Diner Divine

Café Jasper does breakfast and lunch right--and the baked goods excel

Café Jasper could be called a neighborhood diner in full dress. Situated on the southeast corner of Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive in an area chock full of some of Tucson's finer dining choices, this tiny café holds its own.

Calling the menu "homemade Western American food" (you'll find plenty of black beans, chiles and salsa), Café Jasper serves only breakfast and lunch. There are plenty of diner favorites, especially when it comes to breakfast, but fresh ingredients, homemade baked goods and unique twists make this cozy spot a great addition.

We popped in on a Saturday just as lunch was starting. You enter through a small patio that offers splendid views of the Catalinas and a fireplace to ward off any chill in the air. Inside is a small, curvaceous room decked out in blue and dusty orange colors. Mixed art hangs on the walls, and the lighting is up-to-date and a perfect fit.

Many of the tables were occupied, and the staff was on the go, yet with all the activity, the noise level maintained a pleasant hum. And this set the tone for the meal.

We went with a couple of our lunch favorites: John had the Coronado club sandwich ($10.50), and I ordered the Chihuahuan chicken salad ($9.25) that comes with an avocado dressing. Drink choices are eclectic and include limeade with prickly pear syrup ($2.75) and iced coffee (although the server pointed out the iced coffee is really just a glass of coffee with ice in it--iced coffee drinkers know that isn't the real thing). John ordered the aforementioned limeade, and I ordered the iced black tea ($1.95).

It wasn't long before our food was ready. Although not exactly a traditional club with three slices of toast (the bread comes from a local bakery), this sandwich met with raves from John. Stacked with turkey, ham, bacon, white cheddar and tomato, then slathered with a delightful sage mayo, this creation would please any sandwich fan.

Given a choice of sides, John ordered the Jasper jicama slaw, which proved a nice surprise. Shredded carrots and jicama were tossed in a bright, tangy dressing, a totally different way to serve up slaw.

At first, I found my salad to be a tad bland, but as I dug deeper into the mix--featuring chunky chicken, leafy greens, slices of creamy avocado and a hint of heat from Anaheim and chipotle chiles--all the ingredients and flavors began to coalesce, and I found myself enjoying it more with each bite. The dressing was creamy, without being cloying. The chunky chicken pieces were tender and the greens fresh. The salad was served with cornbread. Café Jasper appropriately brags about their homemade baked goods. Their take on cornbread was slightly sweet and savory, and it crumbled just as good cornbread should--damn near as good as mine.

I also enjoyed my iced tea, because it held a strong tea flavor and wasn't watered down. The limeade was good, too, and made pretty by the swirl of sweet syrup.

But the pièce de résistance was my dessert. While John's large peanut butter cookie ($1.50) was tasty, if a little dry, my slice of walnut espresso mascarpone cream cake ($3) rocked. It was not too sweet or too rich, and was utterly moist and slightly nutty--the flavors and textures added up to a sinful treat without too much guilt. The espresso flavor provided an undercurrent to the sweetness of the walnuts. The "icing," if you will, combined with a sweet crunchy topping was pure mouth music.

The dessert choices change daily, and if this cake is any indication of the rest of the offerings, I could easily see stopping in for a cup of joe and a slice of the daily featured dessert.

Our breakfast visit was also pure pleasure. This time, the place was packed, and we had a short wait for a table. John went straight for the French toast ($8) and a side of applewood smoked bacon ($3.50). The featured omelet with shrimp, chiles and jack cheese ($10.25) lured me in. I chose the biscuit as my bread this time. We both ordered coffee ($1.95), and John had rasp-cran juice ($2.25).

The French toast is made with challah bread, which added a great texture to the light, eggy coating. There's maple syrup on the side, making this a fantastic take on an old standby. The smoky bacon was the ideal complement.

My omelet was packed with tiny chunks of tender shrimp, lots of smoky poblano chiles and gooey Jack cheese. And when I say packed, I mean just that. How refreshing to find an omelet that advertises shrimp and then delivers plenty in every forkful. I was told later that shrimp is on the menu every Sunday.

And the biscuit? In spite of its odd shape--it had been baked in a large muffin cup--this biscuit could win blue ribbons at the county fair, and a smear with the house honey butter made it even better. The coffee was strong and smooth and rounded out a fantastic breakfast.

In order for a restaurant to succeed, there needs to be good food--of course--but there also needs to be a strong vision of what an owner wants the restaurant to be, and the know-how to pull it off. Café Jasper does all of that.

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