Restaurant Report: Three Rivers Market and Deli

The new location of Three Rivers Market, the independently-owned natural foods grocery known to locals as "the co-op," boasts a much-needed large parking lot, more room for grocery items (including organic meats), a dog-friendly patio, and a deli serving hot and cold foods.

John Askew, deli manager, started as front-end manager at Three Rivers seven years ago, but all his previous experience was in restaurants. "I was a perfect fit when the opportunity came along," he says. "Even though we were limited in our previous space, we had been trying some prepared foods. We weren't opening a grocery three times the size plus totally new and prepared foods. We were ready."

The hot bar offers entrees and sides. "We try to have a meat entrée, a vegetarian entrée, and four sides," Askew says. "Every day is something different." Favorite items include tilapia croquettes, falafel, and tamale pie. "The popcorn tofu, a recipe from a co-op in Austin, has been off the charts," says Askew, describing battered and fried tofu bits akin to popcorn shrimp. "We bought a fryer just to make them. A lot of recipes have come from other co-ops. They'll say, "This is a winner.' It's helpful to us to know what works."

There are also three soups each day. "The turkey chili and roasted vegetable soup are popular," notes Askew. On the other side of the bar are salad makings: two types of salad greens and a variety of toppings, including fresh vegetables, tofu, and add-ins such as sesame noodles.

Packaged foods in an adjacent case include celery and carrot sticks, pimento cheese, hummus, guacamole, sandwiches and wraps, chicken and tuna salads, take-and-bake pizzas, and cupcakes from Magpies Bakery. "The ingredients are listed so you can see what you're getting," Askew says. The cold case also holds beverages such as beer and Cruze Farm milk.

The full-service case offers what Askew describes as "meal solutions." This case, always staffed by someone who can answer questions, is where you'll find items such as turkey meatloaf, burgers Florentine, chipotle potato salad, spinach frittata, and tandoori chicken skewers.

Operating a restaurant in a grocery has benefits. Not only does the market already have a network in place for purchasing meats and produce, but Askew can take advantage of surplus perishables in the store. "It's a way to manage waste, and it gives us a lot of flexibility."

Three Rivers Market and Deli (1100 N. Central Street 525-2069)

Deli: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-8 p.m.

Market: Daily, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Must Haves

Quinoa Polenta Corn Cakes: The colorful corn cakes have a hearty, almost meaty, texture. The mixture of quinoa, roasted corn, roasted red pepper, and polenta corn meal flavored with garlic, thyme, and lime juice is flavorful on its own, but it's complemented well with a side of the café's red pepper pickled relish. The tasty high-protein dish is also gluten-free and vegan.

Radicchio Chicken Salad: Tender chunks of chicken breast from Springer Mountain Farm in North Georgia are combined with radicchio, celery, onions, scallions, Craisins, pecans, and—depending on availability—either peas or snow peas and tossed with a sherry vinaigrette marinade for a chicken salad bursting with healthy flavors.

Kale Yeah!: This popular item from the cold case starts with tender lacinato kale. The soy sauce and lemon juice in the marinade further tenderize the leaves. Mixed with red onions, soft, plump sun-dried tomatoes, and sunflower seeds, it's a bowl of green goodness.