TAMPA — Of the three meat sliders Army Cpl. Jeremy Voels balanced on a plastic foam plate, he ranked the flank steak the best.
"Amazing," Voels said.
Chef Gordon Lippe had marinated the meat for three days before cooking it that morning, he told Voels.
The sliders were a sample of more to come at the opening Monday of the American Heroes' Café at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. It's the first restaurant nationwide run by a food service within a veterans hospital, said Kathleen Fogarty, the director of the medical center.
And a big improvement over the cafeteria-style meals Voels had become used to from food service at Haley, he said. Voels lived in a bed there for eight months after a sniper shot him in Afghanistan in 2010, shattering his vertebra and leaving him paralyzed. In the past, when he was feeling up to it, Voels would send someone to get him wings from Hooters.
"It's our version, without the girls," Fogarty joked with Voels on Monday.
The restaurant was dreamed up by Teresa Hellings, former chief of nutrition and food services, who realized the importance of rehabbing the mind to rehab the body.
It was on the shelf when Fogarty arrived three years ago and decided to make it a priority.
"Food is one of the few things a person can control while in a hospital," she said. "We want to give them a choice — a cheeseburger or a panini — and a chance to experience the social aspect of what it's like to go to a restaurant.
"To heal, we have to envision how life will be outside of the hospital," Fogarty said.
The cafe starts this week serving about 100 lunches each day to patients and their families with plans to expand to dinner and then breakfast.
Hired in 2012, Lippe started designing the menu through patient taste tests on Thursdays. One day, he dished out squares of the cafeteria's regular lasagna, decorated with fresh basil leaves.
The patients raved, calling it as good as mom's, and far better than the lasagna that arrived from the cafeteria bedside on a tray. It was a matter of presentation, Lippe said. Now when an order comes into the restaurant for room service, it goes out under a black warmer with silver cutlery.
Knowing people like to try new foods, Lippe mixed flavors: chipotle gouda mac-n-cheese; a side of tomato, cucumber, black bean and jicama slaw; fruit smoothies, seasonal vegetables and goat cheese risotto.
He makes 90 percent of the meals from scratch in the kitchen. Patients order through a computer that monitors their personal health needs, counting calories, carbohydrates and salt.
On Monday, Lippe replaced fruits and sliders as dozens of patients and staffers lined up to try them out. He pointed out desserts to one patient: "French creme bars, vanilla bean mousse and some of the world's biggest strawberries."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.