Gourmand Cafe Veggie Panini

Gourmand Cafe – West Reading

Gourmand Cafe West Reading Exterior

By now, most Berks County residents know the name Gourmand. It started with the food truck that introduced the county to “artisan street food.” That was followed by multiple brick-and-mortar locations (some that have already come and gone).

The Gourmand brand has truly been everywhere around Berks County.

In March, Gourmand expanded their empire again, this time opening a cafe amid the busy dining scene in West Reading.

Gourmand Cafe Interior 2

The Gourmand Cafe sits on the 700 block of Penn Avenue in the former Relish, a cafe and coffee shop that operated for about two years.

I visited on a Friday afternoon in July and found a much quieter place than I was expecting. Only one other table was filled  as a mother and daughter enjoyed lunch by the front window.

Gourmand Cafe Interior 1

The menu written on the chalkboard behind the counter didn’t match the printed one. The burgers advertised on the chalkboard, I was told, were no longer available. Unfortunately a chalkboard artist had not been brought in yet to scroll the new menu.

What was left on the menu was mostly light fare like avocado toast, bagels, breakfast sandwiches and salads. A few sandwiches were available and ultimately I settled on a veggie panini.

It was a surprisingly hearty vegetarian entree consisting of (as listed on the menu) pressed sourdough with hummus, cucumber, mushroom pate, avocado, arugula and balsamic reduction.

Gourmand Cafe Veggie Panini

The hummus was easily my favorite part. It has a great flavor (read Julie’s review of the other Gourmand Cafe for more on their hummus) and it is an excellent base to start a sandwich. The cucumber, especially, mixed really well with it, and avocado is always a hit with me. It’s not the gut-busting Berks sandwich, but it was very good.

With no fryer, there are no fries. Instead, all sandwiches are served with Gourmand’s seasoned pretzels. The broken hard pretzels are coated with ranch flavoring for a simple, but good side.

On a whim, I also ordered a strawberry bubble tea to accompany my meal. It was refreshing and a nice change of pace from my usual unsweetened iced tea.

Gourmand Cafe Strawberry Bubble Tea

I certainly enjoyed my meal, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Gourmand’s West Reading location doesn’t really fit with the brand. My past Gourmand experiences have included a fried sweet bologna sandwich, pastrami and cheese-topped fries, and an Italian steak sandwich. The West Reading menu is the complete opposite.

It doesn’t help that the updated menu (sans burgers) isn’t available online. The only menu posted on Gourmand’s Facebook page is from the restaurant’s opening and includes four burger options. Gourmand’s website only features the menu for the Berkshire Cafe with items like truffled goat cheese fries and ahi ceviche fish tacos. 

The food was very good. The cafe had a nice vibe to it. Even with the bubble tea my meal was less than $15. And I can’t complain about the service, but I still felt a little disappointed.

As I finished up my meal, I heard the manager tell someone that the Cafe is Gourmand’s healthy alternative.

I guess I’m just more of an “artisan street food” kind of guy.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Service: Good
Price: Reasonable

Gourmand Cafe
715 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Cafes & Coffeeshops Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian
Hive Red Thai Chili Bowl

HIVE

Hive Local Food Kutztown

Some restaurants serve a very specific niche. They identify and fill a need for the community around them.

In a college town like Kutztown, there are students from all walks of life. Along Main Street, there are what feels like an endless number of restaurants that are casting a wide net – pizza and bar food that appeal to a wide range of students and locals, alike.

But then there are places like Hive, a local organic farm-to-table cafe.

Hive Local Food Kutztown

The appeal for Hive is that it doesn’t have mass appeal. It’s tucked away along Sacony Alley, only one street off Main Street, but it feels like a mile away. The alley is quiet. Instead of storefronts, it’s dominated by the backyards – or back parking lots – of homes and businesses.

The “front door” for Hive looks more like the backdoor to a warehouse. Essentially, it is. The space that houses the cafe is repurposed industrial – a large room that would otherwise be very sterile and cold if not for the vibrant metal tables and chairs, the beautifully drawn menu signs, and the shelves of organic produce.

