By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Relatively fresh and cluttered with spongy croutons, the crisp Caesar salad came with a side of dressing served in a large plastic tub. We were instructed to use our own plastic spoons to ladle as much of the stuff as we wanted on our greens before returning the tub to the counter for reuse.
While opening delays and glitches are an everyday part of the restaurant business, it doesn't take a degree in quantum physics to launch a counter service. Nor does it take vast capital outlays and high-level strategic planning to wipe surfaces, stock fresh ingredients, and meet minimal service demands. Your average roach coach executes better than this certifiable fiasco, with or without the gourmet coffee bar.
While the above operation represents simple counter service at its most nightmarish, Cafe Express expresses this operative mode at a high level of swellness. Launched in 1984 in Houston by Southwestern cuisine lord Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie fame and partner Lonnie Shiller, Cafe Express first hit North Texas in 1994 with a location in Addison. Roughly a year later, a second opened on the long-vacant corner of McKinney and Bowen. The third Dallas installment opened in late October on Lovers Lane near Inwood in Woodlane Plaza, bringing the total number of Cafe Express locations to nine, the remaining six all in Houston. Plans call for additional locations in San Antonio and perhaps Phoenix and Las Vegas.
But this new Dallas edition is fast becoming the most successful replication yet, racking up the biggest opening day and the most successful initial week in the history of the company. So far, it competes neck and neck dollarwise with the top-two grossing stores in Houston. Which is all fine and dandy for Mr. Del Grande and Mr. Shiller. But does it translate into a good plate of chow self-delivered on a plastic serving tray?
For the most part, yes. Cafe Express continues to offer surprisingly good food fast in a crisp, energetic environment. One of the most entertaining amenities in the Express concept is the "oasis," a table in the center of the restaurant with a steel palm tree rising from its center. It holds coffee, olives, capers, cornichons, pickles, parmesan cheese, mango sauce, barbecue sauce, balsamic and sherry vinegars, and basil-, lemon-, and red-pepper-infused olive oils that you can use to dress your meal as you choose.
There were a couple of loose ends dangling from the menu, however. A cup of black bean soup--made with chicken stock, rice, onions, garlic, salt, cumin, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and scallions--seemed underseasoned and was loaded with tough, undercooked beans and rice. Also chewy--to a jaw-aching level--was the roast beef sandwich with grilled onions. A stingy portion of sliced beef, with melted Swiss, tomato, and "special sauce" was slipped into a thick, bulky baguette that did nothing to complement the flavor of the ingredients, while it detracted with its texture. Sides of fries were light, crispy, and well-seasoned, but they were served cold on two separate occasions.
Highlights outweighed the blips, however. The Express salad bowl, a generous trio of tuna Tuscany (albacore), chicken (with pistachios and red bell pepper), and pasta pesto salads, were all fresh, meticulously prepared, and well harmonized. The only drawback was that the chicken salad had too much mayonnaise.
A big surprise, the vegetable sandwich with roasted bell peppers, avocado, grilled onion, and zucchini on a crisp-outside, tender-inside roll slathered in goat-cheese spread, was hearty and flavorful. But Express' roasted chicken is perhaps the best item on the menu. A half chicken sitting in a puddle of pan drippings and seasoned with herbs including parsley, thyme, chives, and rosemary, this bird was crisp and golden on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside: a light, hearty eat.
Another pleasant surprise is Express' wine list, which, limited to just a handful of selections, shows some thought and creativity. There are reds, whites, a blush, and sparklers from California, France, Australia, and Texas at reasonable prices. Wine can't be ordered at the food counter, but you can order your meal at the bar and sip your wine while you wait for your order number to be called out.
Virtually every Cafe Express has the same decor, with shades of plum and deep violet, stone bar walls, and a tile bar top surrounded by furry bar stools, faux marble tables, faux stone tile floors, brushed aluminum ceiling fans, and backlit, punched stainless steel stars on the walls. The look is fresh, engaging, and void of a strenuous lunge at hipness.
Shiller Del Grande Restaurant Group has recently launched a restaurant in Houston called Taco Milagro, featuring "hand-crafted" Mexican cuisine that isn't "cheesy or gunky," according to group spokesman Greg Martin. Slated to hit Dallas in 1999, the restaurant, patterned after Express, even has an oasis featuring eight different salsas and other seasonings such as chopped onions and cilantro. If it's anything like Express, any wait will be too long.
It's a Veritable Feast!, West End MarketPlace, fourth level, (214) 871-1061. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday noon-6 p.m.
Cafe Express. 5600 Lovers Lane, (214) 352-2211. Open seven days 11a.m.-10 p.m.
It's a Veritable Feast!:
Sandwiches $3.50 whole, $2.00 half
Cup of soup $1.95
Express salad bowl $7.25
Roast beef sandwich $5.95
Vegetable sandwich $5.25
Roasted half chicken w/house salad $7.25