Next stop, won­der­land

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Lau­rel Glad­den

The café’s short but sweet menu fol­lows whim­si­cal suit, in­clud­ing items like a Most Won­drous Que­sadilla, a Down­right Great Grilled Cheese, and both a cake and a salad whose names in­volve the word “sparkle.” But dé­cor and nomen­cla­ture aside, noth­ing you’ll eat here is silly.

Re­mem­ber the tea par­ties of your child­hood? You know the ones: The guest list in­cluded some stuffed an­i­mals, a Bar­bie or two, your mom or your sis­ter, and maybe an imag­i­nary friend. The food, if it ac­tu­ally ex­isted, might have been Nilla Wafers or gra­ham crack­ers, and the teapot was filled with wa­ter, Coke, or Kool-Aid. More likely, though, you pre­tended to serve stuff like uni­corn cake, fairy cook­ies, and rainbow tea.

In­dulge Café (oc­cu­py­ing Aztec Café’s old spot) feels like a place where that sort of child­hood fan­tasy car­ries on. One cor­ner is a ded­i­cated space for chil­dren, with blackboard walls, a tiny ta­ble, and a co­hort of toy com­pan­ions. The rest of the room may make you think you’ve taken a bite of that mag­i­cal cake from Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land and that you’re in a blown-up, grown-up ver­sion of the same space. In­spi­ra­tional quotes and lines from Lewis Car­roll, among oth­ers, are sten­ciled on the walls. The mis­matched ta­bles and chairs are painted in pretty pas­tels. There’s a sparkling crys­tal chan­de­lier, a sea-foam green, retro-style espresso ma­chine, and an over­all pal­ette that echoes the gen­er­ously frosted cho­co­late cup­cakes in the bak­ery case. The car­toon­ishly bright por­traits on the walls (the work of Ly­dia Hesse, one of the café’s co-own­ers) turn out to be named for the birds sit­ting on each sub­ject’s head. On one visit, a lit­tle girl skipped past me wear­ing fairy wings, and even the mu­sic was suc­cess­fully trans­port­ing, the piped-in Louis Arm­strong and Ella Fitzger­ald stan­dards tak­ing me straight back to tea par­ties at my grand­mother’s house.

The café’s short but sweet menu fol­lows whim­si­cal suit, in­clud­ing items like a Most Won­drous Que­sadilla, a Down­right Great Grilled Cheese, and both a cake and a salad whose names in­volve the word “sparkle.” But dé­cor and nomen­cla­ture aside, noth­ing you’ll eat here is silly. It’s ro­bustly fla­vored and rapidly pre­pared, with a nod to nu­tri­tion — every­thing on the menu is veg­e­tar­ian and can be made ve­gan upon re­quest.

Now, I’m all for self-con­fi­dence, but declar­ing some­thing you serve to be “the best ever” is pretty au­da­cious, so I felt jus­ti­fi­ably skep­ti­cal as I awaited my Best Bur­rito Ever. It had been heated to give the tor­tilla a pleas­antly toasty snap, and the fill­ing was a tongue-en­ter­tain­ing blend of black beans, quinoa, pesto, golden corn, spinach, ched­dar, and crunchy pump­kin and sun­flower seeds. Af­ter the first few bites, I felt like John Tra­volta’s char­ac­ter in Pulp

Fic­tion: doubt­ful about the de­li­cious­ness of a fivedol­lar milk­shake, he takes a few long slurps and then ad­mits with wide-eyed sur­prise (and a string of ex­ple­tives) that he’s im­pressed. “Wow, that’s a pretty flip­pin’ great bur­rito!” I said to my­self.

Much of the same work­ings reap­pear in the over­sized, over­flow­ing Most Won­drous Que­sadilla, made with what must be the World’s Big­gest Brown Rice Tor­tilla. Af­ter less than half, I was stuffed, but per­haps that was be­cause I’d been pre­oc­cu­pied by my plate’s tiny ver­sion of the Sparkle Goat Salad: spinach, crunchy pur­ple cab­bage, red onion, black olives, saline snow-white feta, diced tomato, and nutty pump­kin seeds with a just-sweet-enough hon­ey­mus­tard dress­ing.

The por­to­bello panini was sim­i­larly sur­pris­ing, a ri­otous blend of veg­e­tal fla­vors, with sun­dried-tomato pesto com­ing to the fore — that ’90s-era gim­mick is per­fectly at home here amid spinach, arugula, mush­rooms, and sharp cheese. The Down­right Great Grilled Cheese lived up to the first part of its name, though it’s so loaded with greens, roasted pep­pers, tomato, and onion, it’s less strictly a “grilled cheese” and more a grid­dled veg­gie sand­wich that hap­pens to in­clude ched­dar. The bread — which ap­pears here and on the panini — has an ex­cel­lent chewy crumb and the de­light­fully funky, nasal twang you ex­pect from the finest sour­dough.

The bak­ery case is rather sparsely stocked, but what’s there is per­fectly pretty, from Rasp­berry Rose Sparkle Cake, mango co­conut cake, and co­conut-cho­co­late al­mond “de­lights” to deep, dark cho­co­late minia­ture cup­cakes topped with in­tri­cate but­ter­cream flow­ers. Ev­ery­one here is friendly and wel­com­ing in their own way. One staff mem­ber was bub­bly and out­go­ing, while an­other had a serenely pierc­ing gaze but was soft-spo­ken and tac­i­turn — the sort of re­served de­meanor that can come across as aloof­ness when it’s ac­tu­ally just shy­ness.

In­dulge has rather lim­ited hours — they’re open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week — which is a bit of a bum­mer (I’d love to start a morn­ing with a Best Bur­rito Ever), but it’s still a welcome op­tion in a rel­a­tive sea of burg­ers and bar­be­cue and chile-cheese fries. It’s also an en­chant­ing place to es­cape the grav­ity of the “real” adult world and re­mind your­self of what Peter Pan said: “Once you’re grown up, you can never come back.”

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