There's no breakfast on the menu at the Cheese & Coffee Cafe's Downtown location, but if you come in when they open at 10 a.m. and ask about it, they'll happily offer to cook you some anyway.
This was my first time at the cafe, whose Uptown location is something of an Albuquerque institution. Although the egg and bacon sandwich co-owner Jan Barringer offered to rustle up sounded tempting, I decided to instead play by the rules and order off the menu.
From the outside, the restaurant, nestled beside the ABQ Health Pantry, looks like a cramped space with room for little more than a lunch counter. Inside, however, the Cafe is surprisingly spacious and warm, with a few dozen wooden tables arranged in the expanse between the cash register and the kitchen. Paintings and photos of Albuquerque scenes complete the homey effect.
Cheese & Coffee prides itself on sandwiches, and there are a wide variety to choose from. DIY diners can build their own, selecting meat, bread, cheese and condiments from an expansive roster. At long last, the cured ham tomato basil wrap with mozzarella cheese of your dreams is within easy reach.
I prefer to entrust my meals to the experts in the kitchen, so my companion and I focused our attention on the Specialty Sandwich section of the menu. There, some 18 choices awaited our perusal, from a triple-decker club, to gyros, to a French dip.
After mulling the options, I chose the Sicilian sandwich: a pepperoni, capicolla and mozzarella concoction on French bread, and a side of red chile posole (available every Tuesday). My companion opted for the green chile, avocado and turkey Chelsea sandwich, which the server assured us was a favorite with regulars, and a fruit salad. We also ordered coffee—a full-bodied dark blend from Rio Grande Roasters, although the ever-accommodating server offered to brew us a fresh batch of piñon-flavored beans if we preferred.
Service was a bit sluggish, perhaps due to us arriving so soon after opening, and I checked my watch a few times before our lunch finally appeared. When it did, I dove into my posole first. The red chile broth was thick and smooth with a spicy kick that didn’t overpower the other flavors. The hominy kernels themselves were soft but not mushy and an excellent companion to the morsels of chicken that soaked in the savory broth beside them. After finishing off the stew, I stole a few bites of my companion's fruit salad, and found the mixture of fresh strawberries, pineapple and watermelon to be an excellent antidote to the posole's heat.
My Sicilian was excellent, with aromatic pepperoni and savory salted capicolla
The sandwiches themselves were a mixed bag. My Sicilian was excellent, with aromatic pepperoni and savory salted capicolla that made my tongue rejoice, supple mozzarella cheese and a zing of Italian dressing. My companion’s Chelsea sandwich, however, seemed sloppily constructed, and was a limp and uninspiring mush of flavors with no spiciness to the chile to give it that New Mexican bite.
Moving on to dessert, we ordered a slice of house-baked lemon cake with cream cheese frosting that had been tempting us from its glass display dome by the register throughout the meal, and two potato chip cookies. The cake was moist and springy and contained just enough lemon to offset the rich cream cheese frosting, leaving my sweet-tooth well satisfied.
The potato chip cookies were a different story. I’ve never had a potato chip cookie before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I guessed it would be a mix of the qualities that rank both potato chips and cookies high on the guilty pleasures list: salty and crunchy, sweet and rich. The cookies we bit into were decidedly bland, however. The flavors of chip and cookie, rather than blending into a superior variety of forbidden fruit, were actively working to cancel each other out. There’s something intrinsically wrong with the world when you stop eating a cookie halfway through, but that’s exactly what we did with these.
The Cheese & Coffee menu has its weak points, but the Sicilian sandwich and the red chile posole were good enough to ensure that I won’t stay away for long. Next time hunger strikes when I’m near the Downtown or Uptown locations, I’ll definitely stop by. But I’ll leave the potato chip cookies alone.