In a fit of YOLO sentiment, some people insist, “Life is short. Eat dessert first!” Not having much of a sweet tooth, I don’t generally heed that advice, but the dessert case at Plaza Café Southside could change my tune.
A charming establishment with a ’50s-era dinerlike ambience, Plaza Café Southside is an anchor among the restaurants and cafés congregating around the Regal Stadium 14 theater. Though I rarely think of these places if I’m not going to the movies, I would go out of my way for Plaza Café Southside, though — and not just for dessert.
The menu runs a wide gamut, including everything from pancakes and egg dishes — breakfast is served all day and night — to sandwiches, tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, burgers (including a house-made quinoa version), melts, the newsworthy Frito pie, salads, steak, chicken, and fish. You’ll detect a mild Greek influence in dishes like the hummus plate, the Middle Eastern and chicken souvlaki salads, and the indulgent Greek fries (something akin to poutine, this is a pile of fries dressed with an olive-oil-lemon-caper sauce and topped with salty, crumbly myzithra cheese). You can order a margarita, a martini, wine or beer, horchata, prickly pear lemonade, espresso, a root-beer float, a vanilla malt, or a red-velvet-cake shake.
The restaurant makes a point of telling you, in tiny type, a few things it is proud of: its support of the farm-to-table program, its use of local grass-fed antibiotic-free beef and cage-free eggs, and the fact that all of its pastries, desserts, and breads are house-made daily. The café doesn’t take a lot of shortcuts. Hash browns, for example, aren’t pulled from a bag of frozen, preshredded spuds. The jalapeño malt vinegar offered for dunking your super-crisp fried fish is infused in-house — you might spy seeds and pieces of vegetal pulp floating in the little glass cup. Service is efficient and speedy, with personalities that range from no-nonsense and businesslike to friendly and familial.
Across the board, servings are generous, almost to a fault. The posole rojo could probably feed a family of four. It’s an enormous bowl of pork, hominy, and red-chile stew that hits all the comfort-food buttons: warm, thick but still slurpable, spicy but not searingly so, starchy, meaty but not fatty, and filling. Traditional garnishes like cilantro, cabbage, lemon, diced red onion, and giant corn tortilla chips add distinctive flavors as well as a welcome variety of textures and some snappy crunch.
No vegetarian will go hungry with the Middle Eastern salad. In addition to a heap of fresh, crisp greens, crunchy purple cabbage, and jewel-like roasted carrots and beets, you’ll need to find tummy room for four garlicky quinoa-enhanced falafel balls, a mountain of chunky hummus, and a stack of house-made pita bread.
The calamari appetizer was the most modest dish we tried, a reasonable portion of lightly battered squid tumbled together with strips and rings of sometimes-spicy jalapeño. The habanero dipping sauce added more heat and a pleasant creaminess, but the black chile oil didn’t compute.
Several types of tacos are on the menu. The best in my experience are the Baja-style fish, flaky white cod breaded lightly and fried till ideally crisp — which it stays, even inside a tortilla and topped with a creamy sauce, cabbage, tomato, pickled onion, avocado, and salsa or pico de gallo.
The ACE BLT (A stands for avocado, C for cheddar, E for fried egg, and the rest you should know) is a rainbow of a sandwich, with ruby-red tomato, bright orange cheese, a golden egg yolk, fresh spring-green lettuce, and buttery avocado. It’s typically served on sourdough, but try it on the green-chile-cheese bread for a little extra zing.
New Mexico isn’t exactly known for its fish and chips, but the hunks of beer-battered cod served here might satisfy the choosiest of Brits. A traditionalist might blanch at the habanero tartar sauce, the jalapeño-infused malt vinegar, or the dusting of red chile on the fries. The welcome, well-balanced spice and the chips’ fluffy potato centers and complete lack of greasiness would win him over. This Southern girl can’t abide overly sweet mayonnaisey slaw; Plaza Café Southside’s, though, has a light oil-and-vinegar dressing with caraway seeds adding an intriguing sweet hint of anise.
Now about those desserts. Sweetness and tart fruitiness balance out the heat in a towering pie of still-slightly-firm apple and spicy roasted green chile, while a generous dose of cinnamon offers a warmth of its own. In the weightiest cupcake I’ve ever held, vanilla cake is sodden with not tres but cuatro leches — they pool in the bottom of the shiny foil wrapper as you peel it away. It’s an uber-rich and decadent undertaking, which should come as no surprise, but what might is that it is not overly sweet, the dulce de leche filling notwithstanding. It’s true that life is short, and especially during the impending holiday season, our schedules will be packed. But a slice of that pie or that hefty cupcake — those are worth making time for. ◀