Café Express has long been a fallback when I can't get anyone to agree where to meet for a quick dinner. The menu is diverse, dishes are reasonably priced (most are under $10) and there are enough options to satisfy carnivore-befriending vegetarians. Also, the one in Uptown is next door to Kitchen Dog Theater, making it an easy spot for a pre-show turkey burger or salad. They're also generous with their wine pour: a 7-ounce. mini-decanter for $5 at happy hour.
This week the head chef of the Houston-based chain, Greg Martin, is at the McKinney Avenue Café Express, testing a bunch of new pastas and gathering customer reviews via comment cards to discover which of the dishes will make the cut.
There have been interesting tweaks to the Café Express menu over the past year, an effort Martin calls part of his ongoing "de-Wendy-fication" of the restaurant. The burger chain owned Café Express for two years, but sold it back to the original founders, the Redstone Co. Martin added breakfasts to Café Express last year, with an emphasis on frittatas and scrambles. He says he broke the code on authentic French Quarter French toast when he realized the New Orleans-style version was merely bread pudding dipped in egg batter and fried.
Right now his emphasis is on new pastas. This winter he'll turn his attention to updating his sandwiches and salads, adding what he calls a "big guys' sandwich" (most likely a hero or a meatball sandwich) and getting into some of the "composed salads" that are big in European restaurants right now.
Martin's just back from an eating and buying trip to Italy, where he hooked Café Express up with Garofalo pasta, a 200-year-old company that produces what the chef calls "the best dried pasta in the world" from its headquarters near Mount Vesuvius. After he leaves Dallas, Martin will direct the opening of Austin's first Café Express (the 18th in the chain) this fall.
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The chef says he eats at his competitors -- Panera, Corner Bakery -- a few times a week, walking in and ordering while wearing his chef's whites. "They never notice," he says. He knocks them for using frozen chicken and other "hidden weirdness" in their food. Café Express, he says, is all about fresh, from chicken breasts marinated overnight in buttermilk, to the from-scratch turkey meatballs, which will be rolled by hand in each restaurant every day for one of the new pasta bowls.
Business is up 2.5 percent over last year for the Café Express chain, Martin says. The only complaints he's been hearing from customers about the menu changes are about dishes he's discontinued, including a four-cheese pasta. In its place are the chef's interesting new twists on Italian noodles, ranging in price from around $7 to $13.99 (the salmon):
- Pomodoro: Built on whole wheat penne (something customers had requested forever, Martin says), this one has a subtly spicy marinara, fresh cherry tomatoes, garlic and crumbles of feta and parmesan.
- Baby Bella: A rich fettuccine dish with Alfredo sauce, roasted garlic, black pepper and baby portobello mushrooms.
- Milanese: Inspired by a risotto recipe, this one features fettuccine in a rich white sauce under a sliced, herbed chicken breast.
- Fettuccine Alfredo: An update on the old standby, but with spinach, basil pesto and roasted walnuts.
- Salmon Limone: A 6-ounce salmon filet atop fettuccine stirred with lemony cream sauce, capers, roasted artichoke hearts and finished with lemon-infused olive oil and lemon zest.