Comfy Café

Sertinos comes to town offering coffee, tasty ice cream and so-so sandwiches in an upscale atmosphere

I avoid chain eateries as much as possible, but sometimes in the line of duty, I must review such establishments. Sertinos Café (it lacks an apostrophe, but the corporate office does like the proper accent on the "e") is a franchise outfit based in Portland, Ore. It's part Starbucks-style high-end coffee shop, part deli sandwich shop, part ice cream parlor.

The newish location at Tanque Verde and Bear Canyon roads is partly ordinary, and partly very nice--which is better than the franchise/chain average.

Let's start with the nice parts. First is what you see as you enter the shop: The inviting, calm décor features woods and earth tones (or are those coffee tones?), comfortable but not-too-cushy chairs and banquettes, and lots of light streaming gently through the windows to offset the potentially dark atmosphere created by all the wood furniture. This seems like a nice place to hang out, sip, nibble and enjoy free Wi-Fi.

There are two service counters, one for ice cream and frozen yogurt and smoothies, and the other for everything else, including the sale of Sertinos' own brand of packaged coffee (much of it organic and/or fair trade) and accessories. On my visit, every staff member I encountered was very pleasant and accommodating; nothing can spoil your day like a surly barista.

My little party was not well-suited to evaluate the coffee aspect of the business. I don't like coffee; my wife likes coffee only if it's highly adulterated with flavorings and additives; our friend Jeff will sometimes drink coffee, but in all instances would rather have single-malt scotch. All I can report is that my wife pronounced the caramel latte "delicious," and this is from one of several people I know who decry Starbucks' coffee as burned and overpriced.

So, on to the food--and this is where I become more equivocal. The menu features a half-dozen salads (including potato and macaroni), 10 hot and toasted sandwiches (on your choice of white or wheat sub roll; $7.49 and $7.99 for large, and mostly $5.99 and $6.49 for regular), 10 untoasted sandwiches (on white, wheat, sourdough or rye; $6.49 to $7.99 whole, $4.79 to $5.49 half) and seven panini (on focaccia, $7.49). There are also a couple of soups ($3.99) and packaged chips (99 cents a bag) available.

First, my obligatory rant against American cultural and linguistic ignorance: The menu refers to an individual grilled, pressed Italian sandwich as a "panini," and presumably, people at corporate HQ think that more than one of these would be "paninis." This is not an error limited to Sertinos. Come on, people: If you're going to use a foreign word, use it right. One of these things is a "panino"; the plural is "panini." Saying "paninis" is as silly and ignorant as saying "mices."

Honestly, the panini here aren't worth getting all that worked up about, although I wouldn't go so far as to call them poor. The Tuscany beef panino contains roast beef, provolone, cream cheese, red onion, black olives and horseradish, pressed between buttery and crisply grilled focaccia. Too bad the bread and the cheese have more flavor than the nondescript meat. You get about a quarter-cup of macaroni salad on the side; it's creamy and unobjectionable, as is the potato salad served with some of the other sandwiches.

Oddly, it's the cheese (provolone and parmesan) that seems generic in the roasted red pepper panino, whereas the red peppers are distinctive yet mild, while the artichoke hearts supply more texture than flavor.

Jeff tried the chipotle ranch chicken toasted sandwich: That's chicken breast, cheddar, guacamole, red onion, tomatoes, lettuce, chipotle sauce and ranch dressing. Initially, all he could say was, "It's not unpleasant," but he grew more positive as a little chipotle kick made itself known as he downed more and more of the sandwich.

The soups were pretty good on the day we visited. The minestrone had all the right ingredients and was strong with oregano, and the slightly spicy chicken tortilla soup abounded with beans (pinto, red and white) and corn plus tiny bits of chicken in what seemed to be a thin bean purée.

The sandwiches and soups were so filling that we had to force ourselves to head for the smoothie/ice cream counter to make a token purchase. My wife and I decided to split an Oreo cookie shake ($3.89) between two of us; the server made a standard batch, divided it between two cups, and was disappointed that the portions seemed so small, so she took the initiative to make a little bit more. There are 20 flavors of ice cream, frozen yogurt and glacé here; cookies and cream was the logical choice for this particular shake, and it turned out just fine.

As these establishments go, the funky Epic Café on Fourth Avenue serves tastier fare in a more individual setting (but admittedly a less-upscale one). Still, there's nothing really wrong with Sertinos, and thanks to its location, it could become a traditional "fuel" stop for eastsiders and people on their way to or from Mount Lemmon.

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