Phoenix has taken a lot of heat for the transience of its populace, but look on the bright side: For all the wanderlust-stricken citizens who eventually ditch the 'Nix for other places, there are many more who're on their way in — maybe for the long haul.
Ana Borrajo is the kind of creative free spirit whom you'd expect to make a pit stop here on her way to some other metropolis. Instead, she just opened her own restaurant, Sapna Café, at the beginning of March. As a nod to her jet-setting past, the word sapna, which means "dream" in Hindu, was a nickname given to her in India; the cafe's tagline is "culinary experiences of a globetrotter."
The menu is simple and jaw-droppingly cheap — nothing tops seven bucks. There are breakfast items, sandwiches and salads for lunch, freshly baked pastries, and usually one or two specials served with salad and bread. Located in the front of the renovated Bragg's Pie Building — a 1947 Streamline Moderne structure that hugs the 45-degree corner of Grand Avenue and McKinley — Sapna Café feels off the beaten path but is blocks from the heart of downtown.
1301 Grand Avenue
Calcutta egg roll: $5.50
Grilled panini: $7
Tomato salad: $7
Gypsy stew: $5
Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
We're lucky to have Borrajo and her cooking talents. A native of Granada, Spain, Borrajo tells me she's been all over Asia and Europe, working in kitchens and sampling street food along the way. For years, she made regular jaunts around the world, perhaps spending six or eight months in Calcutta before returning to Spain for a while.
"I'm from southern Spain, so for us, going to north Africa is like going to Rocky Point," she says.
Before moving to Arizona five years ago, Borrajo was the chef of a big kitchen in Sweden. Feeling burnt-out and sun-deprived, she came here thinking she would never work in a restaurant again.
But she still had her passion for food. While selling fresh herbs at the downtown farmers market a few years ago, she befriended farmer Maya Dailey and started working on her organic farm at South Mountain. Borrajo became a fixture at the farmers market, eventually catering to hungry shoppers with her own homemade dishes. Although she called her weekly food stand Sapna Chill Out Café, she didn't actually have a permanent space.
"It got so popular that people started asking, 'Where is your location?'" Borrajo says. That prompted her to start looking for a place to launch a real restaurant. She spent the last year and a half working on her Bragg's Pie spot after discovering it on Craigslist.
Now, her small slice of the pie (factory) is sunny and soothing, with crisp white walls, white furniture with some black chairs thrown in for contrast, stained concrete floors, and sheer Indian saris that hang from the high ceiling. There's table service as well as takeout from a counter by the tiny open kitchen, and global electronic grooves on the stereo are occasionally punctuated by the sound of somebody chopping vegetables. Borrajo will probably greet you as she busily whips up something at the stove.
There are only four breakfast dishes, including spicy tomato baked eggs, and scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu with veggies. I ordered the "Calcutta egg roll" out of sheer curiosity. Turns out, it was a large tortilla lined with a thin layer of omelet, wrapped around crunchy chopped carrots, red onion, tomato, and cilantro, with sweet red chili sauce on the side. The morning after a night of meat-and-alcohol overload, I was happy to see it on my plate.
Later, Borrajo tells me it's one of her favorites, something she first tried in Calcutta.
"It's a major port city, so their food has lots of Chinese influence," she says. There, they make their egg rolls with chapati bread.
For something sweet to go with a cup of fair-trade coffee or Indian chai, Sapna Café usually has two or three fresh pastries, available all day. I liked the chocolate chip scones and carrot-orange muffins (lighter than carrot cake, with a similar flavor), but found the lemonade-cranberry muffins too dry. Tiramisu was another sweet option, a thick, vanilla-custardy take on what's usually a fluffy dessert.
Refreshing homemade beverages were noteworthy — lemonade with a gingery kick, orangeade with a fragrant touch of orange blossom water, and a quaffable tomato and red pepper gazpacho, served on the rocks. Moroccan mint tea, presented in an ornate silver teapot, was loaded with fresh mint leaves.
Depending on your appetite, you could eat quesadillas and gypsy stew either as appetizers or main dishes. (On a hungry day, I'd gobble up both.) My lightly toasted quesadilla was filled with creamy melted blue cheese and tangy tomato marmalade, while the stew — thick with butternut squash, onion, green beans, white beans, pears, chickpeas, and cilantro — was chunky and flavorful, so good I cleaned my bowl with a piece of bread.
Grilled panini, made with baguette slices or soft wheat bread, came with a side salad of fresh organic greens from Maya's Farm — a nice touch. My favorite sandwich combination contained moist slices of garlicky roasted chicken, gooey Brie, roasted red pepper, and arugula, although the Brie, pear, and walnut panini was also scrumptious. As for the croque monsieur, it wasn't slathered in béchamel, like some traditional versions of the French nosh, but it was still a good hot ham and cheese, with melted Provolone and a slick of Dijon.
Maya's greens were also the foundation of three entrée salads, including a lemony, irresistible tabbouleh — best tabbouleh ever, perhaps? Sapna Café's take on the Middle Eastern staple contained whole bulgur wheat, which had a satisfying texture, and a generous amount of tomato, cucumber, red onion, and cilantro. The result was succulent, not dry like typical tabbouleh. Nearly as addicting was a bed of greens topped with tomato wedges, chopped raw garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and a dash of salt. Another good one was decked out with goat cheese, Asiago, almonds, cranberries, and Modena reduction.
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Specials change every day, but I hope I'll see "veggie tofu stir-fry" written on the blackboard menu again. This jumble of thin noodles, tofu, sprouts, Swiss chard, tomato, red pepper, red onion, and beets was glazed in a delicate soy-ginger sauce that added tanginess but didn't detract from the bright, fresh flavors of the vegetables. I cleaned my plate the day they had that. On another visit, one of my dining companions hardly said a word as he quickly polished off a plate of spaghetti smothered in a sauce of tomato, zucchini, and red pepper. Instead, he sort of mumbled his delight between bites.
That got me wondering. How do you say "delicious" in Hindi, or Arabic, or even Swedish?
I bet Ana Borrajo knows.