The motorcycle is the muse at Cafe Racer — it being one of America's surest and most enduring symbols of freedom, exuberance, and youth. Chef/owner Luis Patino hopped on his bike, tossed off the shackles of corporate law, and set off to indulge his true passion: the culinary roots of his childhood in Colombia. He started a food truck (with a motorcycle attached to it, no less) and now a restaurant. Don't you just love this place already?
In cycling jargon, a Cafe Racer is a lightweight motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort. Not a bad name for a food truck and a scrappy little cafe. But dig deeper and you'll find that these bikes were designed in Britain in the 1960s to travel between cafes along the newly built motorways. So jump on your bike and zip on down — it happens to be just off the Greenway if you're more of a pedal-powered cafe racer.
The blond wood inside the tiny Cliquot Club space in Seward provides a simple and clean backdrop for everything else: a lot of sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows and the sunny, colorful street food of Latin America. These are the sorts of things we know but can't really get enough of: rice and beans, braised meats, yuca, fried masa, herbaceous and fiery sauces. Street food, yes, but also beach food, food truck food, on-the-move food. Cafe Racer food.
The menu is tight and focused, as it should be. No burgers are served here; instead find a Colombian street dog, a kind of a wobbly, porky thing that goes by the name "salchicha" in Latin America. These are no-nonsense pork dogs that arrive without the snappy appeal of an all-beef Chicago dog, but come finished with pico verde, sriracha aioli, cilantro aioli, crumbled potato chips, pickled sweet peppers, and queso. They're unlike any dog you've had in town, and at $5 a pop, they're a bargain.
The next thing to do here is to choose your meats. Are you a poultry man or a pork gal? Vegetarian, you say? They've got you covered. Then, how do you want it? Naked, on an arepa, or as a salad? The choice is yours, along with an array of house garnishes to choose from: pomme frites, pickled red onions, pico verde, cilantro aioli, sriracha aioli, and queso.
Braises were always moist, delicate, and properly seasoned, nested against a bank of black beans and rice, crisp-tender yuca, and a pool of cilantro aioli. Uncomplicated and straightforward, piquant without too much fire or trickery, restrained and wholesome — it's the sort of meal you want to eat daily. And at a mere $9 for a plate like this, you just about could.
Or take a chimichurri marinated steak, which also arrives with rice and beans and yuca, as well as sweet, chubby plantains that are as good and comforting to eat as a freshly baked fruit pie. The steak is a small off-cut, a bit chewy but made tender with acid and garlic and spice. At $13 it's another bargain. Whatever you do, don't miss the house-made green salsa (you must ask for it by name), which sends anything at all into mouth-watering territory.
Not everything is perfect. An attempt at a torta de papa, a potato omelet that should be a study in minimalism with good olive oil, egg, and potato, arrived dry and unfortunate. It suffered under too many garnishes that shouldn't have been there anyway. The yuca could use a little more heft and was sometimes a little dry and jagged around the edges; ditto the rice and beans, which are clearly premade and scooped. They become a little worse for the wear toward the end of the night.
But one person in our group declared the arepas to be superior to those at Hola Arepa, an utter triumph in itself. Fighting words? Perhaps, though you'll find far more deliciousness here to agree on than quibble over. The best way to think of this cooking is homestyle, which it indeed is. It's the food of Patino's childhood, the food of his grandmother.
Discover more delightful evidence of this by ordering a smattering of desserts. The favorite by far was the dulce de crema, a quivering little sunset-colored orb. It's like a deeply caramelized flan, enlivened with a splash of cream and a pep of orange. Or the arepitas de dulce, miniaturized arepas, served hot and tossed with sugar and cinnamon, alongside a little dipping sauce of caramel-infused yogurt. These will have you looking askance at mini donuts. The tres leches cake didn't stand up to scrutiny. We've seen this very same one premade at local Latin bakeries, and while it's okay in a pinch, it's like shaking Parmesan out of a green can — not the real thing.
Still, unless you're the biggest sort of curmudgeon, it's impossible not to enjoy this place. Like a pierced-up summa cum laude kid out of college, it has smarts and spunk galore. It's tiny but mighty, and there's no holding it back. Beer and wine license only? No trouble! They've crafted refreshing summer specialty drinks anyway, like a mojito using Torrontes, Squirt, cucumber, and lime, and a Wide Eyed Local with cold press, porter, and frothed milk.
And because this food is prime for putting an egg on and serving for breakfast, you know they've done just that with Saturday and Sunday brunches. Think French toast drenched in more of that caramel yogurt, arepas Benedict, and chimichurri steak and eggs (again, don't forget the hot sauce). They've added a plucky little patio out back, but the sidewalk cafe is just as charming. They serve Bauhaus, Indeed, and Fulton, as well as their own house blend of locally roasted coffee from True Stone. Service is pleasant, quick, and folksy.
Here's the thing about Cafe Racer: You won't be able to hop on your bike and zip on to the next cafe. You're going to want to stay put at this one, right here.
Cafe Racer Kitchen
2929 E. 25th St., Minneapolis
menu items: $5-$13