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Latin cool
Thursday, 13 October 2011
Photos by Wes Naman
Modest prices and atmosphere counterbalance the exquisite, exotic offerings at UNM-area eatery, Guava Tree Cafe
By Mike English
In an age when concept eateries seem to play an oversized role in the restaurant business — Asian fusion, nouveau American, et al, with carefully orchestrated menus and detailed interior decors designed to enhance the dining experience — it can be refreshing to wander into a modest restaurant, order at a counter and get delivered to your table a plastic basket filled with standout food.

Welcome to Guava Tree Cafe, a Latin American lunch eatery open for about a year that sits on Yale Boulevard, near Outpost Performance Space and not far from the University of New Mexico campus.

Guava Tree resides in an old one-story house, wrapped with a big front porch for outside dining and filled with a hodgepodge of tables and chairs in a brightly colored dining room inside (orange, yellow, red and light blue walls). Orders are taken at the counter by the owner Diego Barbosa, who bustles from cash register to kitchen to tables, blends fruit smoothies, serves coffee and just generally keeps things running smoothly. Maricarmen Pijem, his wife, runs the kitchen.

ImageTo say Guava Tree Cafe serves Latin American food means the wide range of flavors of Central and South America, as well as Caribbean countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico. In New Mexico, our palates are adjusted to Mexican cuisine as the south-of-the-border staple, but Guava Tree roams much farther. So be ready for a Colombian-style salsa called hogao,  for example, or a side of roasted and grilled sweet plantains. You will be eating black beans, not pinto, and your tamale will come Costa Rican style, wrapped in a banana leaf, not a corn husk.

The absolute standout on the menu at Guava Tree Cafe, to my mind, are the arepas. This is a heavenly fresh-baked cornmeal patty that originated with the indigenous people of northern South America, and remains a staple in that region today. Arepas are crispy on the outside, creamy inside. At Guava Tree they make arepas from scratch, slice them open while hot and fill them with delicious ingredients.

The standard arepas are the Arepa Pabellon (shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantain and “fresco” cheese, a crumbled white cheese in the Latin American style) and the vegetarian Arepa Machilla (same ingredients, minus the beef). They come wrapped in paper — a tidy little corncake sandwich — and served with a side of hogao. I tried the veggie version, and the added ingredient of carmelized onions pushed it to an exquisite eating experience. The crispy exterior, sweetness of the warm corn cake and the savory filling made it perhaps the best $4.75 (yes, it’s that inexpensive) I’ve ever spent.

The arepas can make a meal if you’re not too hungry, but I was, so I also ordered the Guava Pinto plate. This is a simple dish of white rice and black beans seasoned with hagoa, topped with avocado slices and served with a side of sweet plantains and salad. At $6.25, it’s a satisfying dish.

ImageGuava Tree Cafe serves a full menu of 8-inch sandwiches ($4.75-$6.50), from El Cuban (a traditional Cubano sandwhich) to El Guava Pollito (shredded chicken breast, smoked provolone, carmelized onions, roasted mushrooms, tomatoes and a garlic sauce). Like all menu items, the sandwiches get a Latin touch, with such ingredients as slow-roasted Caribbean-style pork and rubbed, Puerto Rican-style roasted turkey.

Let’s now take a moment to speak of the “juices” served at Guava Tree. I ordered the Mango and Orange with Milk (a variety of fruit combos are offered). This was an afterthought for me — a little refreshment, I thought — and I was not prepared to have my world rocked by maybe the most delicious fresh, sweet, cool smoothie I’ve ever tasted.

I’m already plotting my next visit to Guava Tree Cafe. It will be soon and it will include arepas and a smoothie, and it will cost less than $10. May this little restaurant thrive and prosper.

Guava Tree Cafe
11a-5p, Mon.-Fri., Noon-5p, Sat.
216 Yale SE, 505.990.2599
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