Pour some sugar on me, please
The closing of Cloud Cliff Bakery and Café due to financial woes in spring 2008 left a restaurant void in the vibrant Second Street neighborhood. Devotees of the establishment’s locally harvested organic fare and house-baked breads and pastries found other haunts, but the empty café — which was instrumental in the area’s evolution into a bustling hub of business and art from the day it opened in 1988 — was a sad reminder that economic forces too often overpower a community’s love for a neighborhood gathering place.
Last February, however, chef Adolfo Lemus and his wife, Rosa — veterans of Santacafé’s kitchen brigade — breathed new life into the Cloud Cliff space when they opened El Patío Café, a casual New Mexican/ American joint with an eye for hearty chile-head breakfasts and the occasional Central American and Continental favorite. The sparse, casual décor of the café’s spacious interior hasn’t changed much, and the youthful floor staff is uniformed in bright-red threads. If you’re looking for your server — and you probably will be, given a lag time between finishing your meal and receiving your check — the staff is easy to spot if you’re not color blind. (In fact, there seems to be a lack of experience and sense of urgency among most of the floor staff, but they are genuinely friendly.)
A breakfast indoors by a large, sun-bathed window on a chilly mid-May morning proved good, save for inattentive service. A cup of organic coffee was piping hot but took nearly 10 minutes to hit the table. My chicharrón (fried pork belly skin) and scrambledegg burrito with black beans, “breakfast potatoes,” cheddar-jack cheese, and red and green chile sauces looked big enough to smother me. Two eggs were not prescrambled before hitting the heat, which left whites and yolks partially separated and unevenly heated after cooking. Not my favorite, but it seems to be the norm here. The red chile sauce was mild but earthy and smooth, while the green offered a slow burn and a naturally sweet, toasty flavor. Both were good, but the green was too thin and practically unseasoned. My partner’s plate of vegetarian eggs Benedict with red chile hollandaise, tomato, avocado, and housemade English muffins was breakfast heaven. Puffy, perfectly poached egg-white clouds encasing slightly runny yolk; muffin halves offering both crunch and a slight chew; ripe tomato; silky avocado; bright orange hollandaise … Chef Lemus nails this one. But his newpotato hash needs some love: undercooked, cold red potatoes are the Benedict Arnold to his outstanding Benedict eggs. A pillowy side-order blueberry pancake the size of a Frisbee compensated for these sad papas — for a price, of course.
During a late-afternoon lunch on the tree-shaded patio, I wanted to sample the pupusas (thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, meat, and other ingredients). There were none. I did, however, rekindle my love affair with the hot Reuben sandwich: a generous portion of quarter-inch-thick corned beef — curled at the edges after hitting the griddle but not dry — topped with sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Gruyère cheese encased in toasted house-baked rye bread. It was neither oily nor soggy, exemplifying sandwich craftsmanship at its best. The accompanying warm chipotle potato salad — mayonnaise-based — added a spicy regional twist, and the potatoes were cooked through. A cup of sweet-corn chowder was flavorful, albeit lukewarm, and I wondered why more seasonal local fare wasn’t hitting the soup cook’s prep table. A small house salad of romaine, mixed greens, cucumber, and carrot was unremarkable but fairly priced for its size. The metallic taste of dried herbs overpowered the blue cheese dressing.
My companion’s baby spinach, button mushroom, and asadero cheese quesadilla with avocado was tasty, but for nine bucks, I expected something larger, with an original twist beyond bland house-made salsa.
El Patío boasts a large pastry case left over from the Cloud Cliff days, but on both visits, it was practically bare. A few sad-looking muffins were available, which I considered after not being asked during either visit if I cared for something sweet after my meal. If service issues are approached head-on, I see no reason why El Patío can’t assume the role of its predecessor as a bustling neighborhood’s go-to meeting place.