Cafe Reviews

The Razor's Edge

Anyone remember Uptown 713, that ghastly excuse for a grub-ateria that once occupied a little shoebox-size space behind Apollo's Lounge, near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road? Believe me, it's not worth remembering. The only reason I haven't completely erased it from the memory banks is that after I wrote a stinging review of the place back in early 2004, its owner squealed like a stuck pig, ordering New Times never to mention the name of his sacred eatery again. Of course, we ignored this daft demand, and life went on as usual. For us, that is. Uptown 713, on the other hand, served its last meal several months back. A more deserved culinary demise would be difficult to envision.

Cafe Del Sol, the establishment that's taken over Uptown 713's old quarters, is an improvement over its predecessor, though that's not saying much. Chef/proprietor Bill Traynor has done what he can within the limitations of this postage stamp of a nosherie. The walls are burnt yellow, the floor burnt orange, and the tiny bar topped with deep blue tiles. You can still dine alfresco on the wide patio, weather permitting. Otherwise, be prepared to get to know your fellow restaurantgoers better than you may wish.

Traynor is a defector from corporate America, and a recent grad of the Arizona Culinary Institute. Apparently, his wife is Puerto Rican and has initiated him into the joys of Caribbean cuisine, which in turn inspired his bill of fare. Authenticity seems to be his culinary ambition, but the results are mixed. Traynor gets it right some of the time, and other times falls flat. He's aiming at doing the sort of food that Havana Cafe already does pretty durn well. Not that the town's not big enough for more purveyors of island eats. But Cafe Del Sol caused me to pine for its more seasoned Cuban competitor, an outcome I'm sure Traynor did not intend.

Lunch at Cafe Del Sol was an intriguing disaster. Both sopas I sampled seemed to want more of everything, especially more time in the pot. The caldo gallego, a peppery mixture of white beans, chorizo and kale in a chicken stock, was neither offensive nor very enticing. And Traynor's black bean soup was far too anemic and by-the-numbers. At Havana, the potage de frijoles negros is thick, almost like a black bean pudding, with the slight twinge of garlic in every bite. Similarly, Cafe Del Sol's take on the classic Cubano was more akin to panini in execution than the slightly greasy, pressed roll you get at Havana, with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, sliced pickles, and so on. However, the jicama slaw that shared the plate with Traynor's Cubano was refreshing and unique, and I did appreciate the fact that the root veggie chips were made in-house.

Too bad the shoestring fries that went with the "frita Cubano," or Cuban hamburger, were straight out of the freezer, like fries you'd get at Sonic. I know cutting your own fries is a pain in the ass, but it makes a big difference, and I don't think Cafe Del Sol can use the smallness of its operation as an excuse. My pal chef Peter Deyo used to cut them himself all the time when he was running the Welcome Diner, and that place is even more diminutive. Fortunately, the beef patty served alongside these prefabricated pommes frites was, to Traynor's credit, quite juicy and sloppily engrossing, topped with onions on a soft bun.

I was a little annoyed by the lack of yuca on the menu, that starchy tuber also known as cassava or manioc. I love yuca frita, or fried spears of yuca, which, over at Havana, is offered with tongue-tingling dips. And boiled yuca drenched in garlic may be one of the simplest and most satisfying dishes in the world. The root is a staple in Cuban cuisine, and its absence at Cafe Del Sol is frustrating. Perhaps Traynor is trying to placate yanquis unused to yuca's texture, but, hey, screw them! Blimey, do you want to do a Caribbean-themed restaurant or what, boyo?

Aside from being yuca-less, dinner presents Cafe Del Sol in a much better light. Both the ground-beef-stuffed, Puerto Rican-style empanadas and the smaller, crab-and-chorizo-filled empanaditas were scrumptious, like a Latin answer to Indian samosas. As for the Cubano bruschetta, with the same elements as a Cubano sammy but prepped à la the Italian snack, they just seemed boring and, frankly, unimaginative, like something a student at a culinary college would cook up in a vain attempt to impress his or her teacher.

The main dishes, or platillos principales, were earnest attempts at these tropical viands. The sides of sliced, fried plantains, or maduros, that came with several entrees would probably please that Cuban ham Ricky Ricardo. And the tostone, or squashed double-fried plantain, that topped each pile of rice was right on the money, even if the unit of exchange was a peso. The ropa vieja, the renowned Cuban dish of shredded beef braised in a sauce of tomatoes, red wine, garlic and sweet peppers, was adequate, even if it failed to match Havana Cafe's magnificent version. And the Guatemalan dish of chicken breast in a tomatillo-pumpkinseed sauce (pollo jocon) was tasty, even if I would have liked more of that sauce.

As for the Puerto Rican pernil asado and the pollo guisado, they were passable as pure comfort food, though I doubt I'd return for either one. The pollo guisado, or clucker with a side of cubed potatoes and green olives, tasted best when chopped up mixed in with the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). And the pernil asado, or slow-cooked, marinated pork, was savory, but failed to amaze me in any way.

The cheesecakey flan was okay, but I prefer the similarly cheesecakey flan Napolitano over at Asi Es La Vida. Yet the tres leches cake was nothing less than stunning: A gargantuan slice topped with guava-infused pineapple chunks and toasted coconut, it was moist with the "three milks" in which it had been soaked. Better than the tres leches you can buy over at Phoenix Ranch Market.

Adding up the plusses and minuses, I'd say Cafe Del Sol is poised right on the razor's edge, a dangerous place to be. I can't give it a wholehearted recommendation. There's too much room for improvement.

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