Cafe Reviews

Christmas Carumba

It's as if jolly ol' Saint Nick himself laid a massive Yule log right in front of my Xmas fir with a missive ordering me to burn, baby, burn. Sure, this time of year, most good little boys and girls are having sugarplum dreams of iPods and Xboxes, but I'd rather have a stocking full of switches with which to birch some peddler of vile victuals. For most people, Santa's a corpulent, sleigh-bound clown spreading holiday cheer and reindeer droppings worldwide on the night before that ancient pagan fete of December 25. But for this sinful scribbler, Santa is an anagram for Satan, and all I long for is another deserving victim for my verbal vitriol.

Scottsdale's Cafe Carumba initially seemed to bear all the earmarks of being just such a gift from that weighty elf. After all, the name "Cafe Carumba" almost screams "goofy white folk," what with its Anglo misspelling of the Spanish phrase, "¡Ay, caramba!" -- used so liberally by Bart Simpson. Then there's the menu, which threatens, upon first glance, to be either a half-assed attempt at fusion, or some crass, cross-cultural appropriation, the sort of thing I love to skewer. Finally, I learned that owners Mark Voss and Mike Stevens gleaned what they know of the restaurant biz from Wendy's International! Voss was a franchisee, and Stevens a corporate executive. I mean, can you blame me for believing that I smelled blood in the water?

"Come to papa, Christmas has come early!" I thought, as I skipped merrily into Cafe Carumba's space, formerly that crotchety old dinosaur Jacqueline's Marketplace. Carumba has retained Jacqueline's breakfast and lunch menus, with a minimum of tinkering. I can't really speak to either of these, as I was mainly focused on the dinner offerings, which include some Latin elements, if not nearly as many as I'd like. Still, if the grub is gullet-worthy, I can overlook even the screwiest of affectations in favor of flavor, and Carumba's chow conquered all of my preconceived prejudices by tasting good.

Voss and Stevens owe a debt of gratitude to their 26-year-old executive chef Jay Schlangen, a cheesehead from Milwaukee, who knows his way 'round a stove, you betcha. Hey, I don't care if the hash slinger has furry feet and hails from Middle-earth, this cat can cook. With a last name like Schlangen, it doesn't exactly sound like he's Enrique Iglesias' twin brother. Nevertheless, Schlangen possesses the skills to pull off some intriguing eats, which is enough to win the allegiance of my jaded tongue.

Considering that Cafe Carumba feels more like a club or a bar, and that the "not so small plates," as the appetizers are labeled, are some of the tastiest items on the menu, I wonder if the proprietors considered hopping aboard the tapas bandwagon, forgoing larger plates. The only starter I really loathed was the "duo of trios," a huge bowl of tri-colored corn chips with three salsas: corn, tomatillo, and pineapple-habanero. I appreciated the dips, especially the tangy tomatillo and the fiery pineapple-habanero. But the tri-colored chips tasted like they came right out of some steel barrel from Costco. A complete waste of the salsas served with them. I'd rather Carumba had served those salsas with some of the chewy bread used for the bocadillos, which themselves resembled more bruschetta than "little sandwiches." The three I picked from the list of six were all appetizing, whether shrimp with mango salsa, grilled steak over marinated olive relish, or roasted corn in balsamic syrup.

If you're really anal about such things, you might end up in a snit over Carumba's use of the term "ceviche" to describe a martini glass filled with small chunks of raw ahi tuna, with one lonely lime perched on the lip. A true ceviche requires either lemon and/or lime juice mixed in with the raw fish, shrimp or octopus, and in turn the juice "cooks" the seafood. That wasn't the case here, but can I deny that the ruby red ahi was fresh and appealing? Not at all. I would suggest that the ahi might taste better with some lime and/or lemon added, but I'll confide that I didn't leave a bit of ahi in the bottom of that glass. Kill the accompanying taro chips, though. They seem store-bought to my palate.

I so adore that funky fromage known as Brie, I'd lick it off the hood of my car if it were warm and gooey, but Brie with mango? It works as Schlangen dishes it out, in small burritos, best consumed before they grow cold. Nothing very Latin about the nine small, pan-seared scallops you get drizzled with balsamic, but damn if they're not prepared perfectly. Carumba's crab cakes were edible and forgettable, but the short ears of street corn rolled in salty white queso fresco and sprinkled with cayenne had me wiggling my toes in bliss, even the big one stiff with gout! Just kidding. About the gout, that is. However, the street corn was truly better than a pound of Prozac, particularly when I squeezed some lime juice all over it.

The "big plates" proved gratifying, but lacked the wow factor of the smaller ones. I was a fan of the spicy, sweet habanero-braised ribs, which were much better than ribs I'd consumed recently at Bobby-Q, for instance. And though the grilled pork chop was dry, the lively chimichurri sauce that topped it was of great consolation, as were the butternut squash seeds tossed over the meat. I liked the pairing of hominy with the honey-roasted chicken, even if the "five chili sauce" in the dish was absent any bite. The seared salmon and seared tuna made for fairly conservative entrees, though the spinach and tomato risotto next to the salmon was as off the hook figuratively as the salmon was literally.

I'd return to Carumba for the Scottsdale burger alone, an early contender for the Best Burger of 2006: a half-pound of sirloin on a soft bun with Brie, pancetta, and a huge whole portobella cap, the size of a baby Frisbee. No disappointment over the vanilla flan or the rum-heavy, caramelized bananas, yet Carumba could stake its rep on that burger and not do too badly. Hell's bells, I've neglected the atmosphere, so stuck on the food I've been. Does that tell you something? Don't worry, it's chic and vaguely Latin American. Go, eat and drink. Pretend Carumba's a present from someone, whether that someone be Santa or Satan.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons