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Carmen’s Cafe: A Troy Treasure

August 6, 2012

Tucked away from the bustling restaurant and bar area of downtown Troy is a bright and cozy little bistro called Carmen’s Café, located on 1st Street, a good mile or so south of Congress. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably never go by it, and that would be a great misfortune. Carmen’s is serving up Cuban-Spanish-American food tapas-style, and combined with the live music and a friendly host, it’s a fantastic dining experience.

Carmen’s décor follows along with the whole theme of the place – a bit off-kilter, yet welcoming and fun. Giant tribal mask relics hang from the walls, along with old room fans that have been repurposed as wall art. The place is fairly small, with seating for only about 25 or so, plus a few spaces at the bar. It was pretty packed at 8:00pm last Friday, but we found a couple of stools at the bar, invited to sit there by Carmen herself, a warm and outgoing person who we got to know more about later on. The atmosphere reminded us of the fictitious “Cheers” – everyone seemed to know everyone’s name. Carmen’s truly personifies the term “neighborhood restaurant.”

They serve beer and wine, no cocktails, but they do make several varieties of sangria along with sparkling wine raspberry lemonade. We tried the two sangrias available last night (they let us try them before ordering, a nice touch). The first was a red sangria, flavored with cinnamon – it was rich, fruity, and the cinnamon made it taste like a cross between sangria and fresh apple cider. Needless to say, we got a half-liter; it was so tasty. The other sangria was a white sangria with citrus flavors – it was good, but not nearly as good as the red. We also tried the sparkling wine lemonade, which was tasty but very sweet.

The printed tapas menu contains around 10 items, from a manchego cheese and fruit plate, to empanadas, fried plantains, Cuban rice and beans, mushrooms stuffed with chorizo, and fried yucca. The handwritten specials board had another 10 items or so on it, and it changes every week. Last night some of the offerings were Cuban BBQ ribs with a spicy guava glaze, served with yucca fries; a strip steak with churrasco sauce and mashed potatoes; cilantro-lime tofu with saffron rice; and crab cakes with roasted red pepper sauce. We started with the Cuban egg rolls, the chicken croquettes, and the eggplant sliders. The egg rolls were essentially a Cuban sandwich served in egg roll form. The light and flaky wrapper was stuffed with roasted pork, ham, pickles, and Swiss cheese, served with modestly potent mustard for dipping. It was really tasty – it was just like eating a Cuban sandwich, but with the delicious fried egg roll crunch. The croquettes were also done very well – diced chicken and cheese were very lightly breaded and fried just enough to crisp the outside, but not give it that heavy, deep-fried taste. The chicken and cheese were creamy and flavorful, and it was served with a nice chipotle remoulade. The eggplant sliders featured two ½-inch thick slices of eggplant topped with a guava sauce and sliced avocado, served on a wheat bun. The eggplant itself was cooked beyond perfect – sometimes people are turned off by thick slices of the vegetable because the texture can be kind of meaty, but chef Chris managed to make these so tender that they just melted in our mouths. The combination of the eggplant with the guava sauce and the avocado was a bit too sweet – it could have used something salty and/or spicy for some contrast. I would love to just have a plate of the eggplant and sauce on its own.

A blues duo was playing during our meal, and despite the small space, the music was not obnoxiously loud (and in fact the duo was pretty good!), and a couple of patrons even made some space in front of the band to dance. We were ready for more food, so we ordered two beef empanadas and the fried plantains. The empanadas were stuffed with seasoned ground beef, raisins, chopped green olives, onions, and peppers (this combination is also known as picadillo). The dough was fantastic – flaky but with just the right amount of chewiness to hold the filling inside, and that filling was full of flavor. The seasoning was vibrant but not overdone, the raisins added a touch of sweetness, and the olives added just a hint of salt and nice texture; these were terrific empanadas. The plantains fooled the heck out of me. They were so fresh and sweet that I was sure they had been cooked in something, maybe a little rum or brown sugar. But I was informed that they were just sautéed on their own; that speaks to the freshness of the ingredient and the competence of the chef to just let the plantain sing solo. They were fabulous.

There were two desserts on the specials board – a chocolate cake, and mango-lime cheesecake. We really wanted the cheesecake, but unfortunately they had just run out. That was disappointing, but as Mrs. MHK pointed out, at least that meant it was made fresh and they didn’t have extras sitting in the freezer or anything.

Arguably the best part of the night was when Carmen introduced herself to us and we talked for about 15 minutes. She told us how she started the restaurant a few years ago, and back then she was the chef as well, running the place from open to close every day. But after a foot injury sidelined her for 8 months, the restaurant nearly went under, and she said if it wasn’t for the neighborhood’s support and encouragement to fix things and stay open, it probably would have shut down. Luckily Carmen found a new chef and for now, the café is only open Friday nights (they do take reservations) and during the day on Saturdays and Sundays (she can only stay on her feet for limited stretches of time). But she plans on opening on more evenings in the near future, and that’s great news for all of us. We talked about the lack of authentic Cuban-Spanish food in the area (she’s part Cuban and part Puerto Rican, so she knows what she’s talking about), and how important it was to her to use fresh, local ingredients. They make their own empanada dough from scratch, they have a smoker for meats including smoking their own bacon for breakfast (guess we need to go for breakfast now), and they get all their cheeses and produce from local farms. As she told us this, we kept nodding our heads and saying, “We can tell!” She was a delight to talk to, and the only reason our conversation ended was because her husband asked her to dance. How frickin’ sweet is that? Why would anyone not want to support a place like this?

We’ll be back for breakfast and lunch at some point (click here for the menus and you’ll see why). Prices at Carmen’s are very reasonable, considering the quality of the food and fun atmosphere. The smaller tapas run from $3-$9, and the larger items from last night (remember they change every week) ran from $10-$16. Our total bill, with the sangria and tax and tip, only came to $60 (not including the $5 per person cover charge, which presumably goes to the musicians). Well worth it for an evening of fresh, delicious food, served in a bright and uplifting setting.

The Mouse House Kitchen gives Carmen’s Café 4.5 out of 5 stars!

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