Saturday, January 26, 2013

It Was During Our First Visit to Tucson…

that we discovered Café a la Carte. Well, maybe—in the interest of accuracy – I should revise that statement. Our first visit occurred in early September of 2009 when the daytime temps reached 104°. Since we spent most of our time sitting in the air conditioned splendor of the RV, I really don’t count that stay. So, technically, we discovered this wonderful café in February of 2010. And it has been a "must stop" on all subsequent visits.

Café a la Carte is co-owned by Judith Michelet, her son Mark, and Mark Jorbin. On our first visit, seating was confined to what is described as a French café space and a fairly large patio
overlooking the courtyard of the Tucson Museum of Art. And it was on the patio that we had dined in the past and our meal was sometimes accompanied by music played by a classical guitarist. There is just something so special about al fresco dining in February and hearing a guitarist play “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven's 9th. But, alas, our recent visit coincided with Tucson’s cold snap so the patio was devoid of activity except for one poor soul still waiting for the guitarist.

Today, the space has expanded to include smaller and more intimate dining areas - “a series of 19th century rooms with original wood floors, 14-foot ceiling with their original wood vigas and saguaro ribs” (Teya Vitu at downtown But instead of these smaller rooms, we chose to sit in the larger, brighter, and noisier café space that was brightly decorated with quilted wall hangings by Marianne Bernsen.

The café, combines both a casual atmosphere with serious, but comfortably familiar, food. “…With a limited menu, the focus is on quality and taste, both of which are outstanding. Ordering from the counter gives patrons ample time to ogle the mouthwatering desserts, which are best selected with the rest of your lunch; with patrons lining up outside, the case might be empty by the time you make it through the line a second time…” (

The lunch menu includes a number of salads: the Bistro with apples, chèvre, red grapes, red onion, spiced walnuts, and dried cranberries on greens with raspberry-cracked pepper vinaigrette; the Salmon Field Greens Salad with seared salmon, asparagus, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and red peppers with a roasted red pepper-caper vinaigrette; and the Southwestern Caesar Salad with romaine lettuce topped with black beans, corn, tomatoes, seasoned tortilla croutons, freshly grated parmesan cheese, and chipotle Caesar dressing.

And all of them sound delicious, but we usually gravitate toward the sandwich section of the menu where the café’s philosophy is most evident. Co-owner Mark Jorbin is quoted at “We want it to be a more refined experience, but I don’t ever foresee us becoming fine dining,” he said. “We do classic American with a heavy emphasis on Southwestern ingredients.” For example, the pulled pork sandwich is not just your basic pulled pork sandwich, it is the Achiote Pork topped with avocado, melted pepperjack, and crispy onions on toasted focaccia. One BLT is the Café BLT with smoked peppered bacon, avocado, pepperjack cheese, tomato, fresh spinach leaves, and chipotle aïoli on focaccia.

I selected another version on the BLT—the Salmon BLT with a thick portion of seared filet of salmon, smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle aïoli on freshly baked focaccia.
The salmon was moist, juicy, and flakey and was the perfect foil for the smoky bacon and mildly spicy aioli. And while the bread was thicker than your standard focaccia, it had the same olive oil richness that you would expect.

I had my choice of sides--none of which do I remember other than fries and mine--and selected the pasta salad. This was a wonderful combination of penne-like pasta with crisp green beans, red onion, red bell pepper, olives, grape tomato halves, and feta tossed in a very light dressing.
I tend to shy away from dishes that include feta. Usually the cheese has a saltier and sharper taste than I like and tends to overpower all of the other ingredients. I was especially pleased that this feta was neither to salty nor too sharp and blended well with the other components. In retrospect, perhaps this was the Mexican cheese known as quesa fresco which is similar in texture to feta but with a milder taste.

Chuck chose the Turkey Havarti with turkey, smoked peppered bacon, sliced apple, havarti cheese, red onion, and baby spinach leaves served with honey whole grain mustard on a ciabatta roll.
(They also offer a turkey club with turkey breast, smoked bacon, dried cranberry salsa, lettuce, sprouts, tomato, and herbed mayonnaise on a fresh croissant.) It was great to see that the turkey was sliced ultra thin. In my mind, there are only two ways to slice turkey for a sandwich, the “Thanksgiving” cut used at Sawmill Run (Summerhaven, AZ) and the ultra thin. Again, all of the components merged into a balanced and cohesive whole. To accompany his sandwich he selected—of course—the fries, which were lightly coated and seasoned.

Both of us took half of our sandwiches home to finish at dinner that evening. Why? To save room for dessert. Every time we have visited Café a la Carte we have studied the offerings in the display case and every time we order the same item—the Mixed Berry Buttermilk Cake.
This is the cake to end all cakes. The cake by which all others will be measured. It is dense and moist. It is full of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. And it is frosted with a rich—although not overly sweet—icing. The taste contrast between the tart berries and rich icing is perfect.

This may well be our favorite dining spot in Tucson. They are also open daily for breakfast and for dinner Thursday through Saturday. Someday we may have to give their breakfast a try. But for now, Café a la Carte remains a 5.0 Addie location for a great lunch.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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