Hive Local Food Kutztown

It was a quiet Sunday, just after 12 noon when we arrived. There was just one table in use. We claimed the other four-person table and brought over a high chair for Jakob before placing our order at the counter.

Hive’s menu – full of vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian options, all organic – expands on Sundays, when additional brunch items supplement the regular lunch menu.

I ordered the heaviest out of the three of us – opting for both a noodle bowl and a smoothie.

Hive Red Thai Chili Bowl

My fin sùt sùt red Thai curry featured rice noodles, spiraled zucchini, carrots, kale, cilantro, lime wedges and scallions in a Thai curry sauce.

Like a pho noodle bowl, the sauce was a thin broth. Rather than a soup with vegetables cooked in the broth, many of the vegetables were placed on top of the noodle bed – the carrots added raw and uncooked.

The broth was definitely kicking, spicy enough to clear out my sinuses but not too spicy that I couldn’t enjoy the dish. This is where most of the flavor came from as rice noodles are rather plain on their own. Aside from the broth, it was a bowl of individual flavors, but I enjoyed it throughout.

Hive Queen Bee Smoothie

I was also glad to have the smoothie to ease the heat – especially because the one glass of spring water – though served in a very cool beaker – didn’t last very long.

It was the “Queen Bee,”  a strawberry banana smoothie with almond milk and bee pollen. I was a fan. It was sweet, but not overly sweet. It definitely helped cool down my burning mouth as well.

Hive Smoked Mozzarella and Mushroom Panini

For her meal, Julie went with the smoked mozzarella and mushroom panini. It was served on a locally made ciabatta bread. It was simple, but delicious. The smoky flavor of the cheese really shined through. And the mushrooms made for a nice, flavorful filler.

Hive Mixed Green Salad

Her sandwich came with a mixed green salad that was served as an appetizer.  It featured spring mix, beets, carrots and a strong, but enjoyable, balsamic dressing. The carrots were raw and cut thick so they were a little more challenging, but the beets added a nice note to the salad. And everything tasted like it came right out of the garden that day.

Hive offers two kids items – a grilled cheese and the a PB&J. We ordered the grilled cheese because it’s something we know he has eaten at daycare. But I can tell you, they don’t serve it like this at daycare.

Hive Kids Grilled cheese

The grilled cheese featured a sharp cheddar that was bright orange and full of flavor. And the wheat bread from Daily Loaf Bakery was delicious, especially toasted as it was. Jakob (and mommy and daddy) thoroughly enjoyed it. He finished half of it at the restaurant. The other half went home in a box with the banana that was served as a side (he also got a juice box with his kids meal).

A lot of times, “organic” is synonymous with “pricey,” but I thought our meal was very reasonable. For a noodle bowl, panini, smoothie and a kids meal, we paid just under $40. I would pay that again for our meal.

Hive serves a specific niche, sure, but the food is definitely good enough to expand the customer base. Yes, the cafe specializes in vegan, vegetarian and organic foods. But it’s a cafe first.

And it’s a good one at that.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Fair
Price: Reasonable

Hive
236 W. Sacony Alley
Kutztown, PA 19530

Lunch & Dinner Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian
Park Road Cafe Sleasy Caprese

Park Road Cafe

The Park Road Cafe is one of Berks County’s newest restaurants. Named for the Wyomissing street where it sits in a shopping center, the restaurant took over the former Green Bean Cafe (later, Meat Up Delicatessen)

Both of its predecessors were short-lived. The former – an all-organic cafe – lasted about nine months. The latter – a New York-style deli – made it two more.

By mid-summer, the space was vacant and the transformation into the Park Road Cafe began. And you wouldn’t recognize the space from the inside. The new look is clean and bold. (The murals of vegetables had already been removed with the changeover to the deli).

The only “problem” we had with the change is the lack of seating. There are only about eight tables plus a small loveseat and matching chair in the corner. And to be fair, there wasn’t a lot of seating before, either.

