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Strip mall cuisine - not to be underestimated

April 23, 2006|By Philip McGullet

Businesses convinced that flashy signage is a requirement for success might look to the new Cafe del Sol on Salem Avenue for contrarian evidence. Due to the area's interminable permitting process, the Italianish restaurant has yet to hang a proper shingle, instead relying on a loose banner draped over the window announcing its existence.

No matter. A packed house on a recent Friday night demonstrated it's the product that matters, and if you offer great food at a great price, customers will find your door.

We say Italianish, because - as seems to be the trend - Cafe del Sol headlines a list of pizza and pasta entrees on the evening card, but, as the name implies, happily trots off south of the border and reaches into Greece or anywhere else that happens to catch its fancy. It's kind of like if a restaurant had been founded by Hernando Cortez and Amerigo Vespucci.

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Cafe del Sol is tucked into a small shopping center strip just off Interstate 81, but its dcor - earth tones, wood floors and well-selected artwork - is far beyond what you would normally expect in such environs. It feels as if you are in a real, destination restaurant, not just a chow grab between the pharmacy and the dry cleaners. But then, the best Cuban restaurant in Key West is in a strip mall, so maybe they know something we don't.

We shot for a sampling of the Italian and not-so-Italian, and, generally speaking, found better luck where Cafe del Sol strays from the confines of tradition. An antipasto salad was not exactly classic in its ingredients, but hard not to like with generous rolls of ham, salami and mozzarella, crisp lettuce and red onion with a good house balsamic dressing.

No Italian menu is complete these days without some interesting take on nachos, so, when in Rome, so to speak, we gave them a shot and were not disappointed.

Soggy nachos are a downfall of restaurants everywhere, but these remained snappy under a bed of the eatery's signature chicken chili, melted jack cheese, red onions and chicken. We particularly like the addition of whole kidney beans, which contributed a nice flavor and texture, and it was topped with a good guacamole and sour cream and an excellent hot salsa on the side.

Our server was saucy, too - smart and funny and well-educated in the menu and wines. The staff as a whole was pleasant, energetic and consistently directed us to the best stuff.

Cafe del Sol has an extensive selection of panini, grilled Italian sandwiches with meat and cheese, pressed flat and toasted - close cousins to "Cuban" sandwiches sold on Miami street corners. A pork panini was excellent, crisp and succulent, with a nice combination of flavors and textures.

So good are the sandwiches, in fact, that the pastas seem something of an afterthought - a pasta with vodka sauce proved the only cylinder of the evening that didn't fire. The linguini was overcooked, giving it sort of an out-of-the-can consistency and a vodka sauce was well past a blush, but not quite red. The resulting color brought to mind a bad experience in a tanning booth and while the flavor was decent, it was not memorable. A good, sweet sausage on top helped a bit, but we found the sandwiches and pizza represent a better value and experience.

This was especially true after one bite of the Greek gyro, a luscious concoction with big hunks of beef and lamb, feta, red onion (that onion gets around) and a creamy cucumber-yogurt sauce wrapped in a fresh flatbread.

It's a dish that can't be equaled anywhere in Hagerstown, and topped even the admirable Greek creation served at the old Washington Spy downtown. The gyro was so good, in fact, that we returned to it for lunch just a few days after our excellent dinner experience.

It's served with delicious, crispy fries and was a bargain as well. Indeed, everything on the menu is a good value, and even with a meal that includes appetizers, wine and dessert it is hard for a couple to break the $50 barrier - something of a rarity, these days.

With absolutely no room left for dessert, we did what any good Americans would do and ordered some anyway. Thank goodness for gluttony. We were expecting a dessert afterthought, as so many restaurants do these days, probably some prepackaged sugar-based slab or something or other with perhaps a sprig of mint as an apathetic nod to culinary care.

Instead we were treated to a dense, apple-walnut cake with caramel sauce, which was rich and satisfying without being too heavy on an already strained stomach. We also loved the eatery's cannoli - creamy, chocolate chip-and-ricotta filling stuffed inside tasty, crunchy shells and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

And the price for all this? Just $47, and we easily could have been satisfied spending half that. Hagerstown has plenty of low-cost restaurants, and in many of them you get what you pay for. Cafe del Sol, on the other hand, places a tremendous amount of care and consideration into its food and the reward for this is a full parking lot. Imagine what it could do if it had a sign.

Philip McGullet is a psedo-nym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Cafe del Sol

1481 Salem Ave. - Hagerstown

Hours: The restaurant will seat people from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Overall 4 out of 5

Food - 4

Value - 5

Service - 4

Atmosphere - 4

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