Sol Food

My favorite D.H. Lawrence heroine is Juliet, a New York woman who flees her dullard husband -- he wears a gray suit and a gray felt hat -- and moves to Italy, where she and her young son roll oranges to one another across a tiled, sun-filled patio. For Juliet, the orange represents more than love and warmth and passion -- qualities her husband lacks. It symbolizes as well the life-giving sun.

I thought of Juliet when I visited Cafe Red Onion recently, because, right above the open kitchen, was another sun -- this one a brilliant crimson. It's very powerful. Made of papier-mache and ringed with twigs, it looked as if it were pulsating.

This sun is the work of Barbara Galindo, who, with her husband, Rafael, owns Cafe Red Onion. The other sculptures here are hers as well: window frames suspended above window boxes filled with Styrofoam flowers. They're ambiguous, those window frames. They leave you feeling that something very important lies on the other side.

When the Galindos opened Cafe Red Onion last June, they did so with little money. But what funds they had, they used judiciously, creating a restaurant that's intimate and pleasant and bright. Yellow -- in some cultures, the color of hope -- predominates here. There are yellow tablecloths and yellow walls. And the chairs have bright red seats. The menu is equally resourceful. Put together by Rafael, the executive chef, it's both bold and well-conceived and draws inspiration not just from Nicaragua, Galindo's homeland, but from Honduras and Mexico as well.

In their way -- and it would embarrass them to hear me say this -- both Galindos are artists. And they prove yet again that money, in and of itself, is insufficient to ensure success. There is imagination at the Cafe Red Onion. And commitment. There is seriousness and integrity. Visit enough restaurants, and you have only to set foot in one to know if you're in good hands. This restaurant felt right to me the moment I stepped into it. Why? I think that crimson sun had a lot to do with it. Just seeing it gave me heart.

Also heartening is the attention to detail. Beer glasses are frosted, and tortilla chips are warmed; meat dishes are finished with chopped cilantro; plantains are drizzled with sour cream; desserts come dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar....

The food here, carefully prepared and artfully presented, is a bargain -- which helps explain the restaurant's success. (At lunch, the place attracts substantial crowds.) But credit as well Galindo's savvy. Not caring to wait for his public to find him, he went out last June and found his public, inviting some 200 people to a complimentary dinner. At the time, it must have seemed something of a gamble. But it paid off. Most of those 200 people continue to return -- and when they do, as often as not, they bring their friends.

Among the appetizers, I especially liked the black bean nachos ($3.95) -- a wonderfully runny, cheesy, beany mush piled high with guacamole and sour cream and looking so spectacular, it resembled an ice cream sundae. The soups are good, too. The Texas black bean ($1.25) has garlic and jalapeno accents, and the cream of roasted poblano peppers ($1.50) comes with chicken pieces and the chef's signature "tumbleweed" tortillas -- tortilla strips colored with paprika and deep fried. The poblano soup was Japanese-like in its subtlety, an effect enhanced by a flour tortilla so nicely folded, it looked like a piece of origami.

The entrees are almost all excellent. Chicken Tikal ($7.25) comes with incredibly delicate onion rings, black beans, plantains fried a golden brown, and green and yellow squash firm to the teeth.

Just as delectable is the perfectly cooked Colombian steak ($8.25), a four-ounce medallion of filet mignon served with smoky-tasting eggplant, mango barbecue sauce and a really good corn relish. (The steak is called Colombian because the meat is dredged in freshly ground coffee beans before being seared in a skillet.)

Like most of Galindo's plates, a lot of thought went into this one. But just this once, he oversteps himself, adding to the mix two breaded shrimp. For the life of me, I can't imagine what they were doing there. And they didn't seem to have the foggiest, either. How very self-conscious they looked. I ended up feeling sorry for them.

Also perfectly cooked, and served with green tomatillo salsa, was the Papantla pork steak ($7.95), named for the town near Vera Cruz. Massive, that steak was. And it came piled high with grilled sweet onions. The effect was to make it seem pyramidal. I suspect that when Galindo designed this dish, he took as his model the towering temples of his Mayan ancestors.

Of the entrees I sampled, only the cabrito ($7.95) fell short. It's wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a slow oven, but for all the care taken in its preparation, I found it heavy going.

For dessert, we had Honduran bananas ($2.25). The bananas are wrapped in flour tortillas, deep fried and cut at an angle, after which the pieces are arranged vertically on a plate. It looks like a small, very modern sculpture. And it's quite lovely. For a garnish, Galindo uses strawberry halves, whipped cream and lots of thinly sliced apple. Muy delicioso, as we say on the west coast of Ireland.

Cafe Red Onion, 12041 Northwest Freeway (at 43rd Street), 957-0957.


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