Manatee Cafe an overlooked St. Augustine dining jewel

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With only a dozen or so tables lining a small dining room, The Manatee Cafe is the kind of spot that fills up quickly. Locals know about it and it’s got a good reputation. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last two tables at noon on a recent, chilly Saturday.

Everything is made to order, using organic ingredients, and the vibe is markedly relaxed. The walls are decorated with copious pieces of art, featuring — you guessed it — manatees. Laughter and chatter fill the space but it’s not overly noisy.

Our server was friendly and accommodating, giving us ample time to browse the two-sided menu. Because the eatery uses certified organic fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, herbs, spices and coffees, we knew that whatever we ordered was bound to be healthy.

From the breakfast lineup, we almost went with the breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, but instead picked the scrambled tofu ($9.50), which proved to be a plentiful portion of comfort food goodness sans the burrito’s tortilla: sauteed greens, carrots, sweet potato, red cabbage, mushrooms, scallions and avocado meet crumbled sauteed tofu. Served with two slices of toasted wheat bread, side-item selections include grits, fruit, salad or hash browns. We eagerly opted for the latter and doused our crispy bite-sized potatoes with the orange-hued housemade datil pepper hot sauce, which provided a slight kick.

There are a dozen sandwiches, varying from chicken salad to veggie burgers. The tofu reuben ($9.50) was where we landed: baked slabs of tofu with a heap of sauteed red cabbage, tomato slices, sprouts and cheese (pick from white cheddar, goat, feta, cream cheese and vegan cheese) and served with a side. I know what you may be thinking — tofu? But when prepared correctly like this was, tofu easily takes on the accompanying flavors and adds a meat-like texture. Our side, housemade hummus with blue tortilla chips, was satisfying. The hummus was thick and garlicky, and I liked the colorful blue chips.

The grilled cheese and tofu sandwich ($9.50) with a slathering of hummus, creamy avocado chunks, sliced tomatoes, nutritional yeast dressing, white cheddar cheese and sprouts, is without a doubt crave-worthy. The dressing is thick and imparts a rich, cheesy yet nutty flavor and golden hue. We enjoyed it with a cup of the soup of the day, vegetable rice. This thick soup was so fantastic my dining companion and I both ordered a bowl ($4.95) to take home. Chock full of rice, barley, quinoa and various finely diced vegetables, this piping hot hearty medley quickly made us forget about the cold temperatures outside.

Thirsty? There are plenty of beverages, depending on your mood. From wheat grass shots ($2.95) to fresh carrot juice ($4.50) and natural sodas ($2) to smoothies and an assortment of hot teas, there are also caffeinated options — iced and hot coffee ($2.50).

My aromatic mug of locally roasted Manatee house blend coffee ($2.50) from St. Augustine’s Jayells Coffee Co. was robust and fresh. After my cup dwindled to half empty status, a server stopped by to offer a warm refill and more cream. The unground beans, organic and fair trade, are available by the bag at the register, so you just may want to take some home.

For dessert, we shared a slice of the chocolate tofu pie ($4.50), which begins with a crumbly graham cracker crust that is carefully filled with a extremely rich and chocolatey filling. Made with semisweet chocolate, it had just the right amount of sweetness without being overpowering.

Come to find out The Manatee Cafe has been a St. Augustine staple for the past 20-plus years. A couple dining at the table next to us said they have been coming weekly for years. I guess when you’ve got great tasting food that’s prepared fresh using quality ingredients, coupled with a welcoming environment, that’s a sustainable, winning recipe.