The big, artsy, loftlike cafe is becoming an institution in Los Angeles. Now we have the Central City Cafe, housed in a new commercial plaza that was once a truck leasing center in a glum, industrial part of downtown Los Angeles.
That particular corner is glum no more, thanks to the plaza's eye-shocking, green and magenta paint job. Inside, the cafe is factory-casual. The kitchen, tile and flooring are new, but the roof and brick walls remain from the original, half-century-old building. Exposed air conditioning and heating ducts run overhead, and a Tom Suriya mural dominates one wall with a capsule view of Los Angeles from the mission era to the present.
"I felt the area was ready for this," said Howard Klein, developer of the plaza and owner of Three-Star Smoked Fish Co., which is located nearby. Klein is partner in the cafe with Don Viglietta and Steve Zeller, who were formerly associated with a chain of restaurants in Long Beach and Orange County.
The menu includes what everyone is eating these days--Cajun-spiced food, Buffalo hot wings, potato skins, pasta salads, taco salad, pizza, calzone , grilled fish, burgers, beef dips and more. Lunch brings a major crunch, but turnover is rapid and service is fast. Customers order from and pay the cashier. Servers bring the food to the table and fetch any later requests. It's a tightly controlled, slick operation.
When the cafe opened in January, the plan was to serve breakfast and lunch only. But artists who inhabit lofts in the vicinity asked for dinner too, and that starts tomorrow. Dinner will be served Friday and Saturday only but may extend to other days if successful.
Breakfast is slow but gaining momentum. On the early menu are pancakes, two styles of French toast and several egg dishes. A Mexican omelet stuffed with cheese and salsa and an avocado-topped Shaker omelet that contains bacon, cheese and tomatoes sound promising.
Standout lunch dishes include the stuffed baked clams and fried onion rings. The cracker meal and clam mixture heaped in the shells has great seasoning, and the onion ring batter remains crunchy for a long time. Don's fried cheese may have been very good, but the blocks of mozzarella were a bit solid, possibly because we allowed the cheese to sit too long before cutting into it.
The only dishes I didn't like were chicken noodle soup, which had good flavor but was too thick and pasty, and broiled mahi-mahi. The fish was perfectly cooked. But the two unadorned little grayish lumps looked so forlorn. And the yellowish green beans and carrots alongside didn't help. Bread or French fries would have provided some relief but were not included. At $6.25, the plate was no bargain.
The seafood rotelli, on the other hand, was wonderful, and only $5.95. The pasta had been mixed with pesto sauce, then combined with chunks of haddock and a marinara sauce that was fresh tasting even though made with canned tomatoes. The brown-dappled garlic cheese bread on the side was irresistible.
Ordering the crab and Cheddar sandwich, also $5.95, was risky. Would this be imitation crab or the real thing? Happily, it was real, feathery, snow crab. And the sandwich was fine. The beef dip includes Cheddar cheese and green chiles and comes with French fries and a watermelon wedge for $4.25.
The Cajun meat loaf is like any meat loaf except for the tingly seasoning. It must be popular, because one day the supply had run out. Other regional American offerings are a Chicago pork sandwich, New York-style sausage and peppers, New England pot roast and the Buffalo wings. Desserts include a Hershey bar pie, some cheesecakes and a deep-dish apple pie. The apple pie lacks taste, but the cheesecakes are properly rich and guilt-inducing.
Central City Cafe, 601 S. Central Ave., in Triangle Plaza Center, Los Angeles, (213) 627-4482. Open Monday through Saturday. Breakfast from 6 to 10:30 a.m (8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturday); Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Dinner 5 to 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday only. Cash, no credit cards. Park in the Plaza Center lot.