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photo: B.A. Nilsson

Copa Cubano

carmen’s café

198 First St., Troy, 272-3011. Serving breakfast and lunch Tue-Sat 6-3, Sun 7-4. Cash only.

Cuisine: diner fare with Cuban surprises

Entrée price range: $3.50 (eggs with home fries) to $7 (sandwich Cubano)

Ambiance: neighborhood joint

 

By B.A. Nilsson

A warm spring breeze kicks up little whitecaps on the fast-running river surface. With trees budding and winter’s ordure newly scraped from the pavement, Troy’s First Street looks unusually inviting. Just south of the Russell Sage campus is a riverfront neighborhood that mixes factory buildings, most of them empty, with residential brownstones.

And anchoring that neighborhood is a small shanty-like eatery that seems always to have been there, always slinging toothsome hash—though for the past year and a half, it’s been the domain of Carmen Gonzalez, who has pushed the concept of eggs and toast and tuna melt to an unexpectedly appealing level.

That’s because her menu is anchored by items like Cuban eggs ($6.50) and a sandwich Cubano ($7), reflecting her own Hispanic heritage.

“I’m a New York City girl,” she says, sitting by the counter of her restaurant, giving a rest to her broken foot. “But my mother is from Puerto Rico, and my father was Cuban.” Her father is no longer with us, but her mother is a familiar presence at the restaurant, helping to serve when needed, chatting with customers as the tables turn.

Because of Carmen’s infirmity, exacerbated, she says, by a lousy diagnosis from a local doctor, she’s had to rely on help from friends and neighbors. “I’m really just a customer,” explained a woman who served my Cuban eggs during one visit. “So tell me if I’m doing this wrong.”

Another day, a more-experienced server named Amy took care of my table, and explained that she’d worked at Justin’s for many years and now lived not far from Carmen’s—“And I was in here one day and heard her saying she needed some help. So I offered.”

With a couple of booths, seven tables and seven seats at the counter, it can be a squeeze when the place is busy. There’s a pleasantly haphazard feeling to the decor; some things seem to be there by accident, like the pile of coffee machines that peeks from behind a booth.

The work of local artists hangs from the walls, including a large painting of a cell phone floating in a pickle jar. “My daughter painted that one,” says Carmen with a laugh. “My cell phone did drop into a pickle jar one day, and she thought that was very funny.”

Pickle slices are a key ingredient of the sandwich Cubano, a combination of flavors at which chef Jeremy Brand marvels. “Carmen showed me the recipe,” he says, “which uses roast pork that we marinate for two days in a special blend of Caribbean seasonings. Add sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and the pickle, and it’s a great sandwich.”

He speaks the truth: Presented like a panini on a Portuguese roll, the combo is excellent. And it’s served with rice and beans and fried plantains, the best plantains I’ve ever tasted. “The secret to that,” says Brand, “is to start with ones that are really ripe. And then we fry them. That’s all!”

What goes on in—and comes out of—the kitchen isn’t as casual as he makes it seem. They make what they can from scratch. The oatmeal, a particular breakfast special, is simmered in milk. And it’s not the instant stuff. The corned beef hash may come out of a can, but it’s cooked to the right degree of crispness.

Breakfast offerings also include pancakes, French toast, omelettes and a number of breakfast sandwiches. And egg dishes, of course. The aforementioned Cuban eggs are cooked as you like them, but over easy is best because you want the yolks to spill onto the rice below. Along with black beans and fried plantains are avocado slices, and there’s hot sauce on your table to liven the flavor.

Order a salad or a plate of fruit and you’ll enjoy the look of the plate as much as the flavor. Brand is skilled at dressing the serving dishes, and you’ll find unexpected items like mango slices joining the fray. Friday’s special is fish and chips ($6), and you can substitute salad for the fries and enjoy a somewhat healthier take on this oil-rich dish.

Other specials include Cuban chili (Thursdays, $3/$4.50 depending upon size; add a little more for a side of greens), homemade macaroni and cheese (Wednesdays, $4.75) and even a hamburger plate (Mondays, $5).

Although Carmen opens only for breakfast and lunch right now, she’d consider adding dinner if the business warrants it. Meanwhile, she makes her restaurant available to the community, and the community has responded. Last Friday, chef Jackie Baldwin presided over a tapas night; tomorrow (Friday) will see a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

It’s easy to spend longer than you’d intend at this restaurant. With a pleasant soundtrack of doo-wop songs sounding in the background, and conversation spreading from one table to the next as customers recognize one another or make new friends, it feels very much like home. Which is precisely Carmen’s intent.

“I was living in New York when 9/11 happened,” she says. “I got stuck on a train and was worried out of my mind. Shortly after that, I visited a friend here in Troy and fell in love with the city. So I came here, a travel agent with no restaurant experience, and opened this place. And it looks like it’s going to be a success.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

A new Farmer’s Market opens on Schenectady’s upper Union Street on Saturday (May 6), and will continue each Saturday, 9 AM to 1 PM, through the end of October. Look for the market in the parking lot off Woodland Avenue between Union Street and Eastern Avenue. Initially, the market will feature herbs, bedding plants, and flowers. Other locally produced and grown agricultural items will be added as they become available. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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