Hearty and Filling

Chris' Café offers downtown diners tasty, simple eats--but beware of the line at noontime

It's hard to get dinner at La Placita Village downtown; only one restaurant there is open at night. But breakfast and lunch are easy to come by, at least on weekdays, because several little cafés dot the colorful, faux-adobe complex.

One of the most popular spots is Chris' Café, on the plaza at the north end of La Placita. If you don't like waiting in a long line at a counter, do not under any circumstances show up at Chris' between noon and 1 p.m.

I'd imagine the breakfast business is good, too, although I haven't had a chance to sample the morning fare, served between 7 and 10:30 a.m., which includes the usual eggs and omelets with sides of flesh and home fries or biscuits and gravy (starting at $3.69 without meat, and topping out at $5.49). But I do know that the baked goods, prepared on the premises and mostly in the $1-$2 range, are pretty good, like the blueberry scone: It's soft and rich (made with cream cheese), with a bit of frosting dribbled on top, and served in a modest British portion, not the American super-size you find at many other cafés.

Chris' Café occupies a little shotgun storefront with six red-check-topped tables leading back to the counter; beyond that is a visible and busy kitchen. Lots of people order their food to go, or have it taken to them at the umbrella-shaded tables on the plaza (which are not terribly uncomfortable even on a summer afternoon, even though there's no mist system).

Lunch portions, like that scone, seem a bit on the small side, but the food is hearty and filling, and we really don't need to stuff our way to obesity.

One day last week, I ordered the Tucson cheese steak ($6.99) with oven-roasted potatoes as my chosen side dish. Because this is explicitly billed as a Tucson rather than Philly sandwich, there's no point in parsing its East Coast authenticity. The tender sliced beef mingled with not quite enough onions, green bell peppers, green chiles and melted cheese in fluffy and lightly toasted bread. The chipotle sauce was so mild as to be barely perceptible; I'd prefer them to increase the smoky heat. Owner Chris Early has lived in Tucson for many years now and worked in Texas before that, but she grew up in Kansas and caters to a lot of tourists, which may account for a bit of culinary caution.

More about that when we come to the chili in a moment, but first, I must praise the side potatoes, roasted with onion and peppers and redolent of oregano. If they added a bit of feta, these tender slices could pass as Greek.

Now, about that chili, which came as part of the soup-and-quiche combo ($5.49), along with a moist and tasty carrot muffin: It was the beanless kind of chili, made with ground turkey, and lots and lots of tomato. It didn't pack any heat at all, and bore a close resemblance to sloppy-joe topping. There are many kinds of chili, and that's the kind Chris serves. There's not much more to say than that.

As for the little slice of quiche, it had a texture just a bit denser than scrambled eggs, with the addition of cheese, spinach and a detectable but not overpowering amount of nutmeg, on a very moist and flaky crust.

The next day, the meatloaf plate ($6.99) came with those roasted potatoes--although they were a bit less flavorful on this occasion--and a salad made with green-leaf lettuce rather than the usual boring iceberg; the dressing arrived in a little packet from Kraft. The two slices of meatloaf were firm and hearty; no unusual or prominent flavors are in play here, just good, basic meatloaf.

From the combo menu, the half-sub and cup of soup ($4.99; it's another dollar for a full bowl of soup) featured on this occasion was a veggie sandwich and gazpacho. Rolled into the same low-density bread as the cheese steak had been, this sandwich basically embraced a salad: romaine lettuce, red pepper, mushrooms, carrot, onions and tomato, with a mild Swiss cheese melted into it--uncomplicated, unpretentious and good. The gazpacho was very chunky, with the flavors of the various standard ingredients well-blended and leaving a very faint cayenne-like aftertaste.

There's nothing experimental or surprising at Chris', except for the surprise that the people behind the counter remain pleasant no matter how busy they get. Cautious eaters will feel perfectly safe here with the traditional fare.

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