Knowing what's good for you and knowing what's bad can make dining an exercise in deprivation. Indeed, the leading national gluten-free publication is somewhat unfortunately titled Living Without. But Tamara Brown of Sassy Spoon is putting out nutritious food that convinces us we're not missing a thing.
Brown's particular brand of cooking eschews gluten and processed fats and uses refined sugars minimally; it embraces organic meat, vegetables, and lard, a natural fat that she loves, and renders herself onsite (the cracklins left behind are offered as an ice cream topping). Her menus are designed "to help maintain energy and reduce cravings for sugar and high-carb foods, and to incorporate protein, healthy fat, and fiber so that blood sugar levels remain stable, which helps reduce internal inflammation, boost moods, and support the body and brain."
That's all well and good, but how's it taste?
The menu is anchored by highly flavorful pulled meats: braises like miso pork, spicy beef, and a red curry chicken as authentic and balanced as anything from any local Thai restaurant. Paired with collard greens or slaw, pickled onions, and a handful of lightly dressed field greens, they make a satisfying meal for almost any occasion or time of day. Small plates like stuffed dates come wrapped in high-quality local bacon, yuca patties are crisp and light and a delightful vehicle for lick-the-ramekin jalapeño cilantro sauce, and turkey meatballs are plain but wholesome and enlivened by a liquid candy-like soy dipping sauce.
This simply nourishing brand of cooking, properly seasoned and clean, is like a life raft in the sometimes over-the-top landscape of dining. Cupboards have a bad case of Old Mother Hubbard? Look here. It's as if you home-cooked it, but better.
Brown and company do perform a few magic tricks distinctly their own. For starters, Sassy's bone broth is an unexpected winner for best breakfast on the go. Why do we only eat broth when we're sick? We are so confident in its medicinal properties that we ply our suffering children with it when they are bedridden, but when the cooties disperse, we forget about it almost entirely until the next moment of duress. Sassy offers three varieties of broth — beef, miso, and chicken with turmeric and ginger; the last is like drinking everything good about Indian cuisine. The high protein and mineral benefits of bone broths are well documented, and the rich liquids are gaining a resurgence among health-types. Buy a $3.50 cup, keep it in the fridge 'til morning, pop in the microwave on the way out the door, and sip it in the car on the way to the office. It's got the satisfying depth of a poultry sandwich without all the fuss (or gluten), and it's eye-openingly restorative, like spinach is to Popeye.
Pizza and pastry lovers, take note: Pizzerias and bakeries have gotten savvy about the marketability of wheat-free crusts and baked goods. The quality often varies, but at Sassy, these flour-free creations are universally likeable, even craveable. The yuca crust pizzas are made by combining boiled yuca with tapioca flour, rosemary, and salt, resulting in a crisp-chewy crust that could pass as the real McCoy. Even better, it doesn't lose its integrity inside of a takeout box as most good pizza crust does, so you can travel with it. The red sauce is delectable, like an old-school, tomato paste-rich pizzeria marinara, and the optional additions of veg and meat are organic and local.
Baked goods are similarly deceptive, made with a deft hand and a variety of flour blends: almond, tapioca, and coconut. Some pastries contain white and brown sugars, but they also boast healthy doses of maple and honey for sweeteners. An Almond Joy cookie tastes like a macaroon got dipped in a fun bath, and a pear and walnut muffin, like the pizza crust, could fool even the shrewdest diner. Gluten-free muffin? Where? Best of all, at Sassy, there's no shame in eating cookie dough — little bite-sized balls of raw cookie dough are served with a side of milk, a dessert both playful and amusingly naughty. If you have a kid with Celiac disease, this is the place to take her. Brown says the fact that nothing here is off-limits to such children has brought tears to more than one mother's eye.
And that's something Brown understands better than most. She's seen how stressful safe, healthy eating can be when food allergies and intolerances are part of the equation because she began her career as a nutritionist. ("People would cry!" she says.) Brown wanted a way to create wellness via food, but with fewer tears. So she bought a food truck. After last season, she concluded the food truck game wasn't for her — too much sweat and too many of her own tears — so she sold it off and grabbed the lease to a little nook in Nokomis.
The space is a scrappy spot, one that was obviously hard won through grit and a tight budget. The dining room is utilitarian and painted very pink, with a pleasant banquette that's good for sipping a wine, cider, or gluten-free tap beer from the tight, mostly local list. It's counter service only, and currently just dinner and weekend brunch are offered, but lunch is soon to come (perhaps by the time this article hits newsstands).
It's a jungle out there for dietary needs, fads, crazes, and convictions. The table is a more fraught place than it once was. It's good to know there's somewhere we can find something to please everyone — a table with less crying, and more cookie dough.
Sassy Spoon 5011 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis menu items: $3.50-$16
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