A few years ago, my friend Bill Hanson, a gastronome of the first order, was hosting several of his Costa Rican employees at Intel’s Ocotillo plant. Like me, Bill delights in introducing his friends to new culinary adventures. Unfortunately, not all our colleagues are similarly inclined (despite one of our corporate values being “risk-taking”). One of them convinced the “Ticos” that the restaurant they should not miss for a “true American dining experience” was Claim Jumper, a regional chain and slight upgrade from Chili’s.
Ever the gracious host, Bill acquiesced to the Ticos’ request. I’ll let him describe the rest (from his gastronomic blog The Tao of Chow): “As each dish was produced and delivered to the table I sank further into my chair as the American decadence of over indulging was displayed in glorious Sysco provided plates heaping with food. Each dish could have easily have served three people as I sat and wondered how much food was actually consumed versus how much went into the dumpsters out back.”
If the Ticos were disappointed in any way with the cavalcade of calorie-laden comestibles brought to the table, you’d never know it. To break bread (or arepas) with a Tico is to experience Pura Vida, the vibrant joie de vivre that is not only the national phrase of Costa Rica, it’s the national attitude. Pura Vida translates literally to “pure life,” but the actual meaning is more akin to “life is good!” Ticos live life to the fullest.
Pura vida is the attitude Diego and Mari Barbosa have infused into the Guava Tree Cafe, a Latin American restaurant on Yale Boulevard just south of the University of New Mexico. Though neither are from Costa Rica (Diego is from Colombia and Mari is from El Salvador), they met in and lived in the scintillating Central American tropical paradise for eight years. Their philosophy is that “food is art and food is life.” Their vision is for the Cafe to be a neighborhood gathering space in which their guests can enjoy each others’ company in the spirit of pura vida while enjoying slow-cooked home-style food, the best kind. They invite guests to make this space their own and promise to have something good to eat whenever you visit.
The Guava Tree Cafe opened in November, 2010 in a converted old home. An ADA friendly ramp takes you past a small porch and into a brightly colored, multi-hued cafe which seems to resonate a welcoming attitude. Immediately as you walk in to your left you’ll find Diego manning the counter where you’ll place your order. Diego is an accomplished barista, brandishing his brewing skills while taking orders. The menu is scrawled on two black slate boards which flank the counter. A glass pastry case displays decadent post-prandial deliciousness such as cheesecakes. Though they would tempt Job, you probably won’t have room for dessert after your meal.
The dining area consists of only a few tables in personal space proximity to one another. A thickly-cushioned crimson couch will keep you comfortable if you have to wait for a table to come available. Lively Latin music plays in the background, not too loud for conversation and not loud enough for dancing should the spirit of pura vida overcome you. Once you place your order, expect a bit of a wait. The Guava Tree prepares food to order. You won’t find food sitting under a heat lamp here!
While you wait, you’ll want to luxuriate in a cafe con leche (Spanish for “coffee with milk”), a strong coffee mixed with scalded milk. Sometimes called Cuban coffee, it’s the type of coffee which will envelop you warmly as you contemplate how strong coffee can be so mellow. Usually sweetened to taste, it’s the type of coffee which goes well with Latin American cuisine and the pura vida attitude.
The menu is segmented into three sections: sandwiches, arepas and tamales, and soups and salads. Sandwiches are described as “8-inches full of flavor.” They’re crafted on fresh bread pressed panini-style (perhaps even in an authentic Cuban grill known as a “plancha”) and wrapped in thin butcher paper. The specialty of the house is the Cuban Sandwich, Miami-style heaven. It’s crafted with home-roasted pork shoulder which has been marinated for several days until “it’s all happy” (which the chef can tell by it’s singing of the “Tico Tico” in the fridge). The pork is sliced thickly and combined with sweet or “bolo” ham, Swiss cheese and pickles on the flat, crunchy bread.
The Cuban Sandwich so enamored Larry McGoldrick that Albuquerque’s premier contributor to Urbanspoon described it as “the absolute best that I have ever had anyplace in this universe or its parallels.” That’s high praise indeed from a well-traveled bon vivant who’s not often given to hyperbole. If anything, Larry may have undersold this Cuban Sandwich. It is one of the very best sandwiches of any kind in the Duke City.
The roast pork, in particular, is superb, more than several orders of magnitude better than the pre-sliced variety offered on many sandwiches throughout the Duke City. The bolo ham is cured and sweet, a complete antithesis the overly-salted hams which seem to be in favor among sandwich purveyors. The crusty exterior and soft inside texture provide a delicious home for outstanding ingredients prepared exceptionally well. The Cuban Sandwich is truly a little piece of Miami heaven Duke City diners will love.
Vegetarians who may feel left out by the dearth of sandwiches crafted with them in mind will love the Luciano, a plancha-pressed beauty on wheat bread. Layers of flavor is an apt description for this panini piece of art. A generous smear of chimichirri (a flavor-packed green sauce made from finely chopped parsley, minced garlic and a host of other seasonings) starts the flavor parade which is ameliorated by grilled provolone cheese and house-roasted red peppers.
I’ve often lamented the dessication of dishes showcasing chicken. With few exceptions, show me a sandwich, pizza or pasta dish in which chicken is used and I’ll show you a dry and dull dish. It’s as if some chefs are out to prove chicken is not an aquatic fowl. Guava Tree’s El Guava Pollito sandwich proves chicken doesn’t have to be desert-dry. The shredded chicken breast is moist and succulent, obviously the product of the chef’s attentiveness and mastery over temperature and time. The chicken is absolutely bursting with flavor and would be good on its own, but its greatness shines when melded with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, mushrooms, greens and tomatoes.
The vast diversity of the countries and cultures comprising Latin America means there are so many things to explore and learn about the cuisine. Even among nations bordering one other, the same dishes are often prepared in vastly different but always delicious ways. New Mexicans might be surprised at tamales the way they’re prepared throughout Latin America. It’s not corn husks which sheath the masa-covered ingredients but banana leaves which impart a delicious herbal flavor and uncommon moistness to food prepared within them. Within the masa of Guava Tree’s tamales are the incomparable roast pork, a vegetable medley and sweet peppers.
Among the most ubiquitous of dishes served throughout Latin America are the tasty triumvirate of black beans, rice and sweet plantains, all three of which are prepared well at the Guava Tree. My Puerto Rican friends in the Air Force could subsist on this tasty trio, but American tastes which are more accustomed to heavily seasoned flavor profiles might not be as enamored. Perhaps that’s one reason the three are served as sides and not as main entrees.
The Guava Tree Cafe invites you to partake of a piece of la pura vida as well as some of the most delicious sandwiches and sumptuous surprises in the Duke City.
Guava Tree Cafe
216 Yale Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Latin Tamale, Plantains, Cuban Sandwich, El Guava Pollito, The Luciano