Another couple claimed the couch and Julie took the chair – the last seat available in the room. That left me sitting on the window ledge. (There are more tables outside, but winter has arrived early so they’re not getting much use).

The menu isn’t large, but that’s not a bad thing. I’ll take quality over quantity any day. And the food at the Park Road Cafe is definitely quality.

With only seven sandwich options to choose from at lunch, our decisions were easy. For me, it was the Sleasy Caprese. It’s a dirty-sounding name, but a delicious sandwich with grilled chicken, basil pesto, mozzarella, tomato, balsamic glaze and rosemary butter served on wheatberry oat bread.

I didn’t get much of a taste for the rosemary butter, but I loved everything else. The ingredients tasted fresh and vibrant and there was just enough balsamic to give it the distinct flavor without overpowering everything. And the bread held up nicely and never got soggy, always a bonus.

Julie’s Aww Brie sandwich came served on an equally sturdy brioche bun. Sliced turkey, melted brie, garlic aioli, arugula and berry jam made for a unique flavor experience.

Sure, it was reminiscent of a Thanksgiving-inspired sandwich, but the garlic aioli added depth of flavor that made it different enough to stand out.

Both sandwiches were served with kettle chips, an expected but enjoyable side.

We cleared our plates but neither of us felt like we had been cheated – comfortably full is how we felt after we had finished.

And we didn’t feel cheated on the price either. At a little more than $20, it was a fair price to pay for a lunch. I will say that it is not the fastest lunch that you are going to find in Berks County – it was a solid 20 minutes from the time we arrived until our food was brought to our table.

But I will take that wait when the food is this good.

Hopefully Park Road Cafe has hit on the recipe for success that it’s predecessors couldn’t.

So far, so good.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Park Road Cafe
840 N. Park Rd
Wyomissing, PA 19610

Cafes & Coffeeshops Lunch & Dinner Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian

Hawaii Kitchen

I can’t think of a place in America farther away from Berks County – both physically and culturally – than Hawaii.

Hawaii is a tropical paradise. Berks County sometimes gets hit with a tropical storm. Hawaii is a destination thanks to its pristine beaches. The “beaches” at Blue Marsh Lake just can’t compare.

So the last cuisine I expected to make its way to Berks County was poke bowls, the Hawaiian specialty dish usually consisting of seafood, rice, vegetables and sauce – think a deconstructed sushi roll.

But then Hawaii Kitchen opened in West Reading earlier this year and a piece of the islands arrived in Berks.

Hawaii Kitchen opened earlier this year in the former Petite Milan – a children’s clothing store – in the 500 block of Penn Avenue.

The restaurant is roomier than it looks from the outside. Despite the narrow footprint, Hawaii Kitchen packs in tables of two and four with an additional row of counter seats. It’s not the biggest dining room in West Reading, but it serves its purpose.

There were only a few others seated inside when we arrived on a recent Saturday night – Julie and I with little Jakob in tow. The restaurant’s owner fawned over Jakob when she saw him so I’ll give some bonus points there.

We ordered at the counter and grabbed a table for two at the front window.

The first item to arrive was my avocado salad. It was a simple salad with just three ingredients: mixed greens, avocado and sesame-ginger dressing. But it was absolutely delicious.

I loved the dressing. It was salty; it was a little sweet without the bitter aftertaste of a balsamic. And with the simplicity of the salad, it just worked. It was also more filling than I would have imagined for a side salad, mostly thanks to the avocado.

Our entrees arrived shortly thereafter. Julie was going to be the one to try a bowl, the avo-coco shrimp bowl, a summer special advertised on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

The bowl included mango, strawberry, pineapple, avocado and shrimp tossed in a coconut sauce. This is not a “traditional” poke, but Julie loved it.

Part fruit salad, part poke bowl, it was sweet and bright. Coconut and shrimp are always a winning combination, but the addition of the other fruits – including the avocado – added a little more flavor depth and really helped make it into a real meal. Julie was very surprised by how full she was after finishing it.

