Bright lights, Deep Citi

Monica offers great food and cat food with urban flair

Monica is a Deep Ellum woman. She lives in Deep Ellum, she works in Deep Ellum, she hangs in Deep Ellum, and when she wants to buy a bottle of wine, some ham and cheese, or a box of tissue, she doesn't want to drive all the way to McKinney Avenue. That's one reason she opened Deep Citi, an urban-oriented deli and convenience store at the troublesome corner of Main and Walton. Troublesome because this space, one of the anchors of the block, has been snake-bit since it opened with a splash as Main Street News, an urban-oriented deli and convenience store. First Eduardo, then Monica watched with concern as the location changed hands and concepts, becoming a low-scoring sports bar for a while and, finally, a coffee and doughnut cafe. All this change was not helping business at Monica's restaurant, Aca y Alla, down the block. Urban pioneers require density; they want to share a customer base, not be the only lonely destination. Those doughnut buyers did not seem to be Monica's kind of girls. So when KJ's moved out, and the lease sign went up yet again, Monica decided to take it over herself and open the kind of place her neighborhood of Deep Ellum dwellers needs.

The design is architectural, so whether the menu has featured doughnuts or deli sandwiches, the space has always centered on the large service bar built in the middle of the restaurant. The big windows in the back overlook the open kitchen, and two walls of windows open onto the street. All that remains the same; Monica has just livened things up a bit, painting over the monkeys on the walls ("They were bad luck"), and lining them with charming freehand illustrations drawn by her brother. She has annexed the space next door, so there's more seating; and moved in shelves of staples, a Haagen Dazs freezer, and a case for fresh produce. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served, and the deli meats, cheeses, breads, and salads are all available to go.

This isn't Eatzi's; you'll find iceberg, not arugula, at Deep Citi, but with more and more residential space being built downtown and near Deep Ellum, more and more people are going to gripe, along with Monica, about driving across town for salad fixings or a roll of toilet paper. She carries that, too, along with cat food and fruit--life's necessities. It's a risky business, of course; she's betting that people are actually going to move into the residences being built for them. But Monica is a lady used to taking chances and making changes. She has stuck with Aca y Alla through heady highs when it has been the chicest place in town, and depressing lows, when Saturday night saw the place half full. Now Aca y Alla is one of the more dependable restaurants in Deep Ellum, though things still run most smoothly when Monica's around. She's going to be down the block for a while now, raising the next baby.

When we were in Deep Citi recently for dinner, we ate at the bar that is the most fun place to sit, and Monica talked our waiter through the service. I hope he paid attention to her salesmanship: We added a salad, we agreed to the second (and third) glass of wine, we each opted for dessert. The large house salad--a melange of field greens and lettuces scattered with julienne of squash and zucchini and wet with a rousing balsamic vinaigrette--was approximately perfect, especially as a first course; the robustness of the vinaigrette woke up your mouth and made you want more. And the ravioli filled with smooth pureed pumpkin and robed in sticky, satin cilantro cream enriched with cheese was as seductive a plate of pasta as you could eat. It has been on the menu at Aca y Alla, but for the most part, there's little of the expected crossover between Monica's kitchens. (You'd think she'd have made her deli and convenience store handier for her.) We drank red, white, and pink wine, all of which are sold as close to retail as possible, so it costs the same whether you drink it by the glass in Deep Citi or take it home.

Our first lunch at Deep Citi had been less than impressive; ordering at the front counter, we took the deli idea seriously and ordered sandwiches from the global list, each priced reasonably at $5.95. Our first impression: There must be some compromise between this and Carnegie Deli. The famous godfather of deli sandwiches in New York piles meat three inches thick; one sandwich is lunch for four days. It's overkill--a tourist attraction. But Monica's sandwiches were the opposite, the oval bolillo roll of the "Pepe" grilled chicken, for example, holding a few slices of breast meat along with a piece each of avocado, tomato, and onion. We could have done with a couple of more inches, anyway. The impotent "Reuben" was supposed to be served hot, but it came cold, with nothing melted.

But each additional visit was better. At the next lunch, I ordered pizza (like the sandwiches, all the same price), and the 8-inch round had a pleasant crisp crust. I'm never one to choose "light" food on purpose, but at lunch you're always on the line; it's a meal that can refuel you or stall you out for the day. Pizza de Monica, topped with an oil-free marinara and bits of fresh vegetables, allowed me to have my cake and eat it, too, which is the way I like lunch and life. It offered the illusion of self-control along with the singular satisfaction of bread and cheese. Wrapps, the California cutting-edge tortilla sandwich soon to be at every fast food outlet, are rolled in house-made flour tortillas. Monica's excellent Gemini roll is a disconcerting hot pink because of the red chile in the flour and the roll's filling--a finely chopped saladlike mixture of red onion, tomatoes, cabbage, and sprouts mixed together in a dressing so the effect is a little like Russian salad.

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