HEALTHY HABITS CAFE
4756 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland; 863-644-6688
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
THE GIST: Informal cafe specializing in gluten-free soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees.
CREDIT CARDS: All but American Express accepted.
PRICE RANGE: $6.50 to $10.
APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS: Yes.
MUST TRY: Chicken salad, meat loaf, collard greens, brownies.
You'll never miss the gluten, not in the dark and richly decadent chocolate brownies, or the moist corn muffins flecked with jalapeno, or even the house sandwich bread, a workhorse in white that's a tad stiff but tastes just dandy.
When dining at Joe McKee's South Lakeland cafe, you will be exorcising from your diet a protein that, while troublesome for people with a digestive condition called celiac disease, has become the bane of some health practitioners out of concerns over genetic modification of grain and overall digestive health.
Going gluten-free has entered the mainstream, with some of the country's most posh restaurants dishing up alternative products such as pastas made from chick pea or buckwheat flours, or gravies thickened with cornstarch or arrowroot instead of wheat flour.
McKee, 61, of Winter Haven began to avoid gluten some 24 years ago on advice that the protein found in wheat, barley and rye could be contributing to his prostate inflammation.
"Sure enough, two weeks into the diet all of my symptoms went away," he said. "From that time on, I've sort of had a little bit of a mission."
An avid cyclist and businessman with two health and nutrition stores in Winter Haven and Lakeland, McKee opened his cafe in May, primarily, he said, to educate consumers on the virtues of a gluten-free diet.
Healthy Habits Cafe, located next door to his Lakeland nutrition shop at the Lake Miriam plaza, offers a smart, perfectly peaceful zen-like space to imbibe quick, healthful tonics or one of several smoothies with names like Berry Pro and Liquid Sunshine, priced at $6.50.
The restaurant sells frozen yogurt and a frozen treat akin to a soft-serve sorbet. But a key feature is its baked goods: muffins, cookies and those killer brownies.
If you're hankering for something more substantial, no worries. The kitchen awaits with a varied menu of soups, $4 for an 8-ounce serving, salads, hovering in the $8.50 range, along with sandwiches, wraps and some surprisingly good hot entrees that are carefully orchestrated to be kind to your heart, and waistline.
I admit some initial skepticism when confronted with, of all things, a plate of meatloaf. It was somewhat jarring, out of place in such hallowed quarters, surrounded by so much whey and wheat grass. I gave in to temptation, and am happy to report that capable, even delicious Southern comfort food does have a place in this tidy cafe, where the beef's organic and grass fed, and the chicken in that delightfully fruity chicken salad sandwich tasting of fresh dill spent its last days roaming free.
The recipes, which eschew heavy fats and, of course, anything containing gluten, rely on vegetables and other healthful adjuncts for flavor. A side of smoky, stewed collard greens, for instance, may taste like your grandmother's, perhaps even better, but contain nary a ham hock.
Rather, the tender greens lush with meaty flavor do not rely on meat at all, but the creative larder of chef Sheila Barcelo, an acolyte of Jordan Rubin, a nutritionist known for his diet books based on foods found in the Bible. Barcelo is a former caterer who has designed recipes for one of Rubin's books. She doctors her dishes with herbs and spices, coaxing flavor without added calories.
Her baked cod, a featured special from time to time, is moist and beautifully spare in its presentation. If you need a punch of heat, or a squirt of lemon, or something vinegary, they've got you covered.
Hot entrees, priced around $10, change from time to time, and usually include a vegetable side and corn muffin. The price is a bit stiff given portion sizes, but quality trumps quantity. Besides, it's much more sensible to eat this way rather than gorging on things you know you'll regret.
During an Aug. 25 inspection the cafe was cited for only one basic and one intermediate violations, including a bin of uncovered lemons at the drink station.
McKee deserves much merit for his interest in helping people discover the benefits of going gluten-free. While scientists are still chewing on the pros and cons of gluten, the din from folks like McKee is growing louder. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, diet fads come and go, but interest in gluten-free eating shows no sign of waning.
Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528.