There's little that's special or notable about PoPoLos Café. And that's why it's so special. The food isn't particularly imaginative, but it's mostly well prepared, and this is accomplished without pretension. The atmosphere is simple and clean without a hint of hauteur.
That this restaurant could get back on its feet so assuredly after the roller coaster jars and derailments it has had over the last couple of years says something. Original owner Maury Jaffer sold the restaurant to the FoodStar Restaurant Group in 1998, and for a time PoPoLos maintained a high level of culinary acuity, due mostly to former Riviera chef David Holben. But then money got tight. The food wasn't as good. Holben eventually left. Finally, the place shut down late last summer.
Not long after that, Jaffer took back the restaurant, installed original chef Los Akins, and did a modest renovation. The floors were refinished, the banquets reupholstered, and the ceiling above the bar was finished with wood planks. These little nips and tucks have made all the difference in the world, and the restaurant has recaptured that comfortable, neighborhood sparkle it once had.
The food? It comes off well, most of the time. The combo appetizer, which sounds like a four-in-one power hunger suppressant, is a platter carpeted with baby greens. It comes with delicious sautéed shrimp in a tangy lemon Dijon sauce planted in the center of the plate. The shrimp were surrounded by smoked salmon bruschetta: full, puffy pieces of bread gooed with mozzarella and speckled with tomato and onion covered with sheets of crinkled salmon. But these were a little odd--washed-out and silvery instead of rosy pink. There also were black fragments of meaty, chewy wood-roasted portabello mushrooms. They were tasty, but they needed a little more seasoning, a marinade perhaps, a little butter, salt--something.
There was a welcome sight on the plate of calamari arrabbiata: tentacles, lots of them. Tentacles must grip most restaurants with fear, the kind of fear that erupts when someone points out that earthworms are 99.9 percent protein. The typical calamari appetizer is a plate of rusted washers and a ramekin of marinara or some tortured dish of mayonnaise for dipping. This version wasn't perfect, just close to it. A couple of the body rings were a little mushy and greasy, and the pepperoncini strips sewn amongst the calamari parts were a bit too plentiful (less is more).
Other unexpected pleasures peeked from the menu. It's hard to find good veal piccata in Dallas. Either the surface of the floured veal is gelatinous, or the lemon-caper sauce is viscous and wildly out of balance. Here, everything clicked. The sauce was smooth and stable, and the veal was tender, though perhaps a little dry. Texturally, the sides of scallion-mashed potatoes and garlic-sautéed spinach were perfect. But both items needed something more, a little horseradish perhaps on the potatoes, and a sprinkle of kosher salt on the spinach.
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Mushy, undercooked shrimp afflicted the angel hair pasta in spicy wood-roasted tomato garlic sauce, but the pasta was perfectly prepared and salved with a good sauce, though perhaps the bowl in which it was served was too deep. The pasta tended to clump as the meal progressed. Perhaps a shallower bowl to spread the strands might have worked better.
Smoked half chicken was flush with smoke flavor. No, that's not quite right. It was choked with smoke. Maybe this chicken died of smoke inhalation in a mesquite coop blaze. It craved something, a marinade of some kind, or perhaps an herb treatment, something that suppressed the urge to reach for the fire extinguisher. A side of saffron rice with strips of bell pepper, peas, carrot chips and walnuts was supple but oily.
My companion thought the herb pan-roasted salmon with peppers, onions, and goat cheese was remarkable. But to me it tasted washed out, flat, lacking in flaky firmness. Maybe my buds shut down from the chicken smoke.
Dessert was nearly perfect. Peach cobbler was crowded with fresh, plump blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries around a good chewy cake with a smooth dollop of ice cream. The only drawback was a drizzling of chocolate sauce, which muddied up the fruit flavors. But the coffee was excellent, which is what you want a classy neighborhood spot to serve. Good Joe.