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Scene & Heard

No Hurries

A laid-back Santa Ana eatery recalls quiet Paris street cafes; its retail neighbor wishes things were a bit more lively.

November 19, 1998|DAVID LANSING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I spent a winter in Paris, living in a drab room in the Hotel Henri IV on the Ile St.-Louis, eating croque monsieurs and oranges in bed because I had no desk or table.

I wrote in the mornings and went for long walks in the afternoon, roaming the various arrondissements and looking for what Hemingway called a clean, well-lighted place.

Someplace warm and cozy where I could take up a table for hours while reading every single word of the International Herald-Tribune and taking tiny sips of warm beer to make it last longer.

Someplace where the waiters didn't glare at you, where you might eavesdrop on the conversation of locals sitting at the table next to you talking about such pleasant but mundane subjects as a child's birthday party or a hiking vacation in the Pyrenees.

I thought about that winter and those quiet cafes recently after stumbling across the Green Parrot Cafe across from the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana.

I collect Mexican folk art and had heard, from a friend who had bought a handcrafted and brightly painted wooden jewelry box, about a new little shop called Carisma.

So, one gray and threatening Friday afternoon I spent an hour or two at the Bowers before crossing the street and searching for the folk art store, which I found tucked away just off a pleasant Spanish-style courtyard. There a dozen or so diners sat at dark green wrought-iron tables and chairs lunching on big bowls of tortilla soup and hefty sandwiches stuffed with honey ham and cheddar cheese.

Although it was rather late in the day and the sky looked as if it might unleash a sudden storm at any moment, no one seemed in a hurry or the least concerned with the weather.

Men in white shirts and lawyerly ties were leaning back in their chairs drinking red wine and sharing photos of a summer vacation in Cape Cod. At a larger table a group of women, who seemed to flutter in and out--some eating, some not--cooed and moved around the courtyard like pigeons.

They waved over new arrivals, pulled up chairs commandeered from other tables, and asked the waiters for more rolls, more butter, more everything. In short, it seemed like a clean, well-lighted place.

I was the only visitor in Carisma. The owner, Teresa Dutrem, who looks a bit like a less baleful version of Frida Kahlo, came out from behind the counter, where she was putting price tags on some silver jewelry, to admire the art pieces with me.

Together we looked at some embroidered ex-votos, made in Guanajuato, spreading them out on the floor like pillow cases.

"I think they are too expensive," she said, a hand on her cheek. She laughed at herself and said she wasn't a very good salesperson. "But it is true. I worry who will buy them."

Then she showed me the delicate boxes, like the one my friend had bought, pointing out the wooden hinges and clasps. "You won't find anything like this," she said, and it was true.

We looked at the replicas of water fountains from Mexico City, made by a disabled woman there, and lacquered crosses from Chiapas and straw animal benches from Michoacan.

I told her it was all lovely, and it was. And how was business? I asked her. "Not so good," she admitted. People had not yet found her little gem of an art gallery, which opened in late May.

"I was a physician in Mexico City," she told me, "but I gave it up and moved here nine years ago. I have always wanted to show people the beautiful folk art of Mexico and South America, but business is slow." Then she apologized for telling me her troubles and wished me a good lunch.

I was seated at a table next to the lawyers. "What I'm concerned about," said the more elderly of the pair, "is that the award, while in our favor, is only for goodwill."

The other lawyer nodded sagely, sipped his red wine.

I ordered the tortilla soup. It was very hot and fragrant and seemed like the perfect thing to be eating on a cold Friday afternoon in a quiet courtyard with an olive tree in the middle and a blue-tiled fountain against a stucco wall.

The young waiter, wearing blue jeans and a white Oxford shirt with a wrinkled tie loosely knitted at the neck, brought me more rolls.

As the afternoon wore on and the courtyard emptied, he pulled up a green chair beneath the olive tree and rested for a few moments. I wrote in my notebook.

As the shadows of the afternoon lengthened, he got up and wiped down tables, refilled my coffee. Thinking he might like me to pay the bill, I reached for my wallet while he stood over me.

He frowned and shook his head. "There is no rush," he said. "On an afternoon like this, one shouldn't hurry a meal. Take your time."

An hour later, having read sections of the paper I seldom even glance at, I stood up, stretched, paid my bill. "I hope we will see you again," said the pleasant waiter. "You will," I told him.

* Green Parrot Cafe, 2035 N. Main St., Santa Ana; (714) 550-6040. Breakfast from 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, with desserts available until 9 p.m. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

* Carisma Art of the Americas, 2041 N. Main St.; (714) 542-3081.

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