It happened the way these things tend to happen. When Valerie Mantzoros was 20 she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. They said she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 30. She went to a homeopath who suggested she try going dairy-free, gluten-free and sugar-free. She did, also cutting out processed food and meat. Over time, she got better and symptoms disappeared.
Her girlfriend, Cindy Toda, was an omnivore but, up for the challenge, she decided to try cooking for Mantzoros. It became a hobby, resulting in dinner parties and eventually a gluten-free and dairy-free cookie company in California.
They talked about opening a restaurant, because frankly it was hard to eat out with so many "frees" in your diet. They moved to Florida and in February 2016 opened Love Food Central in a space that has ping-ponged between retail and food service.
With the growing number of raw, vegan and vegetarian restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg (Leafy Greens Cafe, Cider Press Cafe, Meze 119), the dining public seems to have wised up to a couple of facts. Raw food costs a lot to make, frequently involving outlandish transmogrifications like turning a slurry of raw macadamia nuts into cheese, and thus it can come with a healthy price tag. And because raw and vegan food can be labor intensive, it doesn't always yield a speedy dining experience.
These things are true at Love Food Central — sometimes dishes can be slow to emerge, and if you don't understand all the ingredients and effort that went into a dish like the cheese plate or the tempeh Reuben, the price tag might seem a tad high. I've had my own secretly held third "truth": Vegan desserts are scary. (And vegan, gluten-free desserts? Fuggedaboutit.) That was burst wide open after a couple of visits to the charming cafe.
Mantzoros' desserts are ridiculously good. There's the nondairy cashew-based soft serve that changes most days (maybe pistachio maple), with a load of topping options ($6, toppings $1 or $2), a really amazing Carmelita bar ($4) that reads like a graham crust with a soft caramel center and topped with chocolate and coconut flake, chocolate chip cookies (two for $3) that don't have the squidginess of most gluten-free cookies, and a key lime pie that miraculously holds its own against any of the better ones in town ($6).
Of course, before the dessert comes the good-for-you stuff. Love Food Central is mostly a lunch spot with hours that extend to an early dinner, with brunchables on the weekend. (I didn't get there for that, but I've heard the pancakes are bomb.)
The single-page menu is small and curated, with a big handful of snacks that are sharable: an appealing and flavorful garbanzo mash scooped into three crunchy romaine leaves for a quick burrito-style nosh ($7) or the aforementioned cheese plate, which brings raw crackers and a bit of fruit jam to accompany the raw macadamia cheese, creamy and lush with a whiff of truffle oil ($9).
But I think where Love Food Central really shines is with the main dishes. The tempeh Reuben ($10) will appeal to vegans and carnivores alike, the meaty grilled tempeh piled with sauerkraut, crescent moons of avocado and arugula on toasted triangles of sourdough with a smear of sriracha mayo, the sandwich flanked by a handful of sturdy potato chips. The pulled "pork" sandwich is just about as good, that same crunchy sourdough enveloping barbecue sauce-moistened shredded jackfruit (this is a huge trend food; try it), avo, arugula and a gloss of vegan mayo ($10). The sandwich is accompanied by a very simple red cabbage slaw that might benefit from a few extra doodads like cilantro, hot chiles and an Asian vinaigrette.
Falafel ($9) made of garbanzos are perfect, savory and crunchy, paired with a pouf of salad and a dipping sauce that tasted like a simple tahini sauce. The Love burger ($9) features a thinnish patty made of black bean and beets, great flavor, piled high with cukes, arugula and sauerkraut and served on the sourdough, which is a gluten-free beauty made by Sami's in Tampa. The cafe showcases another local treasure with two flavors of Mother Kombucha on tap ($6), but the spicy housemade chai swirled with cashew milk is a hard option to pass up ($4).
You're going to order at the counter and take your number to one of the handful of indoor or outdoor tables — either way a friendly staff member will find you with your goodies. And regardless of your relationship with animal products or gluten, if you love food, this newcomer is central.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.