I skipped the bowl and went for the restaurant’s other specialty, the sushi burrito.

My first sushi burrito experience came courtesy of Hai Street Kitchen at the King of Prussia Mall. Hai Street has a few more than Hawaii Kitchen for its rolls, but the concept is the same: take sushi and supersize it to eat more like a burrito.

There are five sushi burritos on the menu – all but one of them are seafood based with shrimp, salmon, crab salad or a combination of the three. I skipped the fish and went with the vegetarian option instead.

My “burrito” included tofu, cucumber, avocado, spring mix and sweet chili sauce rolled in purple rice and seaweed wrap.

The purple rice made for great presentation but it was really just rice. And the first bite – mostly tofu and rice – was a bit disappointing. But the second bite hit home with the sweet chili sauce. Eventually all of the flavors started to mingle a little more and every bite was flavorful.

Tofu is mainly just filler, and that was fine with me. The other flavors – especially the delightful sweet chili sauce – were what really mattered.

Neither Julie nor I are experts in poke bowls, sushi or anything else on the menu at the Hawaii Kitchen, but we were both impressed with our meals. Though at $32 – with two bottles of iced tea included – I wouldn’t call it a bargain.

Still, we enjoyed it. And whether or not it was “authentic” doesn’t really matter to us. We liked it.

Also, it’s not like we’re going to Hawaii anytime soon so we’ll just enjoy what we have.

BCE Rating
Food: Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Hawaii Kitchen
510 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Asian & Pacific Islands Lunch & Dinner Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian

Firefly Cafe

firefly-cafe-sign

For all the great diversity in Berks County’s restaurant scene, there is always room to grow. The key is opening a restaurant that is different, that isn’t serving the same food as the place down the street.

Find the right niche and serve great food and drinks, and the eatery is likely to be a success.

A vegan/vegetarian cafe in downtown Boyertown? Now that’s a niche.

Open since April, the Firefly Cafe is a place unlike any other in the county.

firefly-cafe-interior-1

Specializing in breakfast and lunch, it’s one of just a handful of meatless restaurants in the region (along with places like Chen Vegetarian House in West Reading and the iCreate Cafe in Pottstown).

In addition to its normal hours, Firefly opens up for dinner service on Fridays and Saturdays. That’s when we made our trek eastward for a taste.

Two warm fireplaces greeted us inside. One, a large video screen above the restrooms. The second, a faux fireplace, one of the smallest I have ever seen, was sitting near our table giving off a charming glow.

There was one couple leaving with a to-go package when we arrived with a few more groups coming and going during the 45 minutes we spent at the cafe.

firefly-cafe-interior-2

Our table was by one of the front windows where we could enjoy the nightscapes of Boyertown. Our server – one of the owners – dropped off a pair of menus and some infused water (cucumber for me, orange for Julie) and told us she would take our orders at the counter when we were ready.

I had perused the menu before we arrived so I was feeling good about my decision – the vegan pulled pork sandwich.

firefly-cafe-vegan-pulled-pork-sandwich

What’s a vegan pulled pork sandwich? Well it looks a lot like the real thing, but jackfruit (a fruit in the fig family, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia) takes the place of the meat. It was topped by vegan tri-color slaw (carrots and cabbage in a plant-based cream).

It was a delicious recreation. The barbecued jackfruit made for a much sweeter sandwich, but the phenomenal multi-grain roll helped balance it out. The slaw was great, adding more flavor with a crunchy texture.

Could you tell it wasn’t meat? Yes. Did I care? No.

All dinners come with a side of greens and choice of house-made dressings. I went with the carrot ginger.

It was a light, chunky dressing with lots of carrots and pinch of ginger. Easily one of the best salad dressings that I’ve tried in my Berks County Eats adventure.

firefly-cafe-vegan-lasagna

For her meal, Julie went for the vegan lasagna, whole wheat noodles with tomato sauce, vegetables and vegan cheese.

