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 V.24 No.31 | July 30 - August 5, 2015

Restaurant Review

Muy Bien

Café Bien lives up to its name

There are certain questions we must all ask ourselves to determine what kind of person we are and how we interact with the world around us. One of them is this: What exactly is the nature of good and evil, and where do our personal moral choices place us in their context? Another is this: Can pancakes ever be good enough to justify an $11 price tag?

I found myself pondering the second at Café Bien, which offers a variety of items for lunch and breakfast including, yes, $11 pancakes. How good can pancakes be? I wondered as I visualized an ascending line representing price compared to another representing quality in the graphing calculator of my mind. Although I love pancakes, it was difficult to believe there could be a batter recipe in which both quality and price didn’t plateau somewhere before the $11 mark.

Obviously, I was just going to have to order them.

Café Bien is a little eatery that’s been kicking around Downtown for a while now, first at a nearly-hidden location in the Simms Building, but now on the much more visible corner of 4th and Central (former home of Nick’s Crossroads Café). The interior is pretty spare, but in a sleek modern way that comfortable and breezy. The west wall is covered in televisions tuned to mostly food channels. I’m normally against the idea of screen-happy eateries, but watching food channel chefs concoct amazing items while we waited for our meal was actually pretty pleasant. Plus the sound stays down and you can always turn your back to the screen if it offends your sensibilities. Or, on a sunny summer morning, take a seat on the narrow outdoor patio instead.

How good can pancakes be?

The staff is friendly and smiling and the service has the feel of a family restaurant where everyone gets along. It’s pretty quiet inside on weekends but busier on weekday mornings and lunchtimes when the local working contingent braves the chaos of Downtown Central Avenue for a square meal.

Now then, about those pancakes. Let there be no question about it, these are frigging good pancakes. Great pancakes, in fact. There’s peanut butter on them, for one thing, and toasted walnuts. And bananas. And the hot cakes themselves have a caramelized crust and yes, they are probably better than any pancake I’ve ever had. Still, that price point presents a dilemma, one that you, reader, must decide for yourself. But I’ll put it this way: if you make the plunge, the hot cakes will hold up their end of the deal.

There’s also French toast at a similar price point. The bricohe is well battered and lovely, but the portion is just too small to make this a standout. The baked cinnamon apple slices are a nice touch, though. And if you really want to overload with sweetness for a fraction of the cash, then the breakfast banana split (at $5) is for you. Not me, though: candied pineapples, mascarpone cheese, chocolate syrup and fruit compote is a sugary overload as far as I’m concerned.

Instead, the croissant-wich is more my speed. A typical egg-and-Canadian-bacon breakfast sandwich that’s set apart from the rest of the crowd through the use of super juicy, sweet heirloom tomatoes, a dash of cayenne and a pillowy, flaky croissant. This is my own go-to for a quick breakfast before work.

Chicken Club
Chicken Club
Come back at lunchtime to bolster yourself for the day ahead, flip the menu over and peruse a robust lineup of entrées. There’s ribeye if your appetite is huge, a caprese sandwich if you need something light. Being of a middling disposition, I tried the frito pie, which is pretty heavy on the frito and topped with a fresh garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. To the usual question, I answered “red” and found that the chile wonderfully complemented the pinto beans and chips, making for a fortifying mid-day break.

There’s also a pulled pork sandwich, which is excellent with a vinegary zing to the in-house smoked pork. And the requisite burger, made “your way,” with a brioche bun. Though it did come cooked ever-so-slightly above my requested level of medium rare. The cheddar was reasonably sharp and the green chile I added on had a nice heat and flavor.

Fish and chips
Fish and chips
Bien does offer beer and wine for those who like their mid-day meals to really sing, and they offer mimosas on weekend mornings. The beer selection is currently pretty anemic. When I asked about a pint for lunch they offered me Coors Light on draft, a can of Guinness or an Angry Orchard cider. In a barley happy town like ours, that just isn’t going to cut it.

But there are signs of changes afoot already. The space next door to Bien is currently undergoing a renovation and the staff tells me that it will soon be home to phase two of the café. The bathrooms are in this uncompleted wing, so I had an opportunity to scope it out and found a set-aside keg system with pull handles advertising local brews. So hope looms on the horizon.

All in all, Café Bien is a welcome addition to Downtown’s breakfast and lunch options. The “upscale casual” atmosphere serves its clientele well, and the existential questions it raises are delicious.

View in Alibi Chowtown Chowtown

Café Bien

400 Central SW
246-2436
cafebienabq.com

Hours: 7am to 4pm, Every day
Vibe: Casually upscale
Extras: Plenty of cooking shows to watch

The Alibi recommends: Hot cakes (after an internal struggle), frito pie, pulled pork sandwich.

Friday

ABQ Food Fridays at Harry E. Kinney Civic Plaza

Free Coffee Tasting at Prosum Roasters

Friday Farm Stand at Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm

More Recommented Events ››
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