Alibi V.24 No.12 • March 19-25, 2015 

Restaurant Review

Short and Sweet

Quality, not quantity defines the menu at Guava Tree Café

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The Guava Tree Café reminds me of the proverbial man of few words who, when he does speak, makes them count. The short menu is composed almost entirely of carefully crafted winners and leaves you wanting more.

After a few moments inside, this quiet sounding metaphor starts to fade, washed away by unrelenting waves of salsa music and the occasional reggae tune. The café’s slogan promises “Cuban Sandwiches and our Latin Thing.” The owners are from Colombia and Puerto Rico, and they met in Costa Rica. So they certainly have the credentials to promise their “Latin Thing,” and they deliver. The staff is lively, as if they’ve been drinking bowls of sweetened coffee. And they probably have been; the signature café con leche can be sipped from a cup or a bowl, depending on your thirst level, and contains both sweetened condensed and steamed milk. One such bowl left me buzzing for hours thanks to the combination of caffeine and azucar!

The staff is lively, as if they’ve been drinking bowls of sweetened coffee. And they probably have been; the signature café con leche can be sipped from a cup or a bowl, depending on your thirst level, and contains both sweetened condensed and steamed milk.

Under the rubric of “Our Latin Thing,” the offerings include Venezuelan arepa sandwiches and a Colombian-style chicken chowder called ajiaco, as well as a lineup of Cuban sandwiches.

Even to someone like me, who is generally meh on sandwiches, the Cubano served at Guava Tree was a hit. The heated, pressed sandwich contained ham and roast pork with dill pickles, mustard and a double-helping of wow. It was the first Cubano I’d eaten that made me understand why this sandwich has such a cult following, and I’d eat another in a heartbeat.

A variation of the Cubano is the medianoche, which means midnight. Made with challah-like sweet egg bread, the medianoche has similar innards to the Cubano, and has made it back to parts of Cuba, where it served as a late night snack in some Havana nightclubs. Another tasty member of the café’s sandwich family is the pollito sandwich, in which shredded chicken fills the space between two slices of brown bread with oats baked into the crust. What takes the pollito to another level is a creamy garlic sauce that drenches the contents.

Arepa del perro
Arepa del perro
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The arepas, which are like thick Venezuelan tortillas, are small but filling. At once crispy, soft and chewy, the arepas form twin borders around the ingredients, my favorite of which, the del perro, contains shredded beef, chunks of avocado and plantain, and crumbs of queso fresco. It’s served with a cute, little deep-fried plantain cup that’s stuffed with marinara-like sauce.

The ajiaco soup is fascinating and delicious. The bowl of chicken and potato chowder is spiced with black pepper and contains a slice of corn on the cob, along with several pieces of avocado, and it comes flanked with little bowls of cream and capers to be added to the soup at the diner’s discretion. Altogether, it’s a remarkable and unexpected combination, a diverse bowl of Latin-style comfort food.

Despite the quality of the dishes, I found myself wondering if the low number of menu options presented a liability. How many sandwiches and bowls of the same awesome soup would the dining public keep returning for?

But perhaps my question is answered by the fact that after a few years in its original, somewhat dilapidated location on Yale, the Guava Tree Café has now moved to a sweet adobe on Richmond off Central, in the heart of Snob Hill. Apparently, the business model is working.

Ajiaco
Ajiaco
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
While the food deserves much of the credit for this move on up, the atmosphere is clearly a big factor in its success. Inside, you feel like you’re in a well-worn establishment with rich history. You rub shoulders with not only people grabbing a quick lunch—indeed, the food comes out nearly instantly—but also those who look the part of poets and intellectuals reading their books or scribbling in their notebooks or having deep and meaningful conversations. The staff addresses you in Spanish, even if you look like the whitest gringo in town, but they will happily take your order in English. The walls are plastered with vintage posters that advertise salsa shows in New York. The friendly staff is tolerant of camping at your table and makes you feel like a welcome regular.

A chalkboard with specials on it adds diversity to the menu, with items such as the ropa vieja, which means “old clothes” in Spanish. At Guava Tree the dish is built around a hefty pile of shredded beef that’s chewy yet chewable and flanked by beans, plantains, fried yucca, black beans and a fresh little salad of colorful spring mix. It comes with a dish of that garlic dressing from the chicken sandwich. Also on the chalkboard, there’s a Guava Tree salad in which a bed of greens are weighed down by a trio of roasted red bell peppers, sautéed mushrooms and pickled onions, and sprinkled with queso fresco. The same combo, plus a piece or two of plantain, fill the vegetarian arepa.

Sweetness awaits in the form of desserts, tropical juices and smoothies. My favorite is the maracuyá aka passion fruit which offers a bright, penetrating flavor that is positively thrilling on a hot day. Another nice one is the mango vanilla, which is fragrant and mildly smooth, even creamy compared to the sharp fireworks of the passion fruit.

The dessert list contains a dainty tres leches cake in a foil cup and a flan that, alas, wasn’t available when I visited. But I’ll be back, and I will try the flan. After all, it’s practically the only thing on the compact menu I haven’t sampled.

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Guava Tree Café


118 Richmond NE

990-2599
guavatreecafe.com

Hours: 11am to 4pm Monday through Thursday
11am to 9pm Friday
11am to 5pm Saturday
11am to 3pm Sunday

Vibe: Upbeat and friendly

The Alibi recommends: Cubano sandwich, ajiaco, maracuyá shake, arepa del perro