Mitch and Kristen Kauffman changed restaurants but kept the paninis on the menu at Urbano Café.
Mitch and Kristen Kauffman changed restaurants but kept the paninis on the menu at Urbano Café.
Sara Kerens

Urbano Cafe: A Delightful Treat in a Plain Brown Wrapper

While waiting outside for our table at Urbano Café, we noticed a gentleman, probably in his 60s, stumble out of the restaurant and turn a collapsible cooler upside down to dump the ice that formerly chilled white wine. He was followed by several more parties of AARP members, something that had my wife and me worried. Were we to be the only diners younger than 40? The answer, thankfully, was no. There was one other couple in our age bracket.

The restaurant is the second iteration of owners Mitch and Kristen Kauffman's Urbano Paninoteca, a sandwich shop on trendy McKinney Avenue, which closed in 2009. Urbano Café opened last June, surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings awash in faded browns and grays, Mexican supermarkets and salons, dry cleaners, new condo developments and private residences, and a billiards hall. The only shops remotely akin to Urbano Café bookend it at the intersection of North Fitzhugh Avenue and Bryan Street. The businesses, Jimmy's Food Store (a popular purveyor of imported Italian foods) and Spiceman's FM 1410 (a culinary Mecca for local chefs), both supply Urbano Café with many of its products. The location also makes for cheap rent, one of the reasons why Mitch Kauffman chose to open his new restaurant in Old East Dallas.

Lunch at Urbano Café channels Kauffman's previous establishment. The menu is heavy on panini with a smattering of salads and entrees. The sole waitress on duty praised the spaghetti Bolognese as their signature dish, but one better suited to chilly days, not temperate sunny days like that of my initial visit. That didn't dissuade me. The house specialty was what I was after. The spaghetti, under a sweet meat sauce flecked with celery, carrots and Parmesan, was the most skillfully cooked pasta I've tasted this side of Manhattan's Little Italy. My companions and I further sampled the creamy roasted-potato soup of the day; the feta chicken panini with basil and tomato jam; and the 1410 salmon salad, sautéed fish over mixed greens, candied walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, herbed goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette. The fish wasn't the sad mess that most restaurant salmon ends up being. It didn't flake into dandruff-sized pieces under the pressure of a fork.

On the back wall, the blackboard—chock-full of the attractive dinner specials—released the mythological beast that is my appetite. It had a similar effect on my companions. Dinner as soon as possible was a must. Buffalo ribeye, scallops, mussels, duck breast, pork tenderloin—more, please.

Then we saw the dusty wine bottles—the bottles meticulously placed with their sun-faded labels out on the mirrored shelves that divide the nine-table dining room from the kitchen. The aged bottles are characteristic of Urbano Café's night-and-day character. The glass-topped white-cloth tables are in line with the desired fine-dining Italian setting. But the black-and-white photos lining the walls aren't of Italian landscapes. The images are of crumbling castles and barren landscapes, none seemingly conducive to a pleasant meal. The bathroom, on the far side of the open kitchen, is where photographs of Italian social life are displayed. Clearly, the owner's judgment doesn't extend to aesthetics of interior design.

The presence of the wine bottles is unfortunate. Urbano Café doesn't have a liquor license and has no plans to acquire one. A BYOB policy is attractive for those weary of marked-up offerings, but it's a cop out that smacks of reducing overhead and maximizing profit. Such a policy makes sense for Indian restaurants, where you're safe in assuming most dishes will be spicy and easily paired with India Pale Ales. The same doesn't go for Italian restaurants. A meal is enriched by the knowledge of those involved in its preparation and presentation. At the very least, suggested pairings on Urbano Café's online menu are warranted.

Urbano Café isn't a family restaurant. There is only one high chair. Call ahead to secure it during lunch and arrive before noon, when the crowd is small and composed of corporate and Baylor University Medical Center employees.

For dinner, you might not secure a table even if you call the day before. If you're lucky enough to get a reservation, the later it is, the greater the chance some specials will be sold out. This was the case on my second visit to Urbano Café. By 9:30 p.m., the kitchen had run out of the pork tenderloin with grilled tomatillos, pancetta grits and a Dijon cream sauce as well as the buffalo rib eye au poivre that was accompanied by grilled romaine, mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and horseradish au jus. My wife and I opted for the arctic char and duck breast. The braised fish rested on squid-ink spaghetti from Jimmy's Food Store, sharing space with a roasted-tomato butter sauce and crab, micro greens from a farm in Stephenville dusting the plate. The fowl was ordered from the à la carte menu and came with a star-anise demi-glace.

The waitress asked us right away if we wanted cracked pepper on our food. I would have rather she waited until we had sampled our orders—something I find irksome about Italian restaurants. Is it included in the How to Run an Italian Restaurant manual? If so, I recommend the publisher of said tome acquire the services of an editor. The chef should prepare the food with the goal that no other seasoning is necessary. Mine needed no further tweaking.

Among the delightful side dishes ordered were the shoestring fries, another house specialty, which held their crunch even after 24 hours in a refrigerator—a magnificent feat. Kauffman said it's difficult to find the perfect potato, one that has a consistent starch-to-sugar ratio in order to get the snappy bite of the fries the owner was looking for. "They cost about twice as much as regular fries and are worth it," Kauffman said when he stopped at our table while working the front of house. That's what he does for dinner service: flit from table to table, making sure his customers enjoy their time at the Lilliputian establishment. Kauffman's affability engenders a fraternal energy, exemplified that night when a toast celebrating a customer's newly cancer-free diagnosis spread throughout the room as if there were only one table and we were all welcome as cousins, nieces, nephews, long-lost relatives.

Kauffman is a careful magistrate, admitting only the simplest and finest examples of cuisine past the city gates. With one exception: dessert. The chocolate mousse and tiramisu, both topped with fresh berries, could have come from the makers of Jell-O and Sara Lee.

I asked my wife how to reconcile the physical space with the friendly atmosphere and straightforward cuisine. "It doesn't matter," she said. "The food makes up for the contradictions." She was right.

Spaghetti Bolognese, a combination of Neapolitan pasta and central Italian sauce, is a disparate dish. The same is true of Urbano Café, a poorly wrapped gift box enclosing delightful food and a sense of ease brought on by Kauffman's presence. It's a gift I was happy to have received.

Urbano Café 1410 N. Fitzhugh Ave., 214-823-690. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday $$


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