610 W. Hubbard #110
The night of Cinco de Mayo is traditionally when we enjoy a lot of Corona and Jose Cuervo and perhaps get a little loco. So, of course you will want to spend the day grazing on goodies from south of the border to get your tummy prepared for the party. You can’t settle for plain old Taco Bell on such an important day, you’ll want to go for something different, something on the more authenitic side. I’d approvingly suggest that a visit to Café Carambola for lunch is a great way to get the fiesta started.
I have a friend who cracked me up one time when we went to lunch at another “fresh-mex” restaurant a while back in Coeur d’Alene and after we got our food he sat down said, with all seriousness: “This isn’t a real Mexican place – there aren’t any tater tots on the menu!” Poor kid needs to get out more often, I think.
With that in mind, I wouldn’t suggest that he should bother with Café Carambola either, where nothing is murdered in hot oil, and everything is served fresh, fresh, fresh in an intriguing variety of Latin dishes. In fact, they claim that many of the veggies are plucked daily from the owner’s home garden, at least in the warmer months. The location is a bit off the beaten track, tucked away there in Harbor Center next to the Lewis-Clark State Student Lounge (they offer a discount to LCSC students, by the way.) I’ve driven by the place a zillion times, but it never really registered to actually dine there until a few days ago. A friend and I were hungry but couldn’t decide where to eat - we were sick of all the usual spots and were craving something new. Bing! I remembered Café Carambola and we headed out the door.
The cafe is teeny-tiny but the addition of several al fresco tables on the front sidewalk made for a bit more space. There was only one table left when we arrived during the busy lunch rush. While its strip-mall location renders it rather nondescript from the outside, the place is bright, clean and welcoming inside. A few minimal bits of South American décor add some color and charm. A friendly gentleman with a wild floral shirt and a thick Latin accent waited patiently as we scanned the menu.
Although the owners have lived in Mexico, this is not your standard Mexican fare at all. Menu items also derive from exotic places like Peru, Argentina, and Cuba. For lunch, they offer a variety of tortas (which is Spanish for “sandwiches on a firm and crusty grilled bread roll”), homemade soups and salads, and the special of the day, which this day was their legendary tamales. I spied the variety of colorful salads in the display case and our host named them off to me, each utterly unpronounceable to these non-Spanish speaking ears. Prices here are a little on the upper ridge of my normal lunch budget, ranging from $8-12 per person.
I decided to go for half a Torta Mexicana (slow roasted pulled-pork, goat cheese, tomato salsa) and a small order of the unpronounceable salad with fresh tomatoes and avocados frolicking lightly in herbs and olive oil. My dining partner immediately sprang for the tamales, his favorite, along with the soup of the day, which was a mean bean concoction of some type. Our food arrived expeditiously and my partner looked at his plate and at me and back at it and at me and we both started laughing. He has a quite a notoriously voracious appetite and could have quite easily eaten about four times the amount of food presented. Two wee tamales (two bites each) and a half-dab of soup was it. I told him to get over it, that it was “gourmet.” In all honesty, I suppose that for $8.95 they could have at least tried to feed the poor starving boy instead of just teasing him. The food was absolutely delish, he said, but as soon as he was done he was ready to go to Zips for round two.
My torta and salad portion weren’t exactly mammoth either, but I was just hungry enough that it seemed like the right amount. The slow-roasted pork was melt-in-your-mouth good, the cheese was perfectly creamy and made a nice accompaniment to the tangy fresh tomato salsa. The avocado-tomato salad was vibrant, coated in a variety of herbs and olive oil and practically sparkled on my tastebuds. Yum-ola! A good old fashioned Pepsi was the perfect thing to wash down this singularly enjoyable meal.
Despite the lunch rush, our waiter was kind and attentive, returning frequently to check on us and fill our beverages. Again, our only complaint was that the small-ish portion size didn’t seem to line up with the large-ish prices. A suggestion: sit people with a bottomless basket of homemade chips and fresh salsa and allow those with larger appetites to fill their tummies that way. Overall, Café Carambola does a fantastic job of providing an uncommon alternative to traditional Mexican lunches, and being that the place is always hopping when I cruise by, I’m not the only one who thinks so.