Ruthie Young discovered the strawberry smoothie at Jitters one day last spring on her way to school. Young wasn't dawdling; she was doing research.
"I actually did a health project on fruit, kind of as an excuse to cop smoothies, and this was the top one," said Young, a sophomore at Harbor City International School.
Don't be jealous of Young for her cleverness or for having had a flexible, creative health teacher last year. Just reap the benefits of her hard work, slogging through coffee shop after coffee shop, downing smoothie after smoothie, taking copious notes, pursing lips, mopping brow... sounds like my kind of health class.
I met Young and her mother, Niki, at Jitters around 1 p.m. on a recent Tuesday. The shop was nearly full and a small line had formed near the cash register. The staff, including owner Gary Houdek, kept up a rapid banter with customers and their colleagues as they whipped up coffee drinks, pastries, wraps and sandwiches.
We got our drinks (I added a low-fat macaroon just to see what it was like) and headed back to our table. There, Young elaborated on her research project.
"It feels good to know that your smoothie is made with fresh fruit, but those didn't always taste better," she said.
When she's not copping smoothies, Young prefers restaurants with an international flair -- Chester Creek Cafe, which is near her home, Lake Avenue Cafe and India Palace.
We sampled our drinks and Young told me what makes Jitters' strawberry smoothie so special. "I like it because it's fruity and creamy at the same time," she said, and the balance of tartness and sweetness also pleases her palate.
Evaluating a smoothie mostly on its flavor took a change of mindset for me; I think of it as a vehicle for hiding a meal in a beverage on hot summer days when kids don't feel like eating much. At home, I make smoothies with frozen fruit, fresh yogurt and some frozen juice concentrate. Usually they turn out pretty well; sometimes they're a bit on the bland side (you can always add more frozen orange juice to tart things up).
Whereas my homemade concoctions are usually multifruit affairs, Jitters' smoothie was more of a pure fruit experience -- the sharp, sweet strawberry flavor came through strong enough that I drank mine a bit too fast at first and nearly got frostbitten tonsils. We watched Houdek make our smoothies, so we knew he used a concentrate; based on the flavor, I figured it was likely of a good quality.
The macaroon, being a low-fat item, was higher and fluffier than most; it was also light on the sugar, which let the straight coconut flavor come through loud and clear.
ABOUT THE DISH, RESTAURANT
Jitters owner Gary Houdek said he makes his smoothies with a blend of 100 percent fruit concentrate, low-fat vanilla yogurt and ice cubes. He said fruit smoothies are popular, especially the seasonal items -- how about a pumpkin smoothie in autumn? His most popular blender drink -- the Jitters Supreme -- is, well, "a mocha milkshake is how I describe it."
Espresso drinks and coffee are what most customers come for and Jitters roasts its own beans daily on site. Houdek said that gives his shop an edge on freshness that most coffee joints don't have. Another twist is the presence of soups, sandwiches and wraps; the latter are Jitters' signature food item. Many coffeehouses offer only pastries and sweets.
Houdek opened his business about eight years ago, and at the time, the coffee scene was dotted with a few locally owned establishments. These days, a variety of chains are setting foot in town, including behemoth Starbucks, which has a shop several blocks west on Superior Street.
Houdek said his business is solid, but he hasn't been through a full year with Starbucks nearby. His loyal business customers, from Minnesota Power, Maurices and 50 Below, keep streaming in all day for their 75-cent refills and he keeps busy making sandwiches and wraps. "Time will tell," he said.
TOM WILKOWSKE is a food reviewer and copy editor for the Wave. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (218) 723-5396.