Amuse-bouche

The Plaza Café, re­viewed

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Nouf Al-Qasimi

The gyro is not just Athe­nian street food; it’s an Amer­i­can diner clas­sic. Greek-Amer­i­cans have his­tor­i­cally brought ded­i­ca­tion, hos­pi­tal­ity, and grape leaves to diner cul­ture na­tion­wide, em­brac­ing Amer­i­cana at its most ar­che­typal, with a lot of sin­cer­ity and a lit­tle bit of kitsch. Three con­sec­u­tive Greek im­mi­grant fam­i­lies have owned the Plaza Café since 1905. The place is a tem­ple to per­for­mance, with its glossy red leather booths, bur­nished steel ta­bles, and a hexag­o­nal tile floor like a black-and-white hon­ey­comb. Com­pli­ment­ing food for be­ing “bal­anced” is a lit­tle like prais­ing an am­bu­lance for ar­riv­ing on time, but bal­ance is the liv­ing prac­tice here. It was this café that first opened my mind to mole swirled with meaty, spiced mous­saka, and fries tossed with capers, feta, and oregano.

I’ve never known a de­scen­dant of eastern Mediter­raneans to be over­whelmed by the sight of food, al­though thou­sands of Le­banese fam­ily meals have pre­pared me well. En­ter the Plaza Café’s heap­ing hum­mus plate, which de­liv­ers a dense fix of Vi­ta­min H in a mash-up of Greek salad and Le­van­tine mezze. As with over­loaded na­chos, con­struc­tion of each bite re­quires strat­egy, like us­ing the pil­lowy house­made bread as a uten­sil and drop­ping a dolma on top in a de­li­cious game of Tetris.

The french fries, cut to or­der, are the golden mean in size and struc­ture. Save the side salad for an­other restau­rant — you will want the fries. Fur­ther to that point, do em­brace the fish and chips. The spicy fried cod with red chile fries could hold its own in a bar fight with a had­dock plat­ter from a solid Maine clam shack, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing jalapeño malt vine­gar and ha­banero tar­tar sauce should be ap­plied — and con­sumed — eu­phor­i­cally. Crispy fish tacos are lighter, with the same fried cod, av­o­cado, and smoky ranch dress­ing for rich­ness. A meal of fried cala­mari and In­dian fry bread with a breather of sopapil­las may not be the light­est lunch, but the kitchen ex­cels at fry­ing, and ev­ery crisped item here is worth the greasy nap­kins.

The cashew mole bowl is a study in neu­tral tones. It’s sweet, but more like the scent of pipe smoke than choco­late. Sour cream spreads the fla­vors, am­pli­fy­ing them. I wouldn’t pull out four sep­a­rate cook­ing ves­sels to make my­self this lay­ered sup­per of beans, rice, chicken, and chile af­ter a hard day, but with the mole bowl the Plaza makes the busi­ness of com­fort­ing strangers look ef­fort­less.

Some folks sum­mer at a lake; I fall at the Plaza, al­most lit­er­ally, into a bowl of pump­kin posole. It’s not the ve­gan potluck item it sounds like, but a lux­ury of creamed pump­kin, chorizo, hominy, and pepi­tas, avail­able from late Oc­to­ber un­til it runs out in De­cem­ber. Start hunt­ing it down the week be­fore Hal­loween.

Green ap­ple meets green chile in the chopped salad, where cumin bright­ens rather than bur­dens. But it’s hard to re­sist or­der­ing the tostada salad ev­ery time. Like cheese­burg­ers wrapped in a let­tuce leaf “bun,” the taco salad’s cousin sounds like a con­so­la­tion prize, but its charms per­sist. Here, the husky base for which the salad is named is stacked with let­tuce, cilantro, cab­bage, and scal­lions, and dressed with vinai­grette and gua­camole. You’ll find toma­toes and corn, along with beans for grav­ity, chile for smoke, and a swirl of crema. This is how I’d as­sem­ble a mid­night snack at my fa­vorite tac­que­ria if I were al­lowed to raid the fridge. A more sub­stan­tial al­ter­na­tive is the steak salad. My sir­loin slices, rare as gar­nets, were a few de­grees shy of ex­em­plary, but a thou­sand times prefer­able to over­cooked, es­pe­cially with grass-fed New Mex­ico beef like this.

Clas­sic diner desserts are the thing here, show­cased like real-life ver­sions of the sweets in an il­lus­trated chil­dren’s book. The tres leches cake’s crumb is more pound cake than pud­ding, but it’s still a face­plant­wor­thy cream bomb.

The Plaza Café con­tin­ues to de­liver be­yond ex­pec­ta­tions. This is the love that peo­ple talk about with cook­ing — the ide­al­ized mom who puts chile pow­der on your fries, or uses four pots to pre­pare your din­ner, just be­cause she knows that’s how you like it.

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