Omnivore - Hug me, but feed me well

A visit to the resurrected Caramba Cafe


  • www.carambacafe.com

What do you do when a restaurant's staff is super but the food they're serving is a lot less than super?

That was my situation Tuesday night when I visited the resurrected Caramba Cafe in the Pencil Factory Lofts in Grant Park. The restaurant was located for 20-plus years in Morningside but was forced to move because of a rent increase last summer.

I never cared much for the Tex-Mex food at the original restaurant, although I know plenty of people who loved it — or said they did. I think the fondness — then and now — has more to do with the vibe created by the Prieto family that owns the cafe.

When I walked in Tuesday evening, for example, the gorgeous Mia Prieto rushed up to me and said, "Everything's going to be fine. "

"Huh?" I replied.

"You don't look very happy," she said.

"Oh," I said, "I just finished seeing clients. Maybe their unhappiness rubbed off."

She laughed and suddenly wrapped herself around me, saying, "Well, eating here is going to be your own therapy."

Honestly, I was disarmed by her kindness and feel terrible about saying that the food was almost shockingly untherapeutic. I ordered the regular Tuesday night special — three enchiladas with mole. The plate arrived with the mole drowning the enchiladas and bubbling like lava. Very hot plate! Very hot!

My first taste was a forkful of white rice with some of the mole. My initial — and enduring — response was feeling overwhelmed by salt. That, I'm afraid, was all I tasted. The sauce had nothing of the complex layers of flavor a good mole should have.

The enchiladas themselves were equally grim, especially one made with beef ground into a virtual paste. The others, chicken and cheese, were marginally better. Honestly, the best part of the meal was my dessert, flan. Unfortunately, it was a tiny serving but had real homemade taste and dense texture disturbed by just a few air pockets.

My experience at Caramba Cafe brought up my usual inevitable question: Why, in a city with a huge population of Mexican immigrants, can't restaurants find good regional cooks? I know: It's the customers' fault because they grew up eating Frito Pie and only want Tex-Mex cliches. I'm not buying that anymore.

I do appreciate the hug, but, really, I'd rather have my palate comforted.

I landed at Caramba Cafe, by the way, while looking for the neighboring Beignet Connection. I had heard from two people last week that it was about to open. It's still not open and nothing on the door indicates when it will be.

And, speaking of taquerias, the Bad Dog Taqueria will be opening in Emory Village this spring, in the space vacated by Sprouts Green Cafe. The menu will feature some relatively kinky tacos.