The Point Café, 964 Helderberg Ave., Schenectady, 395-9717. Serving 7 AM-9 PM Mon-Sat, 7-3 Sun. D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Mexican, Italian, American
Entrée price range: $1.45 (hot dog) to $15 (Point Café steak)
One of the great secrets about the restaurant business is that anyone who is truly skilled at cooking probably can cook just about anything. It’s not the recipe; it’s the repetition that makes a particular dish work. If you grew up in a household in which someone, an elder, showed you, day after day, how the favored meals were prepared, you’re going to come away with a solid knowledge of those items.
Which is to say that being born in a particular country doesn’t mean you should be expected to specialize in its fare. But it may give you an advantage.
When the Point Café opened in Schenectady almost 20 years ago, it was an oddball sort of diner, with strange signage and an unremarkable menu offering a solid range of diner-ish items, breakfast especially. Humberto and Francisca Cruz worked for the owner until 2001, when they took over the place. Seven years ago, they expanded the menu to include Mexican items—including some, like the enchiladas de mole, that reflect the specialties of their native Oaxaca. This means that those who visit regularly for such bargains as the five-dollar breakfast special (two eggs, toast, home fries, coffee and a choice of bacon (two strips) or sausage, served Mon-Fri, 7-11 AM) can pony up a little more cash and avail themselves of huevos rancheros ($7.45), which consists of two eggs served over corn tortillas with salsa and refried beans. Or chilaquiles ($7.79), which adds cheese to the above. Or an egg and cheese breakfast burrito ($4.75). As to the rest of the Point Café’s Mexican offerings, you’ll find a mix of the expected—meaning the Americanized—and what I take to be the more authentic.
Among the former: burritos ($8 for chicken, $9 for beef, also available fajita-style for the same prices) with rice and homemade refried beans in the filling, a trio of soft tacos ($9 for chicken, $10 beef), taco salad ($8), nachos ($7; $9 with added beef) and flautas ($10), a quartet of chicken and cheese-filled corn tortillas served with rice and beans and guacamole.
I watched a plate of fajitas emerge from the kitchen, hissing and trailing steam as Francisca conveyed it to a wide-eyed patron. I didn’t ask if it was made with pork ($11), chicken ($11), beef ($12) or shrimp ($13); I didn’t think the filling mattered, what with the impressively theatricality of serving a platter of meat and onions and peppers this way.
On the more authentic side are pescado Veracruz ($12), a sauté of tilapia with lemon butter and fried onions; camarones al mojo de ajo ($13), marinated butterflied shrimp in a garlic sauce, and chiles rellenos con pollo ($10), a chicken-stuffed poblano pepper.
The restaurant sits at the point of Helderberg and Guilderland avenues in Schenectady, giving the city its own mini-Flatiron building. Unpretentious? That puts it mildly. But I find it more appealing than the antiseptic chrome-and-formica gleam of your standard dineraunt. The Point Café looks like it’s been around for a while, but while age may have withered her, the customers will find nothing stale in her variety. Four large, high-backed stools face the small counter; the tables, distributed between two dining areas, have gaily striped tops and cane-seat chairs. The evening my friend Malcolm and I visited, Francisca herself was waiting on tables—as she later explained, she typically takes an evening shift while her husband works mornings.
The menu can prove daunting. Deli sandwiches, served with macaroni salad and a pickle, average $6; salad platters run from $3 for a tossed salad to $8 for one with grilled chicken breast; club sandwiches are $7.75; wraps are typically $7.49; a bacon-cheeseburger is $5.49.
As befits the diner model, there’s an $8 Greek salad and chicken souvlaki is $7.79. Among the dozen Italian entrées are eggplant parmigiana ($8.75), stuffed ravioli, shells or manicotti ($8.75, add a meatball for a buck) and chicken and broccoli Alfredo ($11). Fried chicken (served with soup, potato or pasta and veg) is $10. So are broiled pork chops or a meatloaf dinner. Liver and onions are $9 (add bacon for $1). A 12-ounce strip steak is $13; marinated and served with mushrooms and onions, it’s $15.
For Malcolm, the choice was easy. A reuben ($7.35), that glorious combo of processed meat and Swiss and sauerkraut. Not a traditionalist, he chose pastrami over corned beef. Served with fries and a side of macaroni salad, it was a straight-ahead example of the sandwich, a little light on dressing but nicely grilled.
My starter of cheese nachos is enough to share, although Malcolm has sense enough not to add to the nutritional damage his dinner promised. A standard array of chips and salad fixings, with jalapeno slices and olives, it suffered only from a paucity of cheese. And then I furthered my own damage with the fiesta Mexicana ($13), a combo platter with a chicken quesadilla at its center, surrounded by segments of chicken chimichangas, flautas and chipotle poppers. It’s served with three sauces—salsa, sour cream and guacamole—but I was able to get a side of excellent habanero salsa as well.
All of which is to confess that I was too tempted by the mainstream items to explore the more exotic, and the mole—a Oaxacan specialty made of peppers and seeds and a touch of chocolate—is at the top of my list. Whatever you order, any element of it that can be made in-house is done so. The Point is unpretentious, economical and satisfying, and the number of neighborhood regulars it attracts is probably its highest commendation.