Cafe Reviews

Pomegranate Cafe: Destination Dining for the Health Conscious

If, by chance, I lived in a house made of vegetables, I hope it would be built by Pomegranate Café's mother-daughter chef duo Marlene and Cassie Tolman.

I could picture myself falling back into a comfy chair of deep purple cabbage leaves and munching on pillows of collard greens stuffed with crunchy bright red and yellow peppers; lazily plucking thin strands of rich red beets from a tangled carpet; and bathing in a bathtub the size of a giant mason jar filled with a glowing amber liquid of cucumber, carrot, and golden beet with a frothy, sudsy top.

All this from a meat-eating gal of Midwestern stock.

Pomegranate Café is the Tolmans' three-year-old cheery, all-day breakfast and lunch eatery in Ahwatukee. Everything on the menu is vegan, with some items having a vegetarian option. But Pomegranate doesn't advertise itself as a vegan restaurant — nor should it.

The emphasis here is nourishing, flavor-packed food and drinks using fresh ingredients — from colorful, vibrant dishes made with fresh vegetables and grains to fruit-packed smoothies and veggie juices to a bakery case stocked with homemade pastries. Above all, Pomegranate puts together these top-notch ingredients in smart combinations with hardworking flavors and a skillfulness not often found in many of the Valley's health-conscious restaurants.

If you are eating vegetarian — or vegan, or even raw — Pomegrante Café is a destination. For everyone else, it's a tasty neighborhood stop or, for carnivores not in the driver's seat, a fortuitous journey to Ahwatukee with a non-meat-eating friend or two.

The lunch menu includes a selection of sandwiches, salads, and bowls that would appeal to most everyone — not just vegans or vegetarians. And a sourcing list on the back reads like a local who's who of fresh fare: Sunizona Family Farms, Maya's Farm, Rhiba Farms, and Chile Acres. Served up on colorful plates, many dishes arrive looking like artful centerpieces for a well-set table — with the added benefit of being edible. And they taste as spectacular as they appear.

There is a chunky wrap called the Rainbow, made with collard leaves stuffed with avocado, crunchy red and yellow peppers, tomato, carrot, sunflower sprouts, a "cheese" made with almonds whose texture is a little grainy — and a side of cashew lemon dressing that makes the flavors from the vegetables come alive even more than you may have thought possible. The Grilled Cheese Napoleon is layered with melted cheese, sautéed seasonal veggies, and tomato and oozes a macadamia basil pesto that is wonderfully light and nutty between pieces of vegan bread that are also light and nutty, but with a slightly sweet edge. And a Smokin' BLT comes with the unique addition of crunchy cucumber slices and a mildly spicy chipotle aioli. (Note to carnivores: Tempeh bacon doesn't come close to the real thing, so it might be best to make another selection.)

And for non-meat eaters in search of a sandwich with an a.m. edge, there is the highly satisfying Lumberjack. More lightly delectable than its hearty moniker would suggest, this breakfast sandwich features egg or tofu, tempeh bacon, tomato, avocado, cheese, housemade hash, and chipotle aioli between pieces of toasted kamut bread.

The salads are as stellar and as deftly constructed as the sandwiches. Berry Bliss Salad delivers on its name, with juicy strawberries, creamy goat cheese, crunchy pistachios, avocado, and a bright dressing of pomegranate raspberry poppy seed. Large, ragged pieces of flaxseed crackers top a mighty and colorful garden of earthy and slightly bitter lacinato (or Dinosaur) kale, its dark green leaves mixing with field greens, carrots, tomato, avocado, and sunflower seeds alongside a purple nest of sliced beets, with a creamy and bright cashew lemon dressing.

And Pomegranate's Southwestern-inspired blue corn taco salad, brilliant in both color and flavor, is most decidedly a meal in itself. Made with blue corn chips, quinoa, guacamole, fresh salsa, mildly sweet Anasazi beans (first cultivated by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in the the Four Corners region), soy chorizo, walnut meat, and a creamy nacho "cheese," this lively bowl of greens makes for a satisfying layering of textures and tastes. Sure, the meat and cheese products may miss the tastes-like-the-real-thing mark for carnivores, but I wasn't about to put my fork down — and my vegetarian gal pals were taking copious mental notes.

For those looking for more grain-focused fare, there is a nutty and spicy bowl called the Dragon. More unique, flavor-wise, than the Teriyaki "chicken" bowl, the Dragon arrives as a colorful mix of seasonal stir-fried veggies, chunks of tofu, and brown rice or quinoa in a light sauce and topped with enough rich and crunchy chile almonds for every bite.

Before stepping up to the counter to order, make sure to check out the chalkboard of the day's specials behind it. There, one might find a featured hummus of Indian lentil spice, a homemade soup of roasted carrots and bell peppers, and the day's burger, quesadilla, and pizza selections along with a few breakfast items.

If the burger of the day is mushroom, black bean, and sundried tomato, be sure to order it. Slathered with a stellar creamy basil spread, packed with veggies, and housed in a downy bun, it is moist, richly flavorful, and probably better than most hardened carnivores would like to admit. A scattering of lightly fried potato slices complements nicely.

Pomegranate's flatbread pizza, unfortunately, doesn't fare as well as the burger when it comes to trading off tastes that would be acceptable to all diners, no matter what their diets. For those who worship at the altar of butter and eggs, the butter-less and egg-less flatbread, well, falls flat and is very bland. Better to order up the featured quesadilla, in which a lightly grilled tortilla plays a supporting role, served as wedges filled with delectable ingredients. In my case, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and spinach with a lovely cilantro sauce.

If you are dining in and desire one of Marlene Tolman's vegan pastries, they will be brought out to you following your meal — a good thing, considering most might be greedily consumed beforehand. You won't be bored with the selection, which may include creations like dark magenta squares of raw blackberry cheesecake bites with a gummy crust, an Almond Joy-style candy bar that tastes remarkedly like the genuine article, or something called a Super Seed Ball, which is exactly what you would imagine. More power food than sweet treat, I'm told these golf ball-size orbs of various seeds and pure maple syrup are perfect for stowing in your purse in case of a hunger emergency.

As if Pomegranate's creations weren't colorful enough, the interior of the restaurant feels like a sunny indoor picnic with its brightly painted walls and magenta wood tables topped with jars of fresh flowers. The place is usually buzzing with customers, from older couples munching on savory breakfast skillets to friends catching up while slurping thick, organic fruit smoothies poured into mason jars to non-meat eaters in training attacking walnut "meat" tacos with shells of dark purple cabbage leaves as hungrily as if they were chicken nuggets. (Cassie Tolman should know a thing or two about healthy eating for kids; she created an organic lunch program for a Montessori school in Ahwatukee.)

Eating at Pomegrante Café might be best summed up by my vegetarian friend who matter-of-factly stated, "It shouldn't matter that it's vegan or vegetarian or raw. It should just taste good."

It does.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld