Worth the drive| Feel-good food that’s good for you, too
Story and photos by Allison Law
In a culinary landscape of all-you-can-eat buffets, wing joints and fat-laden fried foods, it can be hard for a restaurant featuring healthy foods and controlled portions to find an audience. But Leo and Lauren Rodriguez seem to have found a niche.
Their restaurant, Bella Vista by the Creek in downtown Prattville, is what they call a “healthy bistro,” serving up artisan wraps and sandwiches, salads and south of the border specialties; many are gluten free or Keto-friendly, and most entrees are in the 500-calorie range.
“It took a while for people to adapt to our food, but we have a wonderful clientele,” Leo says. “I feel we’ve set the bar for things that haven’t been done.”
Chef Leo came to Alabama from South Florida, a mecca for glamorous looks and svelte physiques. He was surprised at the rates of obesity and nutritional habits he encountered when he came to Alabama.
“There was a calling for me to do something different,” Leo says.
While most of the restaurant’s offerings include meat, the couple plan to introduce more vegetarian and possibly vegan entrees. “There’s a lot of ways you can enjoy a great meal without having a piece of steak or chicken or salmon,” Leo says. He sees room for trends seen elsewhere in the restaurant industry – dishes that rely less on dairy, are gluten-free and include more vegetables.
But even more important to the couple is customer satisfaction. “The quote is, ‘You’re just as good as the last plate of food you put in the window.’ That’s what I live by,” Leo says. “You’re here to be served and taken care of.”
Leo Rodriguez was born in the Dominican Republic and spent his childhood there, learning about cooking and flavor profiles from his grandmother, aunts and other family members who loved cooking. Life in the island country meant easy access to fresh tropical fruits, like mango and plantains, and an early exposure to seasonings and flavors.
His parents moved the family to New York when he was an older child, but he continued to cook and bake. “I was always there, making little biscuits. Is that what you call it, biscuits? Little cakes. They called me ‘little baker’ at a young age.”
He was able to attend a high school that had a culinary certificate program, which put him ahead when he studied culinary arts at Sullivan Community College in Liberty, N.Y. From there came a three-month program at the Culinary Institute of America and work at several restaurants, including those at The Breakers, the historic luxury resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Working at The Breakers was “another school,” Leo says. He worked at several of the resort’s restaurants, which exposed him to a variety of cuisines and styles – everything from fine dining to Italian to seafood. And South Florida is a confluence of culinary culture; he learned about other Caribbean flavors from the Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the restaurant industry there.
Years later, looking for a career change, family members convinced him to come to central Alabama. Then, a cousin who owned Maria’s Cantina in Prattville asked for help, so he went to work there though he knew he didn’t want to do Mexican food long-term.
He met Lauren at the restaurant, and the two decided to venture out to open What’s For Lunch, a prepared meal delivery service, in Millbrook in 2016. They delivered hot, fresh meals in insulated lunch boxes to lunchtime customers in Prattville and Montgomery. Later, they bought the Healthy Me meal delivery company; customers order individually packaged meals a few days in advance, and Healthy Me delivers them to pre-appointed drop-off sites (mainly health clubs) for customer pickup. Customers heat the meals at home.
What’s For Lunch eventually gave way to Bella Vista by the Creek, the couple’s dream healthy bistro, which opened in April 2019. (They still operate Healthy Me and prepare the meals in Bella Vista’s kitchen.)
Doing the prepared meals encouraged them to focus on portion control at the restaurant. Entrees at Bella Vista are filling, but plates aren’t piled high. “It’s what your body needs,” Lauren says.
A customer favorite at Bella Vista is the crab cake burger – a simple recipe for a Maryland crab cake but with cilantro and fresh garlic – served with avocado fries. The “pop-up specials,” as Lauren calls them, change daily, and allow chef Leo to get creative.
One day might offer a Fried Plantain Pulled Pork Stacker, drizzled with signature “bang bang” sauce served with Asian slaw; another day, a Surf and Turf Quesadilla, made with top sirloin and wild-caught Gulf shrimp. Or Bella’s Crunchy Fish Tacos, made with gluten-free fried catfish on whole wheat tortillas.
“Our food is made in a way that’s helping your body,” Leo says. “I never want to give you something that’s going to make your body feel bad.”
The couple have several goals in mind; with the coming warmer weather, they hope to take advantage of Creekwalk, just behind the historic downtown building, and include patio seating. They also hope to get a beer and wine license and change up the dinner menu, to distinguish it from the lunch menu.
Lauren handles most of the marketing and HR for the restaurant. But she’s also a yoga instructor; she has also created a face wash and works with essential oils. She says she’s always had an entrepreneurial mindset and hopes to find a way to fuse these different health-minded ideas together to create a wellness brand.
She’d like to extend that healthy lifestyle concept to help moms, both before and after a baby. (She and Leo have two sons, Koi and Davino and will welcome another boy this summer.)
And Leo hopes to return to the Dominican Republic this year – Lauren’s never been – and perhaps pay homage to the tropical roots that laid the foundation for his culinary career.
Bella Vista by the Creek
153 W. Main St., Prattville, AL 36067
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Wednesday;
10:30 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Find them on Facebook @BellaVista19