Tree huggers are often depicted as patchouli-scented fruitcakes who seek to advance their own political views at the expense of others. Shana Trepal may be a tree hugger, but her ideology is one that most of us painlessly can support.
Like best-selling author Michael Pollan, Trepal believes we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (Although, based on portion sizes at her seven-month-old Treehugger's Café, Trepal can use some guidance on the "not too much" clause in that manifesto.) Almost without exception, the food served at this tiny Berea bistro is whole, organic and untainted by the toxins of agribusiness.
"I wanted to open a place that serves food as fresh as you can get it," explains Trepal. "Whole food that can be traced back to its source — not from cans and packages — that doesn't contain preservatives, hormones, pesticides and all that crap."
While "green" is most assuredly the new black, the whole-food movement is hardly new to Trepal. "My dad is an organic farmer," she says. "I grew up eating fresh, whole foods. It's been my way of life." Dad, in fact, supplies the cafe with some of its fresh-grown herbs and veggies. The remainder of the restaurant's larder is stocked by a patchwork of thoughtful producers and purveyors. Dairy products come from Hartzler, a chemical-free farm in Wooster. Artisan whole-grain breads are hand-made at a local bakeshop. Cage-free eggs come from small family farms. Even the Fair Trade coffee, while certainly not grown locally, is roasted down the street and never more than three days old.
That coffee, like every other item on the all-day menu, is named after an endangered species. In addition to the Hoot Owl coffee, there are Mexican Bobcat muffins, Hawaiian Crow hummus and a Red Wolf rice bowl. The practice can grow a bit absurd, like in the case of the Rock Hopper Penguin organic chicken salad wrap. And if the Sesame Street designations don't sufficiently convey the message, the Discovery Channel animal prints lining the walls most certainly will. I pity the fur-clad diner who is forced to eat while peering into the watery eyes of a baby harp seal.
Fortunately, the food makes up for the shtick. In the Tree Hugger's salad ($6.95), impeccably fresh field greens are dotted with sweet dried fruit, chopped mushrooms and creamy goat cheese. Large enough to sate a mature giraffe, the bountiful salad is tossed in a seductive honey-lemon vinaigrette.
Ample enough for a small African village, the house-made hummus platter ($8.95) is stacked high with warm pita, bright veggies and a mountain of fluffy, addictive hummus. I sidestep the thick discs of raw zucchini and squash in favor of the baby carrots and red bell pepper. The kitchen makes it easy to go halfsies on dishes, splitting salads, sandwiches, even a fabulous Asian carrot soup ($5.95) with sliced almonds into separate servings.
As one might guess, Treehugger's is a vegetarian diner's best friend. More than half of the menu items are meat-free, and many of those are easily upgraded to full-on vegan. Conversely, many of the vegetarian items can be made omnivore-friendly by the addition of grilled organic chicken ($2.95).
Tasting like a cross between falafel and a bowl of chili, the black bean burger ($8.95) is a dense and filling sandwich that arrives bearing a fair amount of spice. Served on a soft knotted roll with greens, onions and sprouts, the "meaty" patty is delicious but a tad dry. If there was any sauce on the sandwich, it escaped our notice.
After performing a chicken-ectomy to remove the dry chicken slices from our Sea Turtle chicken panini ($8.95), we rather enjoyed the resulting sandwich. Built on herby bread and grilled, the summery mixture of avocado, caramelized onion, Swiss and pesto makes for a dreamy vegetarian meal. For $2.95, diners can tack on an order of fresh-cut fries or sweet potato fries. The former are superb, while the latter are showered with a dose of cinnamon that may spoil the fun for some.
Treehugger's Café would be a natural fit on the leafy campus of a liberal-arts college. (In fact, plans are in the works for a possible Oberlin outpost.) But this particular patch in Berea is anything but bucolic. Slapped onto the end of a strip mall, the boxy space is less than comfortable, with too many tables and chairs for the tight quarters. Things only get tighter on those nights when a band takes up residence in the corner.
For both wholesome food and physical comfort, consider ordering your meal by phone ahead of time for pick-up at the convenient drive-up window.