Organicos Natural Cafe

A change in name and ownership seems to come at a curious time for fans of Medford's former Grilla Bites restaurant.

A new line of gluten-free baked goods buoyed the downtown eatery in a turbulent economy, said co-founder Harlan Ward. But success of vegan doughnuts, organic cookies and rice bread widened the divide between Ward's restaurant and others in the Chico, Calif.-based chain, which still includes the Ashland location.

Ward further distanced himself last month by selling the restaurant to Rogue Valley newcomers Russ and Julie Moore but not before creating a new identity and menu to go along with it. Organicos Natural Cafe quietly unveiled its full array of breakfast, lunch and dinner items about three weeks ago.

True to his word, Ward retained the organic specialties that made Grilla Bites so popular with a diverse downtown clientele while presenting them in a slightly different way. Organicos also makes good on its new gluten-free focus with rice-bread sandwiches and a macaroni-and-cheese-dish, one of several daily hot specials that have recently included lasagna and quiche.

I had been waiting to try the much-touted mac-n-cheese ($7.95) since mid-May. My co-worker ordered the vegetable quiche special, also $7.95, which came with garlic bread, a bed of sprouts and celery and carrot sticks with hummus.

Customers still order at the counter, assemble their own flatware, fill their own water glasses and line up to weigh selections from the salad bar. With about 50 items daily, the salad bar is arguably the biggest in town and certainly most accommodating to specialized diets. It costs $8.95 per pound.

The Moores also retained the former Grilla Bites staff and maintained the casual ambiance of couches, community bulletin board and rotating art displays that have characterized the restaurant since its 2006 debut. And — true to their word — the couple did not raise prices, at least for the time being. The most expensive items, at $9.95 apiece, are 10 burgers and wraps. The least expensive is a cup of soup, some vegan and gluten-free, for $3.50.

My gluten-free mac-n-cheese arrived piping hot in an individual gratin dish. The rigatoni-shaped rice noodles were punctuated with good-sized broccoli florets and bathed in plenty of cheese sauce. I wasn't expecting Stouffer's or Amy's Kitchen, for that matter, but the sauce wasn't as creamy as I had hoped, and the broccoli cooked a little more than expected.

Happily, the portion was on the large size while my co-worker's slice of quiche seemed small by comparison. Yet he appreciated the quiche's flavor because it wasn't "too eggy." We both enjoyed the accompanying sides of garlic toast, mine from Organicos' gluten-free rice bread, which has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.

New Sammy's "Cowboy" bread is the standard choice for the restaurant's nine sandwiches, now called "panini-style" instead of "grillas." Customers can order gluten-free bread at an extra charge of 25 cents per half sandwich or 50 cents for the whole.

Sandwich selections range from vegetarian versions with soy "bacon" and grilled tofu to turkey with pesto, cranberry sauce or guacamole to the "classic" Reuben with real pastrami. Prices are $5.95 for a half, $8.95 for a whole, which include organic, blue corn tortilla chips and veggies with homemade salsa or hummus.

For my money, I still like the grilled three-cheese sandwich with pesto ($4.75 for a half, $6.75 for a whole), particularly with a cup of tomato-basil soup. The salad bar also makes a satisfying meal when diners add some high-quality proteins and house-made salad dressings. Along with vegan "ranch," the more interesting dressings are roasted red pepper, shiitake-sesame, honey-ginger and "goddess."

I most recently chose the honey-ginger for my salad of bay shrimp, seasoned tofu, peas, black olives, capers, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes and rye croutons on mesclun greens with cottage cheese.

When it's breakfast time, Organicos' customers can assemble their own omelets or choose a scramble, waffle, sandwich, wrap or eggs to order.

— Sarah Lemon

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