Again, it wasn’t the same as eating true Italian lasagna, but it was enjoyable. Among the vegetables inside were carrots and olives. The tomato sauce was definitely fresh. The vegan cheese was tasty. And it had a nice crumbly top layer that added texture to the dish.

And it was surprisingly filling for a meatless dish.

On her side of greens, Julie opted for the lemon miso-tahini dressing. It had a vibrant citrus flavor and was much creamier than mine (thanks to the tahini). It was another winning creation.

We felt so good about having eaten a health-conscious meal that we skipped the dessert (though chia pudding is about as guiltless as you can get) so our final total was right around $25.

The Firefly Cafe is different from anything else in Berks County, and that’s a great thing.

And whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, omnivore or carnivore, it’s definitely worth trying.

BCE Rating
Food: Excellent
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Firefly Cafe
12 N. Reading Ave
Boyertown, PA 19512

Firefly Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lunch & Dinner Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian

Chen Vegetarian House

chen-vegetarian-house

It is very hard for a Chinese restaurant to set itself apart. With so much competition—it seems as though there is at least one in every town—there has to be something unique, a hook that separates it from the pack.

One West Reading restaurant found a way to make its mark on the Berks County food scene by taking Chinese food in a new direction by giving it a vegetarian twist and making it more healthy.

That’s what makes Chen Vegetarian House different from the rest.

In addition to healthful foods, Chen offers a range of healthful drink options including 18 fruit and vegetable juices, five dairy-free smoothie flavors, and four kinds of hot teas.

chen-vegetarian-house-papaya-smoothie

I was craving something sweet so I went with a papaya smoothie. Papaya has always been one of my favorite fruit flavors, but it’s one that isn’t readily available. The fruit has a light sweetness, a perfect base for a refreshing drink.

chen-vegetarian-house-apple-pineapple-ginger-juice

Of the 18 juice bar options, more than half start with carrot. The rest are pure fruit, most mixed with ginger to add a little spice to the sweetness. Julie’s juice cocktail was a combination of apple and pineapple with a hint of ginger.

Chen Vegetarian House has some familiar sounding entrees on its menu: General Tso’s chicken, beef teriyaki, and sweet and sour chicken. But as a vegetarian restaurant, all of the “meat” is made from soy  and wheat. The shapes and textures are meant to resemble the real thing because sesame chicken sounds a whole lot more appealing than sesame tofu.

My original plan was to try the vegetarian version of General Tso’s, but the description of the mango chicken sounded so good that I changed my plans. And it was the right decision.

chen-vegetarian-house-mango-chicken

The dish included strips of mango, “chicken,” onions and peppers tossed in citrus sauce and served inside a mango shell. The best part of the dish was the fresh mango, which took center stage over the tofu that was there strictly to absorb the sweet sauce and make the dish more filling.

I was actually happy that there was no meat in this dish because chicken would have made it too heavy. It was hard enough to finish the giant plate of food as it was, but I couldn’t let any of it go to waste.

chen-vegetarian-house-orange-beef

Across the table from me, Julie went with the orange flavored beef. The tofu in this case was made to look and feel more like strips of steak and served atop a bed of broccoli. The orange tangerine glaze was thick and stuck to the tofu.

The flavor was spot on, sweet and tangy with just a little spice. The tofu came close to the right consistency, though it was a little chewier, closer to beef jerky than steak. Still, it was a great dish, one that Julie got two meals out of (it was just as good heated up as it was fresh, the mark of good Chinese food).

Not only are Chen’s dishes comparable to its meatier counterparts, but the prices are similar as well. Entrees are all in the $10-12 range. Our two specialty drinks put our final bill right at the $30 mark.

Chen Vegetarian House is truly unique in Berks County, a place that serves one-of-a-kind dishes not found anywhere else around.

And it’s meals like this that make Chen as good as, if not better than, all of the other Chinese restaurants out there.

BCE Rating
Food: Excellent
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Fair
Price: Very Reasonable

Chen Vegetarian House
709 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Chen Vegetarian House on Urbanspoon

Asian & Pacific Islands Lunch & Dinner Reviews Vegan & Vegetarian