Friday, October 31, 2008 at 02:18AM
A Critic Learns a Lesson in Humility
I arrived at Café Chulo thanks to a tip whispered with unexpected intensity. “The sweet pork,” my informant hissed with a strange gleam in his eyes. “You have to try the sweet pork.”
Over the years I have taken considerable pride in the fact that I can, with reasonable accuracy, identify most spots worth eating before opening the door or glancing at a menu. And using my very subjective criteria I would have not given Café Chulo a passing glance. If I had, it would only have been to announce with bravado to anyone listening: “They’ll be gone in six months.”
Wrong. Before Café Chulo moved into its north Coeur d’Alene generic fast food building in a sea of black asphalt, my prediction would have been dead accurate. Before Chulo everything that opened in the spot closed a few months later.
But in 2005 that curse was broken… by sweet pork.
Yet I’m getting ahead of myself. I was still extremely skeptical when I pushed open the door and scanned the layout inside. You will find acceptable Mexican touches throughout, and brightly-colored, wooden chairs rather than the typical plastic Jetson stools. But it takes no imagination to picture the space as a chain pizza or burger joint complete with the stainless steel counter and serve-yourself pop dispenser.
The menu posted on a black chalkboard rather than a backlit plastic display was the first real sign of hope. The fact that everything seemed to be served in round aluminum tins that reminded me of pre-microwave Jiffy Popcorn discs was the second. In our increasingly generic ‘fast food nation’, any deviation from the mean is good.
Then I saw that both the corn and flour tortillas were made fresh and in-house every day. This wasn’t just good; this was very good.
Burritos ($6.95) were an option; choose grilled chicken breast, tender roast, grilled steak, veggie, or… there it was… sweet pork. Tacos too offered the same possibilities plus one additional: fish. The tacos came two for $6.45 with rice and beans or chips (also made in house). You can also order quesadillas, enchiladas, fiesta taco salads; and a quick scan of the blackboard confirmed it: virtually everything could be ordered with any of the meats.
Then my doubts returned. All three of the people behind the counter looked like my cousins—just off the boat from Sweden. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Sweden is not typically celebrated for its salsa; and long experience has taught me to run from ethic food served by people from the wrong part of the globe.
Only it was too late to retreat. One of my cousins behind the counter asked what I wanted. “Nachos” I mumbled. “Sweet pork nachos.” My source had said something about the nachos too.
Five minutes later I took the first bite of what will probably be the best tin of nachos I’ll ever eat: house-made chips, black beans, onions, chopped cilantro, melted cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, and laced throughout was the sweet pork.
In talking later to Juli Pearson, who managed Café Chulo over the summer, I saw the same gleam in her eye I first saw in the eyes of my friend. “It’s addictive,” she said. “I don’t know why. I’ve seen Pancho make it, but somehow, it’s addictive.”
‘That doesn’t sound Scandinavian,” I thought and asked for explanation. Juli’s answer helped right my sense of the world.
The heart and soul of Café Chulo turned out not to be a distant cousin at all, but rather Francisco Padilla Ramirez a.k.a. Pancho. He is the one who arrives at 4:30 or 5 every morning to make the salsa, the grilled steak, the tender roast, and the sweet pork. Pancho has lived here longer than I have (14 years), but he wasn’t born here and didn’t learn to cook here either. He was born and learned to cook in Mexico City, and for this I will be forever grateful. I’m also grateful to Lupita who shows up each morning, not long after Pancho, to make hundreds of tender corn and flour tortillas—surprisingly without the standard ‘south of the border’ secret ingredient of lard.
I suspect I’ll tell myself in the future that a drive to Coeur d’Alene for sweet pork is justified because the folks at Café Chulo have worked to make the food healthy too. “Think Subway gone Mexican,” Juli says with a grin.
I would if I could, but truthfully Jared and company will never serve up anything remotely like Pancho’s sweet, sweet pork.
Café Chulo Fresh Mexican Grill
155 West Neider Avenue
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83815
Sunday–Thursday: 10 am–8 pm, Friday–Saturday: 10 am–9 pm