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Juicing for joy 

I love surprises. Particularly when they come in the form of good food. And I love surprises most when I'm only expecting mediocrity, at best. Along those lines, the A&M Juice Bar and Caf was one of the best surprises I've had in a while.

Prior to my visit, the A&M Juice Bar and Caf was etched into my mind for one reason and one reason only: direct mail. Occasionally, A&M Juice Bar coupons would arrive at my home via Val-U-Pak, that monster piece of direct mail containing a myriad of mostly useless coupons. Though my first reaction is always just to toss that giant blue envelope directly into recycling, I am sickly compelled to open it and look through the coupons anyway. Occasionally I even pull a few out and set them aside. Such has been the case with the A&M Juice Bar coupons, which always end up in the middle of a miscellaneous pile on the front table, never to be seen again until I go through the pile months later.

Never underestimate the power of name recognition, though. While the physical coupons were out of sight, the name was not totally out of mind, but lying dormant just waiting to be triggered. A snap of recognition occurred recently as I drove by the very plain, white stucco building that houses the A&M Juice Bar and Caf. I turned to investigate, and as a victim of mass marketing, had no expectations -- just curiosity and a craving for juice.

Once inside, my expectations remained minimal. I'm kind of superficial in that I like atmosphere, and quite honestly, this place doesn't have much. However, my impression changed when I saw the juice list -- vegetable, fruit and smoothie -- an impressive array guaranteed to be made with fresh ingredients.

As the name suggests, A&M does both juice and food. Juices include carrot, celery, cucumber, fresh orange and fresh apple, or any combination thereof. Feeling a bit on the conservative side, I stuck with the basic carrot juice -- my main reason for wanting to check out the place anyway. Good carrot juice goes a long way, and this is good carrot juice; orange, thick, slightly pulpy, with a sweet aftertaste.

Despite my juice-only intentions, I ended up ordering food and a smoothie as well. The woman in front of me had ordered a smoothie of strawberries, peaches and cantaloupe. As one fresh ingredient after another was dropped into the blender, my carrot juice turned into a mere appetizer. I ended up with a pineapple-orange-banana smoothie, and a sandwich called A&M's Healthy Filling: lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, sprouts, sunflower seeds and avocado dressing on a thick, multi-grain bread. (Incidentally, a 16-oz. smoothie is only $1.99 when food is purchased at the same time.)

Fresh pasta and potato salads were being prepared as I watched. So was a French dip sandwich, which looked and smelled very impressive. All sandwiches come with either potato salad, pasta salad or chips. Go for the pasta salad.

There's something for everyone at this place -- nine different types of smoothies are offered in addition to the juices, and the menu includes homemade soups, salads (weighing in at 1 pound), and hot sandwiches from your basic burger to the more exotic meatball and mozzarella hoagie. For the traditionalist, there's ham or turkey on your choice of breads.

The A&M Juice Bar and Caf sits just south of the Albertson's on Centennial Boulevard, in the smaller, more innocuous Centennial West Center. Like I said, it looks fairly nondescript from the outside, housed in your basic white stucco-esque strip mall building. But as I learned, it's not about looks; it's about the juice. Thank you, Val-U-Pak.

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