Close your eyes and picture a chic yet comfortable urban cafe. Sunday-morning sunlight pours through tall windows, fashionably softened by bleached canvas shades. Chalkboard menus hang over counters of warm-toned polished oak; ceiling fans twirl lazily overhead. You help yourself to fresh-roasted espresso from a design-schooled thermos, pick a thick section of weekend newspaper from the rattan basket by the door, bite into a thick, flaky blueberry scone.
So where are you? West University? Montrose, maybe? The Heights? Nope. You're in Galveston, at The Mosquito Café. If it weren't for the high percentage of customers with island perma-tans, you'd never guess it.
"We're really not like any other place down here," says the counter girl proudly.
The Mosquito Café is tucked away in the historic East End, its clean-lined, uncluttered Pottery Barn decor a sharp contrast to the ocean of pastel-painted Victorian gingerbread that surrounds it. Framed black-and-white photos are hung against walls painted cream or taupe, gently lit by skinny black gallery fixtures. There's an understated touch of "nouveau Texas" in the wrought-iron stars fixed onto oak beams. Even the cafe's logo makes me smile: The i is dotted with a bright red circle resembling an angry bite, with a stylized smear above it that must be the slapped mosquito himself.
The owners, Jack Parker and Jerry Bair, are refugees from the big city, it turns out, former Houston residents on the lam from the fast-paced life. Parker spent 13 hectic years in the car-leasing business; Bair, an international attorney, is still in practice with an exotic commute to a diamond mine in the wilds of the Canadian Arctic. "This restaurant is just all about a midlife crisis for me," Parker admits. "I suddenly wanted a completely different sort of life."
Undeterred by a complete lack of experience in the food-service business, Parker and Bain soon hooked up with chef Liz Aguilar, an Island native who had worked at one of their favorite Montrose restaurants, Claire Smith's Daily Review. Aguilar was eager to design a menu unusual for Galveston: healthy salads of beautiful greens, deep, generous bowls of pasta and trendy sandwiches of grilled eggplant, zucchini or -- of course -- portobello mushrooms.
"Don't get me wrong," Parker explains earnestly. "There's a lot of good food down here on the island. But we wanted something different, an alternative to Mexican food or fried seafood. Of course the bank told us we could never succeed in Galveston without a deep fryer."
Looks like the bank was wrong. There's not a french fry in sight, and the cheerful little cafe bustles seven days a week. One Sunday morning found a klatch of neighborhood bed-and-breakfast owners, companionably sipping coffee and swapping stories of eccentric guests from the night before. "Our space has turned into a gathering place," Parker says happily. Students carrying thick medical textbooks from nearby UTMB mingle easily with weekend home renovators flecked with paint spatters, and a scattering of T-shirted tourists who've wandered away from the Strand.
Breakfast is my favorite time at Mosquito Café. I revel in baker Aurora Galvan's selection of oven-fresh treats: croissants and bagels and muffins. "Oh, everything is healthy here until you get to the bakery case," says Parker with a laugh. "Then we pull out all the stops, with butter and sugar and cream and all that yummy stuff." I like the brawny brown "Morning Glory" muffins, a wee bit of bran moistened with shredded carrots and studded with hazelnuts, the pale yellow squash muffins crunchy-crusted with white sugar, and those blueberry scones, pale, fluffy wedges loaded with fat, fresh blueberries and luxuriously topped with real whipped cream. Early in the morning, before the sun gets fierce, the latticed patio out back is perfect for a leisurely breakfast. "Bottomless" cups of fresh-ground coffee ($1.50) encourage you to linger, or you can choose from a designer list of espressos, cappuccinos and lattes.
Lunch is good, too, with rotating quiches and frittatas, salads and sandwiches. I particularly like the Asian noodle salad ($6.50) served in a deep pasta bowl at a just-right room temperature -- "not hot, not cold," advises the menu. Angel-hair pasta is tossed with a colorful jumble of fresh lettuces, red cabbage, crunchy carrots and long strips of red and yellow peppers, dressed with a light sesame vinaigrette gently flavored with soy and ginger.
Another standout selection is the "Mambo" roasted pork sandwich ($6.95). The pork is tender and moist, sweetened just a touch with a housemade fruit chutney and served on fluffy toasted focaccia bread, with sides of roasted potatoes and green salad. The "Shroom" sandwich ($6.50) is quite good, alternating dark, meaty mushrooms with slippery roasted red pepper and creamy goat cheese, slathered with a garlicky mayonnaise. (It's served on whole wheat, but I like it even better on more of that focaccia bread.) And, yes, there's a burger, but it's grilled ground turkey ($6.50), piled high with thick slabs of Roma tomato, red onions and more fresh greens on toasted whole wheat bread.
The "Killer" chicken salad ($6.95) combines thick shreds of herb-scented roasted chicken breast with toasted pecans and crisp, tart chunks of Granny Smith apples, piled over an entire salad of house greens, lightly dressed, plus two thin slices of garlicky French bread sprinkled with cheese and toasted. My only quibbles: I would have liked more of that crisp toast, and perhaps fewer celery chunks in the salad.
The Mosquito Café opened May 1, and in July inaugurated dinner service Thursdays through Saturdays. "We thought we should learn to walk before we tried to run," notes Parker dryly. Dinner features "bigger bites," such as a steaming hot bowl of penne pasta with spinach ($7.25), heaped with Roma and sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, and sprinkled with feta and Parmesan cheeses. For $1.75 more, add strips of marinated and grilled chicken (very tasty). Or do as the locals do, and call ahead to discover the weekly off-the-menu specials. Recent selections have ranged from an estimable red Thai curry with coconut shrimp ($7.95) to "fish du jour" -- grilled, not fried! -- with almond couscous and grilled asparagus ($8.95). Aguilar has recently started working on soups, including "some really wild stuff," says Parker; one week featured a cheerful carrot-and-orange combination, the next a cool avocado and cucumber mélange.
"This has really been fun, and the best part of all has been our delightful customers," says Parker, who greets every guest personally. "It's not so different from the car business -- it's all about people and customer service. I've tried to draw parallels: In the car business, I used to say, 'You're only as good as your last deal.' In this business, I'm learning, 'You're only as good as your last meal.' "
The Mosquito Café 628 14th Street, Galveston, (409)763-4611.
E-mail Margaret L. Briggs at email@example.com.
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