155 W. Neider Ave.
In a recent column, I spent an entire paragraph complaining about the noticeable lack of decent Chinese food places here in Coeur d’Alene. However, when it comes to great Mexican places we are lucky to have a “mucho grande” amount of places to choose from. In fact, I could make a wild guess and say that there are more Mexican restaurants in North Idaho than any other style of dining. For the most part, each place has a little different shtick from the others, ranging from the walk-up taco trailers and the build-your-own burrito bars to the places which offer a gourmet authentic experience. Falling somewhere between fast and fancy, Café Chulo on Neider Ave. has become one of my personal favorite Mexican haunts.
Chulo opened in fall of 2005 in the glorious Kmart parking lot, taking over a formerly cursed building that housed a series of failed burger joints, none of whose names I can recall. Not that it matters, because the proprietors here have transformed the place into a bright and breezy cabana. Cheerfully painted stucco blends with colorful handmade tiles in an open atmosphere. The tables have fun retro posters resting underneath their glass surfaces. The place always seems impeccably clean and there are open tables no matter how busy it gets.
When I was in Sacramento, California several years ago, the big trend was "Fresh-Mex" cuisine, which is a way to describe Mexican Food that doesn't rely on deep frying, grey gloppy refried beans, and heavy mounds of melted cheese. Cafe Chulo is CDA's first "Fresh-Mex" place, and the food is astonishingly fresh indeed, and quite delectable. The flour and corn tortillas are made right on premises on a constant basis, the salsa is made up several times daily and never sits around for too long. The menu is a bit minimal (tacos, burritos, nachos, with chicken, beef, or pulled pork) but each order comes with the choice of chips and salsa or beans and rice. Plus, the food just seems so different than that of your average Mexican place, it's like trying these foods for the first time.
On a recent visit, I quickly realized that the gentlemen behind the counter seemed to speak almost no English at all. Unlike certain outspoken members of our community, I love to see language diversity in action, sometimes I just wish I had taken Spanish in high school instead of wasting my time with years of French lessons (although that could come in handy on trips to Canada, I suppose). Of course, he did speak enough English to take our orders, but it would've been fun to surprise him by ordering in his native tongue, like I’ve seen some other clever Chulo-goers do. His friendly teenage kitchen helper spoke perfect English, however, as I told her to load my chicken tacos up with fresh cilantro and pico de gallo. My lunch partner ordered the beef nachos, which took three trips under the broiler, with new layers added each round. Everything comes in a shiny aluminum round tray, wisely eliminating any dishes.
We moaned and groaned ecstasy as we dug in to our meals. The flour tortillas holding together my chicken tacos were hot off the press and perfect in taste and texture. The grilled chicken inside was pure, delicious white meat and was cooked just right so it practically melted in my mouth. The salsa added a perfect hint of sweet and spicy that accented the tender chicken perfectly. The lettuce added a healthy crunch, a far cry from the wilted green stuff that many lesser taco joints serve. They went quite light on the shredded cheese, which was a wise decision as to not overwhelm the succulent flavor of the entire package. Each bite was just a tease for the next bite.
I know I probably sound like I'm going a bit overboard here, but these tacos are truly that good. I have never tasted anything quite as dynamic. The accompanying beans were actual beans rather than mush, whole black beans with a delicious sauce. Lastly, the smallish portion of rice was quite flavorful and a perfect way to chase down the main event. Meanwhile, my ravenous lunch partner wordlessly toppled and overtook the largest pile of Nachos I have ever seen, smothered in huge strips of peppery grilled steak, piquant brown hot sauce and guacamole so fresh you could practically see the poor avocado shivering.
Amazingly, almost every meal on the menu is priced near $6. For the quality of food they offer, the low cost is truly jaw dropping. Plus, they have a handy drive-thru, so if you're in a hurry you can treat yourself to something healthy, rather than a slimy Jack-in-the-Crack burger. The only complaint I have at all about Cafe Chulo is that they charge a couple of bucks for a basket of chips and salsa, rather than offer it free like most places do, Certainly, that doesn't mean you will leave hungry. I’d also love to see them bring some horchata into the scene. I get frequent cravings for the sweet rice and cinnamon beverage, and it’s all but impossible to track down in our fair berg. Such trivialities are unimportant when measured against the big picture of what Café Chulo has to offer. Since they’ve opened, I must have sampled nearly the entire menu, and everything I've tried has been nothing less than enticing and delicious. Highly recommended.