Steam Engine Cafe

When I pulled up to Jacksonville's newest cafe — a yellow, cottage-like restaurant — and observed the white picket fence, baskets of red geraniums and green awning shading four quaint bistro tables, I was immediately charmed.

Steam Engine Cafe, suitable for Goldilocks herself, opened 12 weeks ago in the building formerly occupied by Country Cottage Cafe. The fledgling business is owned by Trevor and Kali Hill and operated by the entire Hill family, including their 14-year-old daughter Megan and 12-year-old son Jeremy, who help out by waiting on and clearing tables.

Last year, Trevor and Kali, who owned their own bakery, Applegate Valley Delight, had the notion to open an eatery and selected the empty cafe as the prime spot for their endeavor. From the beginning, the couple's intent was to offer an all-natural menu, free of preservatives, artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils and other "bad stuff," says Trevor Hill.

In fact, about 25 percent of the cafe's ingredients are organic, including much of its staple ingredients such as milk, flour and oatmeal.

On a recent midday visit, my mom and I were seated outside, per our request, and offered the cafe's wholesome menu.

Outdoor seating proved to be popular as groups squeezed chairs around small bistro tables nearby in lieu of sitting indoors on such a fine afternoon. Despite the demand for patio seating, inside the cottage was no less cheery than the outside with four round tables, red tablecloths, white patio chairs and rustic country decor.

Eyeing several refreshing summer beverages on the chalkboard special's menu, I chose my seasonal favorite — strawberry lemonade — for $2.50. Counting on a tangy lemonade sweetened by fresh strawberries, I was duly disappointed when a glass of pink and slightly syrupy lemonade arrived.

On a return visit, I think I would prefer one of Steam Engine's whole-fruit smoothies. Smoothies, available in peach, mixed berry, strawberry and banana, are sweetened with organic agave. Prices are $3.90 for 12 ounces or $4.50 for 16 ounces.

Panini and open-faced sandwiches account for the majority of the cafe menu, but salads also are an option. All sandwiches are served with either homemade potato salad or a garden salad. Meal specials are half of a panini sandwich with a cup of soup and a cookie for $7.75 or a cup of soup with a house salad and ciabatta bread for $7.25.

Hungry as I was, I was willing to forgo the specials for a whole, turkey-pepperoncini panini served on sourdough bread ($6.50 for a half; $8.75 for a whole). Unable to resist the appeal of artichoke hearts, my mom ordered a pesto-chicken open-faced sandwich, also served on sourdough ($7.75 for a half; $9.95 for a whole).

Other sandwiches were served on ciabatta with rosemary, sprouted multigrain or rye. All breads are made locally at Rise Up Artisan Bread, located in the Applegate Valley.

The panini selection ranges from vegetarian and Reuben to steak and barbecue chicken. A similar variety is available for open-faced sandwiches. Prices vary from $5.50 to $7.75 for a half to $7.75 to $9.95 for a whole.

The garden side salads were delivered in a timely manner and featured fresh greens and tomatoes from area farms. I couldn't help but think the salad would have benefited from a third or fourth vegetable.

When the food arrived, it became apparent that the little Steam Engine Cafe would ride on the success of their scrumptious sandwich fare.

The cafe uses marinated and grilled tidbits of turkey, chicken or beef rather than traditional deli meats lending itself to a savory sandwich. Turkey and chicken have a balsamic-vinegar marinade, beef a smoked-hickory marinade.

The turkey panini was grilled until golden on a sandwich press and layered with mesquite-grilled turkey strips, pepperoncinis, sauted onions, tomatoes, pepper-jack cheese and ranch dressing. The sandwich had been a favorite among Country Cottage customers and, at their request, Hill hunted down the recipe and substituted turkey strips for deli meat in a palatable variation.

My mom's sandwich was just as attractive. Pesto, which is often applied too generously, was spread aptly over the toasted sourdough heaped with chicken, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, fresh spinach, cheese and mushrooms. My mom commented that open-faced means twice the good stuff, and she was right.

Too full to be tempted by the deli case full of baked treats, such as carrot cake, lemon bars and brownies, my mom and I topped off our lunch with a cool classic — homemade vanilla ice cream ($2 for one scoop). While ice-cream flavors currently comprise only vanilla and chocolate, Hill says he is developing recipes for strawberry and caramel, as well.

Steam Engine Cafe offers breakfast five days a week that include omelets ($6.95); an inviting breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs, steak and cheese on an organic rosemary ciabatta bread ($6.95) as well as parfaits, oatmeal and homemade granola (each $5.95).

— Teresa Thomas

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