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Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Published: Friday, 1/19/2001

Carlita's Cafe: price is low, food is so-so

For as long as I can remember, a low-profile eatery has stood along Douglas and Gracewood roads.

When I first knew it, it was the Douglas Grill, a rustic-looking building that felt bigger outside and in than it looked - a friendly, family sort of place.

The eatery became the Gracewood Grill in the 1960s; Pablo's Mexican Restaurant in the 1970s; Giuseppe's Italian Restaurant in the 1980s - it was during this period, I believe, that Max Korl was briefly the chef; Dominic and Carlita's in the 1990s, and now, with a new owner, just Carlita's.

In the course of these changes of name, cuisine, and proprietor, the restaurant's character also has changed. It no longer is a neighborhood family eatery, but a disjointed pairing of a boisterous bar with a curiously secluded adult restaurant.

Italian food at its lowest common denominator is mostly pasta with cheese and tomato-based sauces. Thus, spaghetti, lasagna, manicotti, ravioli, and fettucine are five of the entrees listed on the page devoted to Italian specialties, along with veal and chicken parmesan, chicken tetrazzini, and pasta, of course. The veal parmesan is the only one I can vouch for; the single cutlet is fair-sized, pan broiled, I assume, slightly more than medium, and filling. But the word that persistently comes to mind to describe the entire meal - veal, a side of spaghetti lightly washed with a marinara sauce, and a glass of chianti - is pale. It was so mildly seasoned as to be in the original sense of the word insipid.

If pale is an unusual word to describe the flavors and aromas of a dinner, I use it to stress my reaction to the output of Carlita's kitchen.

Even if the surroundings of a veal cutlet were less than memorable, I expected the special Carlita's burrito I selected from the Mexican page to be bold, hot, and lively, but the south-of-the-border pepper was just not there; nothing bad, you understand, but not memorably good, either.

Italian-style wedding soup is an exception. It is one regular menu item you'll want to try. It is peppery and full of vegetables, and the character of the beef stock is emphatic. The generous bowl is almost a light meal in itself. Other light dishes, none of which I tried, are a half-dozen dinner salads, featuring chicken, fajita, taco, and nacho, and a promising antipasto plate.

What else Carlita's has going for it are its uniformly pleasant, patient, and helpful serving staff, and its notably low prices. I'd not protest a reasonable rise in prices if the additional income would finance some creative attention to the kitchen.



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