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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

Produce is King at Growing Power Café

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Few Milwaukeeans have attracted as much press in recent years as Will Allen. The charismatic local leader of the urban farming movement, Allen has received national media attention for his innovations at his farm Growing Power, including recognition from Barack and Michelle Obama and Time magazine, which deemed him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010. He’s done as much as anybody to spread the word about urban agriculture, and his advocacy has made fresh, organic produce available in Milwaukee’s inner city, where healthy food options are often few and far between.

As part of that cause, in 2012 Allen opened the Growing Power Cafe on 2737 N. King Drive, in a stretch of the North Side he describes as a food desert, a neighborhood without a grocery store in walking distance. Like Growing Power’s modest two-acre facility on 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, Growing Power Cafe is an unassuming operation, yet it provides a valuable service. Customers are greeted at the door by a deli counter, where they can order from a small menu of inexpensive sandwiches and salads, and a drink selection that includes Colectivo coffee ($2-$3), lemonade ($1-$2) and a wide variety of smoothies ($4). The cafe’s high-top tables are perched by big windows overlooking King Drive. To the rear there’s a market stocking a few pantry staples and an ever-rotating assortment of produce, which this time of the year includes fresh sweet corn, picture-perfect tomatoes, sweet potatoes nearly the size of Nerf footballs and a cooler full of greens.

It’s that produce that makes the cafe’s deli options worth seeking out. Even the most basic sandwich, like sliced turkey, ham or lean corned beef, can be loaded with salad mix, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and bell peppers. Opt for as many of those veggies as you can. They’re crisper and more fragrant than any you’ll find in a chain sandwich shop, and they lend the sandwiches a welcome crunch that complements the soft bread. Crunch is also key to the deli’s exceptional chicken salad, which is made with Growing Power’s free-range chicken and crisp bites of celery and bell pepper.

Befitting Growing Power’s mission to offer a healthy alternative to the fast food most widely available in low-income areas, prices are cheap. Most sandwiches are $6. Grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and buttery fried egg sandwiches, made with free-range eggs, are just $4 a piece.

Those prices make it hard to pass on the soup of the day ($2.50 for a generous small portion; $5 for a meal-sized large). On a recent visit the specialty was a hearty jambalaya loaded with mild sausage and cubes of roasted chicken. Though not as spicy as many jambalayas, it was nonetheless plenty flavorful, with pieces of okra and firm kernels of fresh Growing Power corn lending a subtle sweetness. Like almost everything served at Growing Power Cafe, it’s a simple, satisfying dish that lets the quality of its ingredients shine through.