Guilty Pleasure: Sworn testimony that The Courthouse Café offers arresting eats.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Going to court has never been something I really dreamed of. Something about “felony” and me in the same sentence makes me lose my appetite.
After a couple of visits to the Courthouse Café, though, that has changed. Now I actually could go for a felony – or at least an attorney – to call my own. Several over the course of the year would be nice, actually.
Parking was not a problem: There were many two – and four-hour spots to take, one of the bonuses of setting up shop next to the county’s seat of justice. I dug the logo, a judge’s gavel that at a closer glance is a coffee mug, too. This is a business that looks Salinas. No outrageous color scheme. The cleanliness of the glass and floors impress. It fits. The song playing on their system, “It’s a beautiful morning,” made me think, “Guilty as charged.”
The lunch trade has been a battleground for years in downtown Salinas. While foot traffic evaporates at night, around midday everyone aims for the judges, attorneys and police officers who graze downtown almost daily.
The concept at the Courthouse Café is perfect for this trade: simple, fast, straightforward and smart, with fresh sandwiches, a soup and a few salads (including the barbecue chicken, $8.50) with character. Names are entirely inspired by the legal system, including The Judge ($8.95), with sliced marinated tri-tip with provolone on garlic sourdough, and the Grand Jury ($8.50), bringing turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce and tomato to testify on a focaccia roll. Then there’s the aforementioned Felony ($8.95), featuring grilled chicken, jack cheese, avocado, lettuce, tomato and garlic-basil aioli on foccacia.
The system here is order, pay, give your name and return to the pick up counter when called. I decide to order The Attorney ($8.50), basically a BLT on sliced sourdough, because you can tell a lot about a place by ordering a simple dish – with a side of their veggie salad (included with the sandwich), another simple something that will provide the info about what’s happening behind the kitchen door.
The tables wear black-and-white-striped tablecloths, the walls fun food art prints by Greg Brown & Whitney Hopper Graphics, plus a 3-foot spoon, knife and fork. The salt and pepper shakers are full and napkins appear on each table, and this is the back nine of the lunch rush, so somebody is keeping an eye on the little things. Five minutes later I hear “Mati the Attorney” and laugh at the ring of it.
Now the execution: Was the bacon cooked this morning? Microwaved back to life just for me? How about the veggies? Are the tomatoes warm because the produce order has been sitting in the alley?
The entire opposite. The bread is toasted warm, bacon crisp from a griddle, shredded lettuce and tomato cold and crisp.
Now the veggies – previously frozen? Boiled not grilled? Under – or over-seasoned? Nope: The green and yellow squash, red onions and red peppers are all grilled nicely with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Simple is better in my book. If meats, fish, produce and veggies are fresh and of high quality you won’t need much else. Successful lunch.
I return the next day to try the breakfast burrito ($5.95), which won a close ruling over both the house specialty almond danish ($3.95) and breakfast casserole ($5.95) with eggs, green onion, chilies, potatoes and a blend of cheeses. The room is full again, and in the hall leading to the restrooms appear two quotes painted on the wall, “Our family is like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts” and something like “Life is short, eat dessert first.” (Meanwhile the bathroom was very clean and the mirror creates a most wanted poster with a familiar face at its center.)
I come back and enjoy my huge, 14-inch-tortilla, pound-and-a-half breakfast burrito filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, potatoes, a zesty salsa and Monterey and jack cheese oozing from both ends. After the dessert quote I decide to have a sweet treat with my breaklunchfast. I ordered the nutty caramel tart, a 4-inch pastry shell filled with assorted nuts set in place with a simple caramel sauce. Yum for $3.95, and confirmation that the desserts here – including the house specialty cannoli, pear bread pudding and apple bars – are made in house, something owner Terri Carpenter prides herself on as much as the fact that all the foods are prepped on site.
Truth be told, turns out The Felony ($8.95) isn’t something I want so badly after all, or not as much as I want the strawberry cheesecake bar ($3.95) or the cookies straight from the oven ($1 each). The felonious flavor is light (misdemeanor strength?) with a criminally minimal amount of basil.
That just means my bigger courthouse dream isn’t for multiple felonies, but that they add a Code Red Melt so there’s a hope someone, maybe even a lawyer who looks like Tom Cruise, will ask me “Did you order the Code Red?” and I can yell, in my best Jack Nicholson voice, “You’re goddamn right I did!”
COURTHOUSE CAFÉ 42 W. Gablin St., Salinas. • 8:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri. • 751-2233.