Alibi V.24 No.42 • Oct 15-21, 2015 

Restaurant Review

Worth the Wait

Café Caribe

Our state hasn’t had ocean-side property since the days of the Great Inland Sea, some 150 million years ago, give or take an epoch or two. Yes, once upon a time, bony finned fish and nightmarish segmented things frolicked where you and I curse traffic and wish it would rain, but since then our beaches have become all sand and no shore. So a restaurant that appeals to tropical relaxation and rich island culture is something that I can’t help but greet with a touch of both excitement and skepticism.

Café Caribe, occupying a plum spot in the heart of Downtown, does an admirable job of transporting us dry-landers to the white sandy beach and crystal blue ocean pictured on the huge photograph that takes up most of the restaurant’s southern wall. Latin jazz thrums through the small dining room and a few other photos hang depicting palm trees and tropical settings. The feeling is less of having an atmosphere forced down your throat and more of sharing in someone’s longing for a far-away home. It’s a comfortable environment for a meal, which is good, because chances are you’re going to be there for a while.

The feeling is less of having an atmosphere forced down your throat and more of sharing in someone’s longing for a far-away home.

The signature beverages offered up on the back of the menu keeps that island feeling going. Caribe specializes in fruit-infused lemonades, and if you’re feeling the need to cool down, consider the coconut, passion fruit or guava lemonade. The fruit is fresh and blended upon your order, though in some cases this means you’ll get a few seeds stuck in your teeth. It’s worth it for the refreshment. There are also batidos tropicales, fruit-and-milk smoothies, if you desire a little more richness with your sweetness.

For an appetizer, my wife and I started with the masitas de puerco con tostones, a platter of fried pork belly and green plantains. The pork was tender, with a slight fried-on crust that gave the morsels a succulent texture. The plantains were of the starchy variety, akin to potato with a hint of banana. The whole dish was devoured in seconds.

Although there is a fish of the day and arroz con camerones, this is not a seafood place. Instead, most of the main courses are Puerto Rican or Cuban in origin and feature pork, beef and chicken. After being tantalized by the masitas, I decided to delve further into “the other white meat” with a classic Cubano. Pulled pork, ham and mustard arrived on crusty Cuban bread and I quickly scarfed down half of the sandwich. Although I was quite taken by the slow-roasted pork in particular, I had to stow away the second half just because the sandwich was so huge. No problem, I’m always happy to eat a good meal on a second day.

My wife was also feeling the Cuban pull and elected for picadillo, a tostada full of ground beef with onions, tomatoes and olives. The dish is heavy on the cumin, which gives it an earthy vibe and the feeling of a relaxed hard-shelled taco. My children are fish fanatics, so they opted to split the fish of the day, in this case, tilapia. I’m not sure how common tilapia is in the Caribbean, but the cichlid has become a sort of fish-of-all-seasons and it arrived flaky and bearing the flavor of a melange of capers and spices.

There is no dessert on the menu per se, so we instead ordered a side of sweet plantains, or maduros, to scratch that itch. We found that their carmelized almost-but-not-quite banana flavor fit the bill nicely and it’s always good to have a dessert that doesn’t overload you with suga.. If that’s not your speed, then the batidos will also do the trick.

Roast pork
Roast Pork
All in all, the food was excellent and probably as authentic a Caribbean meal as you’re likely to find in New Mexico. On both of our visits the service was extremely friendly—charming even—though not speedy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say sloooooooooow, with all the implication that those extra Os bring. Maybe that’s a quirk of an island culture or maybe the fact that both times I visited there was only one woman running food, register and taking orders for the restaurant, but either way you’d better be prepared to wait for your Latin-Caribbean entrées. Just stare at the picture of the beach and pretend you’re relaxing in the tropical sunshine and make sure you’re not on a strict schedule.

Café Caribe

102 Fourth Street NW
242-2378
cafecaribeabq.com

Hours: 9am to 4pm, Monday through Sunday
Vibe: A day at the beach
Booze? No
Vegetarian? Yes
Price range: $10-$12 for entrées

The Alibi recommends: Cubano, masitas de puerco, Cuban beef, sweet plantains