Food & Drink Tastes like home 

Meatloaf and mashed potatoes at the Centre Café

It's generally considered safe to go downtown during the holidays; the myriad multi-colored lights dangling from the cypress trees along the River Walk apparently banish the bogeymen that are normally thought to abound. At other times, the cautious need to rely on other crutches - the protective presence of a church, for example. Consider, then, a winter foray to San Fernando Cathedral, itself seasonally illuminated with tiny white Christmas lights - you'll be doubly safe in a triple-threat situation.

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Light spills in from City Centre Cafe's wall to wall windows onto patrons enjoying lunch. (Photos by Laura McKenzie)

This is threat in its positive sense, of course. I'm speaking first of the newly restored cathedral; if you haven't yet seen it, you must, regardless of your particular religious persuasion. For the faithful, there's also a newly commissioned painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe looking both resplendent and humble. Then there's the City Centre Museum and gift shop in the recently built annex to the cathedral. Some very handsome exhibits chronicle the history of this, the oldest, continuously functioning cathedral sanctuary in the country. And last but not least, the City Centre Café is housed in what would otherwise appear to be a light-filled community room, which opens onto the pleasant piazza between church and annex. Open for breakfast and lunch and operated by an independent contractor, the café is hardly a destination in itself; it needs the church and museum to help draw from outside the courthouse-City Hall orbit. On the evidence of three visits, most of the city hasn't yet gotten the word; the sheriff's department's finest, a few tourists, some people having a lunch meeting - the large room has never been more than sparsely occupied.

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A server retrieves a lunch order from City Centre Cafe's kitchen.

Some of this may have to do with the City Centre's basic menu. Yet many of us will find echoes of childhood in a lunch special of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. Just like the loaf of my own youth, this one needed more pepper and herbal seasoning; just like green beans I never knew could be served still green, these were overcooked by contemporary standards; but, like the mashed potatoes my mother serves to this day, these were real, though not ultra-enhanced with butter and milk or cream. Meat oaf doesn't naturally produce gravy, and what's served here tastes as though it came from a can. That said, the plate radiates a kind of wholesome nostalgia that even cynical curmudgeons can appreciate. Roast beef is another occasional daily special; maybe it won't be the gray color I remember from growing up. But then, maybe it will ...

The City Centre's regular menu items include sandwiches such as the turkey or ham and swiss, chicken or tuna salad, a veggie model, and a grilled cheese - also guaranteed to conjure cafeteria lunches past. The most ambitious sandwiches consist of melted Swiss served with strips of either grilled steak or chicken with grilled onions, mushrooms, and green peppers. The chicken version is served on a whole-wheat bun and is further lubricated by a honey-mustard dressing. Just a little too much honey-mustard dressing; it trumped the chicken. But otherwise, this is a well-intentioned sandwich that works pretty well. The house-made chili I ordered with it came equipped with an orange oil slick and just a few beans, which is fine with me, but was otherwise meaty and tasty.

City Centre Café – Main Plaza

7am-2pm, Sun-Fri
Price range: $2-5
Credit cards
Wheelchair accessible

To keep the nostalgia bit going, I considered a banana pudding, but opted instead for the house cookies. I tasted the chocolate-chip and white-chocolate macadamia, whose unabashed butteriness gave them crisp bottoms and pleasantly chewy tops.

For breakfast, the café serves the expected tacos, but the huevos rancheros seemed like more of a challenge, though admittedly a modest one. The scrambled eggs were less than light and fluffy and the punchy ranchero sauce was curiously thin, but the cubed potatoes were nicely seasoned with chili powder, and the chunky refrieds - blessed with lard - were surprisingly good. Bacon was an unexpected plus on this plate, and the corn tortillas were buttered, which is not something I normally do, but it was a nice touch. Both the decaf and regular coffees are decent and hot, sometimes all you really need. Nevertheless, as you leave - or even better, before you enter - light a candle for more imaginative cooking. It can't hurt.



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