The Plaza Café, reviewed
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.