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The Washington Post
Dining: Strong Starters
A meal at the Latin-flavored Cafe Salsa begins, at least, with pizazz
By Tom Sietsema
March 24, 2002
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 4 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Separate smoking area. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: King Street. Prices: appetizers $4.95 to $9.95; lunch entrees $6.95 to $10.95; dinner entrees $9.95 to $17.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $40 to $50 per person.
Eat out a dozen times a week and you, too, might come to the same conclusion about restaurant meals: More often than not, appetizers are better than entrees.
It doesn't much matter what kind of food you're eating, or if the place costs a lot or a little. The beginning of the show tends to be more interesting than what immediately follows; it's as if the kitchen expended all of its time and energy upfront and needed to take a breather afterward. Professional duty requires me to explore the full scope of a menu, but if it didn't, I'd probably ignore entrees altogether.
Cafe Salsa is the most recent reminder I've had of that general truth. The Latin American restaurant boldly opened for business in Old Town Alexandria on no less challenging a night than New Year's Eve. It swiftly became, for some of its neighbors, the response to "What do you feel like tonight?"
A glance around the dining room to gauge the crowd suggests that Cafe Salsa can be whatever a visitor wants it to be: a place to drop by with friends after work, or to get the family together for a quick refueling, or to break the ice with someone new. (On two separate occasions, I watched as solo diners, seated next to each other on the cozy banquette, went from being strangers to animated dinner partners.) Things look promising when you and your pals are fighting over the last of the long, crisp plantain chips and dusky salsa that launch every meal, listening to some salsa music in the background and being looked after by attentive servers.
The appetizers add even more pizazz. One of the most worthy of consideration is a pair of pretty fluted empanadas, filled with luscious shredded beef and served with a macho green dip that shocks the palate. Puerto Rico, home to chef Mike Cordero, is represented by exceptional alcapurrias, their thin, crisp casing of mashed green bananas hiding a stuffing of ground meat seasoned with cilantro and garlic, and boosted with a little cup of jalapeno sauce for dunking. Seafood appetizers are no less appealing. Tiny white scallops and ivory squid mingle with corn, red onion and lime juice in a sprightly seviche. And the fish soup turns out to be a refined beauty of tuna, mussels and shrimp in a buttery broth that could use a dash of salt but is otherwise delectable; you can soak it up with rafts of toasted bread. Codfish fritters are a bit heavy for my taste, though their flavor is good (and sunnier following a swipe through the accompanying aioli).
All that said, it's frustrating when you depart from the first two pages of the menu. Did the cooks go home early? It can taste that way. Lomo saltado sounds like Latino comfort food: sauteed beef strips tossed with fried potato, onions and peppers. But here it just puts me to sleep with its dull meat, mealy spuds and under seasoned vegetables. The thicker grilled steak comes out dry, though it is partially rescued by the mushrooms and onions that cover its surface, plus a side of savory black beans and rice. A mixed grill is, well, mixed. While its garlicky pork sausage is plenty juicy, an ordinary filet of chicken and some wan beef detract from the plate, which also includes gummy yellow rice and soothing sauteed plantains. Fifteen bucks is too much to pay for a nice link and some fried bananas, though. There was even less to like about pollo calypso; its chicken breast is wrapped around some wimpy chorizo, then breaded, baked and blanketed in a sauce that bears an unfortunate resemblance to Velveeta.
Cafe Salsa has only half a dozen entrees, give or take a few specials, and honestly, there's not one I'd return for. The best of the lot is an abundant collection of seafood arranged on some saffron-scented rice, although even there I have to add a caveat: The rice is oversalted.
This shouldn't keep you away from Cafe Salsa, just make you a better-
informed diner. Think of it as a tapas joint and you'll fare well: Home in on the appetizers, save room for a wedge of tres leches cake, and let the servers amuse and pamper you. Anyway, the setting, with its walls in shades of lemon here and beet there, is a welcome one for Old Town. Decorated with two-toned wood floors and big mirrors that expand everyone's view, the dining room on the main floor sidesteps the usual Latino design cliches for a more contemporary look.
Looking for a party and a deal? Head upstairs. That's where you'll find half-priced starters, weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m. The second-floor bar also pours fine margaritas, mojitos and Latinopolitans -- a twist on the standard cosmopolitan, and breezy with mint -- though I feel anxious for the servers as they slowly, slowly descend the staircase with cocktails inevitably filled to their rims.
Not to worry, a friendly waiter told me one night. "It's good for my thighs, and for this," he volunteered, slapping his posterior.
Dinner with a smile to start and wink to close. That's Cafe Salsa.