% cocoa, the chocolate taste was very prominent. This dessert was crisp and clean. It was sweet without being overly saccharine, and the plain vanilla ice cream -- though nothing special in itself -- did moisten the cake up quite a bit as we let it melt in. Toffee pieces added rich caramel flavor and crunchy texture. Still, even with the pleasant chocolate taste and silky ice cream topping, this healthier alternative to regular cake tasted like just that -- an alternative to the real thing.


In the Other Corner: The Compound Grill
7000 E. Mayo Blvd. in North Phoenix

Proof that gluten-free doesn't always mean taste-free.
Proof that gluten-free doesn't always mean taste-free.

I didn't have much hope for the food at The Compound Grill, a live music venue slash restaurant owned by the folks who produce the annual McDowell Mountain Music Festival. But you can't judge a book by its cover (or in this case, a restaurant by its main purpose). Walking in, the place was pretty impressive: sleek neon-lit orange bar, rustic wood vaulted ceilings and a curtained stage for performers. 

The patio doors were flung open to let in a soft breeze. A female folk guitarist sang plaintive tunes in the background, warming us up for the headlining band. Tip: The concerts generally begin at 9 p.m., but if you go for dinner slightly earlier you'll skip the cover and get a good seat. We ordered appetizers, fajitas and dessert and were surprised by the quality of the food. Compound purchases local organic produce when possible, and focuses on incorporating lots of fresh vegetables and other natural foods into Southwest-inspired dishes.

The cleverly named Grateful Death by Chocolate dessert arrived at the end of our meal; an ample slice of gluten-free chocolate cake that gleamed under our table's spotlight. The menu claimed it was accompanied by berries, crème fresh and espresso ganache, though there was one lonely strawberry and my coffee-loving friend couldn't detect a whiff of espresso anywhere.

"Wait...there's supposed to be coffee in here?" he griped. "I don't taste any, so I'm feeling ripped off. But the cake is much moister than the competition."

The cake was dense and incredibly moist with a chocolaty flavor that was closer to Swiss Miss hot cocoa than a Dove bar. Personally I preferred the real chocolate taste of True Food's version, but the texture of this cake made up for any lack of cacao. It was much sweeter than True Food's version, likely owing to the fact Compound Grill doesn't completely ban refined sugar. Of course if you've got blood sugar issues, steer clear of this one. Raspberry sauce that went unmentioned on the menu provided a contrasting tartness, and the more delicate whipped cream helped to anchor the dish so the sweetness didn't overwhelm the palate.

The Winner: The Compound Grill, which made a gluten-free dessert taste like the real thing. 

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