Meal of Fortune

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

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

Café Ena
4601 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis

You know what's fun? Drinking sprightly rosé wines in a room full of your laughing neighbors while they exclaim over vacation pictures, trade wedding-shower gifts, ooh and ah over babies, and make short work of fruity pitchers of sangria.

You know what's not any fun at all? Getting really stressed out over whether the food that is going to arrive at your table in the midst of all this happy hubbub will be delightful, spicy Nuevo Latino fare or sloppy, tasteless dreck.

My advice to you: If you want to dine at south Minneapolis's newest, liveliest Nuevo Latino restaurant, Café Ena, decide you're going to be happy at the outset, and you will be.

There's actually a lot to love about Café Ena, brand-new sister to south Minneapolis's beloved pan-Latin American restaurant El Meson. The new restaurant, recently a corner grocery, has a nice urban-rustic air to it, with lots of earth-tone tiles and heavy wooden beams. The wine list is terrific and very usable, with most bottles in the low $20s, and most sourced from the countries Nuevo Latino wine lists should be sourced from: Argentina, Chile, and Spain—and even a couple of wines from Mexico's Baja Peninsula. I was particularly head-over-heels about a special summertime rosé list of 10 pink wines, all available for $22 a bottle, $8 a glass, or $8 for a flight of three of the restaurant's choice.

The bubbly pink Spanish cava, Cresta Rosa, for instance, smelled like strawberries but was dry and elegant going down; there's nothing nicer on a summery Minneapolis night. Except perhaps the hauntingly violet-touched Cabernet Franc French rosé from Wilfrid Rousse.

That wine list does a lot to make friends: Once, when I went to Café Ena for a 7:30 reservation, we weren't seated till nearly 8:15, but not one person in my group minded, for we had such a nice time standing with our glasses of rosé and watching the passing foot traffic. That traffic, by the way, was often so cute that it defied common sense: It was entirely composed of cooing babies bundled in chic strollers, golden retrievers wearing pirate-themed neck bandanas, and little girls spinning in the center of enormous pink tulle tutus worn over their jeans. Is 46th and Grand the new epicenter of the domestic adorable in south Minneapolis?

It is if you order the arepas ($7.95) and the queso fundido ($6.95). In my experience, those two are the restaurant's most reliable appetizers. Summon the arepas, and you get crispy little homemade blue-corn pancakes topped with your choice of spicy pulled chicken tinga or smoky, silky chiles con crema—thin-sliced poblano chiles in a loose onion and cream sauce. Pop a forkful in your mouth and you get a well-balanced blend of amped-up comfort food, with the tender corn cake and spicy topping complementing one another perfectly. The queso fundido is a charmer: Panela cheese (a young, fresh, cow's milk cheese) is fried hard until it becomes beautifully brown and bubbly, then it's dressed with a bright green, pureed tomatillo-and-avocado sauce and decorated with generous amounts of the fresh tomato and onion-relish pico de gallo. I really enjoyed the chile en nogada ($8.95), a traditional dish from the state of Puebla in which a poblano pepper is roasted, split, and then stuffed with a sweet and spicy mixture of raisins, ground beef, and almonds, the whole thing united by a walnut-apple sauce and a pomegranate glaze. I really liked the winter spices, meat, nuts, and fruit that make this dish not unlike a Christmas mincemeat, but everyone I was with hated it—which explains why whenever I've made a mincemeat pie it's abandoned on the holiday buffet. (You know, there's no meat in a modern mincemeat! It's all nuts. Darn literalists.)

Everything else I tried from Café Ena's appetizer selection was an utter mess—and I tried most everything, and much of it twice. The Oaxacan tamale ($7.95) was invariably dry, crumbly, and overcooked—inexplicable, as the thing should have been resting safe and moist in its banana leaf. I had the ceviche duo ($10.95) three times, and it was always one ceviche made with shrimp and squid rings, and another made with shrimp, squid, and sea legs, each vaguely lemony, each very watery, and neither at all appealing. The slices of fried plantains on the plate with the ceviche were a nice touch, but still. Ensalada de atun ($11.95) was a mushy, overdressed, beach-hotel sort of dish made with everything and the kitchen sink, which in this case included coriander-crusted ahi tuna, baby spinach, avocado, hearts of palm, oranges, and an oversweet dressing. Cangrejo ($9.95) was crab meat that tasted tinned and tinny, in another oversweet dressing.

The entrees I tried from Café Ena ran the gamut from merely bad to inconsistent to the point of madness—I mean really, they will drive you mad. The first time I had the turkey mole ($16.95), for instance, it was a dark, dry, smashed-flat, off-putting thing that tasted like a bitter war between molasses and burnt coffee, but it came with a side of the most marvelous cinnamon-touched beans I've ever tasted—everyone at the table was falling over themselves to spear a forkful of the things. The second time I got the turkey mole, the turkey was tender, the sauce tasted like a melted milk chocolate bar, and the beans were plain as beans.

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.

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.