My siblings and I grew up in a not-so-typical Chinese-American household. While my mom and aunt cooked Chinese meals for us most nights, our American meals reflected the ’70s and ’80s – Hamburger Helper, TV meals in tinfoil pans, and canned vegetables.
Even though my mom had a garden, I remember not liking the half-green tomatoes she picked to ripen on the windowsill. Or most of her vegetables really. Organic was definitely not part of my vocabulary.
Today, I may still not like some vegetables, but I’ve experimented by participating in a CSA (community-supported agriculture), getting weekly boxes of surprise organic vegetables and having fun coming up with new recipes. I try to shop in the organic section of the vegetable aisle, and visit the Augusta Market on the River often.
One Saturday a few weekends ago, my husband, Sean, and I had finished our shopping at the Saturday market (a haul of freestone peaches and freshly shelled lady peas) and decided to drive to Aiken for the afternoon.
I already had a lunch spot in mind: Magnolia Natural Market & Café, located just off of downtown Aiken’s main shopping district, near the corner of York Street and Park Avenue.
I’d first heard of Magnolia a few months back (and included it in an Applause story on great outdoor dining spots). The café is located in a cheery yellow cottage framed by a vine-draped trellis. As you step through, you see small tables with umbrellas dotting the front garden, with more seating on the wide porch.
This was a hot summer day, so we headed indoors and seated ourselves in the bright yellow dining room, made even more colorful by gaily printed oilcloth table coverings. The room also had a gallery-like feel, with paintings of Aiken landmarks, landscapes, flowers, dogs and more (all paintings are also for sale).
It was a happy room – totally in line with Magnolia’s slogan of Mostly Organic, 100% Happy. I felt even happier as I scanned the menu. Magnolia’s daily menu offers soups and salads, quiches, wraps, paninis and burgers and a whole list of desserts with daily specials. As usual, I’d already set my sights on my end goal – a basil cupcake with coconut lime basil icing.
Mealwise, I’d hoped to be able to try the mango shrimp wrap, but according to the menu, it’s only available “when available,” and on this day they were out. So I went with the next seafood option, the uptown tuna salad wrap, made with wild-caught yellowfin tuna, capers and almond slices, with romaine, tomato and aioli in a whole wheat wrap.
Sean chose Pamela’s panini, a veggie panini layered with avocado, tomato, red onion, basil, kalamata olives and Swiss cheese. And to start, because we both love it, a scoop of hummus with pita bread.
Magnolia’s also dedicates most of the back of its menu to an array of specialty drinks, including lemonade infused with raspberries and ginger, root and ginger beer, coconut water, and a list of artisan beers and select wines, all organic.
Sean ordered the unsweetened mango iced tea for us to share. One sip told him it wasn’t really for him, but I liked it. It really tasted like mango, not some chemical equivalent of it. The packet of organic sugar that I added never 100 percent dissolved, but there was just enough sweetness to take the edge off the bitter black tea.
We had time to chat and look at all the art on the walls before our hummus appetizer arrived. This was a darker, heavier and nuttier hummus than I had ever had before, prettily displayed on a glass plate surrounded by sliced pita and drizzled with what I assumed was an orange paprika oil. The flavor of tahini was strong, and the hummus itself was more chunky than smooth.
My tuna wrap was so bright and delicious that I resolved then and there to add capers the next time I made tuna salad at home, and the romaine lent a perfect crispness. Sean’s panini was a pressed and grilled sandwich with dense bread that tasted almost like cornbread, stuffed with a flavorful mix of vegetables, heavy on the olives. The dipping sauce was Annie’s Green Goddess dressing, which paired well with the sandwich, thanks to its flavors of soy and sesame.
Our waiter – a very serious young man – came by several times, arms clasped behind him, to make sure everything was OK. “How were the flax chips?” he inquired seriously. The chips came with our sandwiches (we weren’t sure what they were and had asked about them prior to ordering). When we raved about them, he cracked his first smile and gave us a thumb’s up.
One thing I’ve found about food that is strongly flavored is that you don’t need much of it to feel full. But when our waiter reminded us about our promise to order a cupcake, I had to do it. And was so glad I did.
The cupcake topped off the meal. Baked that morning, the cake was yellow and moist, just sweet enough and barely flecked with the tiniest specks of basil. Combined with the creamy sweet coconut lime basil icing, it was unlike anything I had ever had before but something I’ll remember forever.
We walked out with a bag of the flax corn chips purchased from the market section of the restaurant to enjoy with our sandwiches the next week. And 100 percent happy to have found another great organic restaurant to expand our options locally.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Magnolia Natural Market & Café, 210 York St. SE, Aiken
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (803) 649-3339, magnolianaturalmarket.com, or find them on Facebook