Going Global

East Meets Middle East At Café El Mondo.

IN THIS ERA of global economics and cyberspace connections, boundaries between national identities and cultures have blurred, and nowhere is the melting pot mentality more evident than in the professional kitchen, where the flavors of fusion flourish. Asian-style gazpacho, Peking duck stuffed with foie gras and pasta tossed with chipotle cream sauce are but a few of the combinations I've encountered in recent years.

The logic behind Café El Mondo, a coffeehouse specializing in Thai and Middle Eastern food, is adrift in these cross-cultural currents. The café offers lattes, curries and gyros, all under one roof.

Situated in a Spanish-tiled mini-mall at Speedway Boulevard and Kolb Road, Café El Mondo's tiny outer storefront belies the modest spaciousness within. Several tables are sprinkled throughout the space, and toward the back of the main dining room there's a comfy lounge area furnished with overstuffed leather couches and chairs and a built-in TV. Though the TV was off and the lounge deserted the day we stopped by, high-tech Arabian pop music emanated from the café's speakers and amiably filled the void. Forest green walls and a large brass hookah on the front counter establish an aura of Eastern mystery.

The Middle Eastern offerings are listed first on the menu, but the options here are far fewer than the Thai selections. Although a sign in the front window indicates the café serves falafel, the savory chickpea patties aren't listed on the menu. When we queried our waitress, she told us they had it, could make it, but it just wasn't on the menu anymore.

Finding this curious, we decided to select from the dishes listed, and ordered the Greek salad and a hommus sandwich instead.

The plentiful salad (small $3.99, large $5.99) was fresh but standard, composed of iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, cucumber slices, rings of red onion, pepperoncini, brine-cured olives and crumbled feta cheese. Drizzled with a basic olive oil vinaigrette and served with triangles of warm pita bread, the salad was thoroughly satisfactory but uninspiring.

The hommus sandwich ($3.50) consisted of a rolled piece of pita bread stuffed with a layering of chickpea purée suffused with garlic, lemon and sesame butter; tomatoes; lettuce and onions. The hommus, embodied the mellow character of tahini rather than the piquancy of lemon or the pungency of garlic. While this is fine for many, I prefer hommus with a bit more zest.

As the sandwich was fairly insubstantial, the addition of a salad or second entrée item is a must for the famished.

Café El Mondo fares much better with its plentiful Thai offerings, which range from the familiar green curry to a more exotic squid salad made with onions, lime juice and fresh Thai chile.

The café elevates the commonplace appetizer of fried won tons ($4.95) to delicious new heights. The delicate golden puffs are smartly crisped and filled with a minute mixture of ground pork and herbs that asserts itself boldly on the palate. Further enhancing the won tons is the accompanying sweet and sour sauce, a delectable blend topped with ground peanuts and chopped fresh cilantro.

Pad Thai ($6.95), typically the most popular item on any Thai menu, is also quite good, though not as spicy as the versions served at other restaurants in town. The generously portioned dish nonetheless pleasantly bewitched the senses with a combination of soft rice noodles, tender cubes of chicken (beef or vegetarian versions are also available), shreds of scrambled egg, and bean sprouts. Crushed peanuts and diagonal slices of green onion accent the dish beautifully in both flavor and color.

Café El Mondo offers a full selection of espresso beverages, Italian sodas, teas and Thai fruit juices, and during our afternoon visit people came in steadily to pick up mochas and lattes. A large glass of creamy, sweet and strong Thai iced tea ($2) suited me nicely on a recent 80-degree day, but iced guava, young coconut, mango or toddy palm juice also have a refreshing appeal.

While Café El Mondo might not suit everyone's idea of the best Middle Eastern, Thai or coffeehouse restaurant in town, it holds its own in any of those cuisines and is an intriguing addition to the local café scene. Its undeniably broad appeal is Café El Mondo's greatest charm.

Café El Mondo. 7205 E. Speedway Blvd. 296-4535. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No alcohol. V, MC. No checks. Menu items: $2.99-$7.99.
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