Food & Drink Hatched too soon

Café Pechugas has the embryo of a good idea; now to work on execution ...

From front: Cafe Pechuga's Sundried Fruit Pechuga - chicken breast stuffed with apricots, cheese, onions, and bell peppers, topped with a sweet mango sauce and served with herbed pasta, red cabbage, pickles, and bread stick; cream cheese flan; and homemade tortilla soup. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Café Pechugas is operated by a Colombian family with roots in cosmopolitan Bogotá. Dad has run restaurants before - the Colombian equivalent of meat and potatoes, he says - and has taken European-style hotel and hospitality courses in his native country. "We didn't want to open an 'ethnic' restaurant," says his son, a server at the restaurant. "That can be a turn-off." Accordingly, the only sign of ethnicity is the Colombian-style dessert. Otherwise, the chicken art that lines the pale, beaten egg yolk-yellow walls (and the designation of restrooms as hens and roosters) is your clue to the menu's main focus: stuffed chicken breasts.

Dad admits that the idea may have sprung from the chicken Cordon Bleu of his hotel training days, but he's taken the classic dish a step farther: Chicken breasts are pounded out, layered with a little ground chicken, and filled with a mix that can be as simple as the ham and Swiss original with onion and bell pepper, or as elaborate as the Southern Pechuga with black beans, corn, ham, jack cheese, onions and bell peppers. The breasts (by now you've figured out that pechuga means breast, right?) are then baked, sliced, and sauced for presentation on black plastic plates. It sounds promising, especially at the low price of $6.75.

So here's the issue: This is 2005, as my dining companion observed. Much of America has grown up on Julia Child, has subscriptions to glossy food mags, watches the Food Channel, and has access to Central Market-type stores. And even if Café Pechugas' audience doesn't identify itself as part of the foodie set, the rising tide does indeed float all boats - if only subliminally. What this means is that a creation such as the Southern Pechuga, though it's assembled with care, needs to have a more confident attitude: It was generally good, but lacked any real distinction, and we never figured out what the paprika-spiked sauce was supposed to be. The Sundried Fruit Pechuga, with apricots replacing ham and cheese, was better and had a more distinctive taste, but its mango sauce appeared to have been made with a canned product - and this is prime fresh mango season. Think salsa here. A vegetable model with spinach and mushrooms is also available, and all of the above can be had in sandwich form. Plates come with a choice of starch: The angel hair pasta with bits of dried oregano and the mixed white and wild rice were both acceptable, as was the tart red cabbage with cranberry juice. Simple sautéed carrots and green beans - not overcooked, but somewhat bland - completed the plate.

Café Pechugas

15104 San Pedro
10:30am-8:30pm Mon-Fri. 11am-8pm Sat
Price range $5.25-6.50
Credit cards accepted
Wheelchair accessible
Café Pechugas doesn't offer appetizers, but there are soups, and their house-special tortilla soup is very good, with grilled chicken pieces, bits of avocado, and just enough stringy cheese. The borracho bean soup of the day with fresh cilantro scores high marks, too, and even had a little of the borracho flavor. Tuna, chicken, and seafood salads can be had on a plate or as a sandwich with bread or a croissant. The seafood salad consists of bay shrimp, salmon, and scallops with minced red onion and scallion. Flavored with Old Bay seasoning and lightly bound with mayonnaise, it's appealingly delicate, and mostly seafood rather than superfluous celery and the like. Tossed salads of either mixed greens, spinach, or romaine are offered with a choice of three toppings and, though I'd suggest chopping the whole anchovies, our romaine salad with red onion and croutons was fresh and crisp. The available dressings appear to be "assembled" rather than created from scratch, but the Thai version was intriguing and the house vinaigrette at least a step - but only that - above bottled.

That ethnic dessert referred to way back is cuajada con melao: fresh cheese served with a brown sugar syrup. (In Colombia it would be presented with a syrup of panela, the equivalent of piloncillo, but it crystalizes too easily, we were told.) It's good enough on its own without the canned whipped cream and maraschino cherry. A simple, but moist and lightly sweet tres leches cake is also good, along with a cream cheese flan or fresh fruit. And, Colombian coffee is featured.

So, to recap: The place is charming, the service is friendly, and the price is right. Right there we have three good reasons for giving Café Pechugas a chance. A few more fresh herbs and sauces, and a little more courage in the preparation of the primary product - more incubation, in other words - and there could be a real winner here. I'm thinking chain.

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