Local Dining: Terra Bella

Victoria Barber

It's a shame how easy it is to overlook Terra Bella. It's the kind of place where menu items are described as being made "with love," where there's a lot of Lumineers and Norah Jones on the playlist, where the coffee is fair-trade and -- yes -- there's a display case by the door of earrings made by a local artisan, next to some hand-knit accessories. It's clean, bright and in a really uninviting part of Dimond Boulevard.

Terra Bella is in a small nook in a strip of big-box stores, squeezed between Men's Wearhouse and Bed Bath & Beyond. The proprietors have clearly made efforts to make it more homey. Racks of potted plants and cafe tables cluster around the entrance. The interior is painted vibrant shades of orange and there are two fireplaces cheerfully aglow during the height of summer.

Once you get in the door, it's a welcoming spot with three main functions: espresso bar, restaurant and bakery that specializes in gluten-free and vegan options.

The espresso beverages are prepared well and made with organic, fair-trade coffee beans from K Bay Caffe in Homer. The menu has a surprisingly deep breakfast section, with various omelets, scrambles, breakfast wraps and egg sandwiches available until 3 p.m. There are plenty of salad and sandwich options, too.

In general, the food is okay, but with some real standouts.

I went on a recent weekend looking for brunch. My Nome omelet ($10.25) had reindeer sausage, mushrooms and cheese. There was a lot of oozing cheese, but not a lot of filling. A breakfast bistro wrap ($10.95) with eggs, potatoes, beans and cheese was respectable and large, but not especially memorable. The Girdwood Sandwich ($10.25) puzzled me. What combination of sun-dried tomato pesto, feta and pumpkin seeds spells Alaska ski town? Nevertheless, it's nice finding a vegetarian sandwich that doesn't rely on hummus as the main ingredient. This was one of those sandwiches that's hard to get into your mouth -- thick-cut bread, spinach piled an inch tall, hefty cucumber slices. It was all a little overwhelming. But with some squishing down, I managed to take a bite without the whole thing exploding, and the feta and sun-dried tomato pesto were zippy enough to stand up to the surrounding components.

On the outstanding side of things was the red-bean-and-rice soup. The peppery broth was rich, molten red. It had a generous amount of beans and chunks of chicken, with the spiciness balanced by sweet bursts of corn. Still, it's spicy enough that it demands you slow down and pause to recover a little between bites. The fact that this soup is a special and not something I can go back and order all winter long was my biggest disappointment.

The Bella Chicken Salad ($11.25) -- the one made "with love" -- was, indeed, rather beautiful. It contained generous cuts of roasted chicken in a creamy dressing with pecans, celery, apple and tart cranberries to brighten things up. The Tuscan Chicken Melt ($11.75) was also quite good, perfectly toasted on both sides, with a satisfying amount of melted cheese, roasted chicken and pesto.

On a second visit, I discovered Terra Bella's house-made granola ($5.50). This is very different from the hard, dry clusters you find in a box at the grocery store. Terra Bella's is chewy, very lightly sweetened and rich with nuts and seeds. I was also introduced to a "kolache" -- a large roll filled with meat and cheese, jalapeno peppers or other ingredients. My research says this is a Polish finger food. My barista described it as an "adult Hot Pocket." Sold!

Now for the baked things. I wanted to see how gluten-free and vegan versions would stack up for people used to the real deal -- without making concessions for the creative use of xanthum gum, almond meal and other workarounds. I took a few desserts to a family gathering, but didn't say anything about what they were made of. The (vegan) vanilla cherry cupcakes didn't taste much like cherry and were a little on the sickly sweet side, though we conceded they'd probably be a hit with children. The (gluten-free) rhubarb bars tasted rich, like cheesecake on top of shortbread, though we wished the rhubarb was a little more pronounced. The (gluten-free) brownies were the uncontested favorite: fudgy and dark, with subtle coffee undertones. All of them beat the homemade attempts at vegan/gluten-free baking I've sampled, including, and especially, my own.

With its chipper hominess and emphasis on fresh ingredients and organic coffee, Terra Bella is a feel-good spot tenaciously carving out its niche in a harsh environment, like a flower pushing through a crack in the concrete. After all, shoppers on Dimond Boulevard need respite -- and a really great brownie -- like anyone else.

• Reach Victoria Barber at vbarber@adn.com or 257-4200.

By Victoria Barber
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