Meal of Fortune

New Nuevo Latino Restaurant Café Ena Is Occasionally Delightful, Occasionally Sloppy—So Ask Yourself, Do You Feel Lucky?

A braised lamb shank ($18.95) was muttony, greasy, and tasted as if it had been boiled in a half-pan of water all day before being drizzled with its lid of adobo sauce. Pan-seared scallops ($17.95) featured prettily seared scallops served alongside a gummy and tasteless croquette made with pureed broccoli and cauliflower. When I tried the halibut ($17.95), it was roasted till it was as dry as leather. Even comfort foods, like pabellon criollo ($15.95), a sort of pot-roast plate, offered little comfort—everything tasted like the kitchen's best idea had been to just boil everything in unsalted water and let God sort it out.

The best things I had at Café Ena were really just good enough: A chicken breast marinated in a Jamaican habanero sauce ($15.95) had good flavor, and the side of pineapple-cucumber-cabbage slaw made a bright counterpoint. A bife de chorizo ($23.95), described on the menu as a classic Argentinean style of serving beef, was flavorful, though it was terrifically tough, and the bland, mayonnaise-heavy potato salad beside it, made with lots and lots of peas cooked till they were gray as cement, was something of a mystery. The mystery being, of course, why the restaurant is trying so hard to do these fancy dishes, like lamb shank and ceviche, when the neighborhood would be delighted with basically competent comfort foods.

This was borne out when I returned one day to Café Ena and sampled from their less ambitious but more accomplished lunch menu. For this, a simple pork stew in green tomatillo sauce ($10.95) outshone everything I had tried at dinner, and the bizarre turkey mole even made sense, this time shredded, the sauce integrated with the meat, and served on a soft roll with a bracing lid of pickled red onions ($7.95). Yes, the pickled onions appeared with the turkey mole at dinner, but they seemed more like a side, and in any event the ratios of turkey to sauce to onion were completely different, which makes all the difference.

Balancing act: A warm, fun atmomsphere vs. maddeningly inconsistent food
Tony Nelson
Balancing act: A warm, fun atmomsphere vs. maddeningly inconsistent food

Location Info

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Cafe Ena

4601 Grand Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55419

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: Southwest Minneapolis

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Hey, do I sound totally crazy picking at poor Café Ena over their onion ratios? I know I do. Like I said, it's the sort of place that really works well if you decide that you like it before going in and proceed from there. That's mainly how I understand the tables that I sat clustered between on my various visits to Café Ena—tables of happy diners exclaiming over the excellence of their food, an excellence that I largely failed to detect.

The desserts went the way of everything else at this buzzing, happy place: pretty good, but a little lazy and distracted—something you could be perfectly happy with or utterly annoyed with, depending on your mood. The tres leches cake ($5), for instance, is good, tender, and toothache sweet, like tres leches often is. The Carlota ($5), a sort of Mexican tiramisu made with strawberries and mascarpone, was nice and light. Key lime pie ($5) was sturdy and good enough—but why would all three desserts be served covered with a spoonful of the same strawberry cream sauce? I certainly understand that a kitchen can run out of a sauce during a hectic meal service, but it just seems goofy to send out three desserts wearing the exact same sauce to a single table. Plop, plop, plop! Strawberry cream sauce for you, for you, for you!

But now I feel bad, because I really did have fun at Café Ena. The place has all the intangibles a restaurant needs to succeed—great energy, liveliness, lightheartedness, and fun, and perhaps most important, an ability to meet the needs of a prosperous little underserved community. In the end, I think Café Ena proves that nothing succeeds like a lot of people wanting you to succeed, and "happy" truly is in the eye of the beholder.

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