It's not fancy fare, but it sure is satisfying - and cheap.
I'm shaking as I type this.
The blame belongs to my sweet tooth's unquestioned subservience to a piece -- no, make that a slab -- of ultra-moist chocolate cake, its three tall layers cemented together with dramatic swirls of an insanely fudgy icing. I thought I could stop at a few bites. Wrong. The powerful sugar-caffeine rush was almost instantaneous, a testament to the chocolate's nerve-stimulating intensity. No doubt about it, this is one cake that could lead to serious addiction issues. It's so good it could provide the foundation for a restaurant's enduring success, which is exactly the chocolate-chocolate cake's trajectory at Cafe Latté.
Owners Peter and Linda Quinn rank among the smartest restaurateurs in town, devising a formula that the public adores and running it with precision. They've also avoided the quagmire that befalls many successful owners who feel the need to branch out, a process that often dilutes the qualities that made their original enterprise so special. There is only one Cafe Latté, and that singularity has kept it a destination since the doors opened in 1985.
With good reason. The Quinns' proven format -- fresh and uncomplicated fare, quick cafeteria-style service, cheery surroundings, low prices -- has been knocked off, but never bested. It's almost inconceivable to imagine the corner of Grand and Victoria without Latté's ever-constant stream of customers; I'd venture that the Quinns' enterprise is responsible for a hefty percentage of the neighborhood's vitality. Can Panera Bread say the same?
Latté's food isn't revolutionary, but it's satisfying. Sandwiches are made to order on well-made house-baked breads. An abundance of flavorful herbs, crisp vegetables, fresh greens, decent proteins (tender roast chicken, smoked salmon), flavorful house-made dressings and a practiced eye toward appealing color and texture combinations ratchet Latté's ever-changing roster of prepared salads a few rungs above their supermarket counterparts, an admirable feat for a high-volume operation.
If the soups -- seven choices are served daily -- lean toward the bland end of the spectrum, they're also brimming with a bevy of obviously fresh ingredients, from skin-on potatoes in a clam chowder to tons of carrots and celery in a chicken noodle.
Don't let the lines deter you
Some days I walk in and face a line so long that all I want to do is an immediate 180. Then I remember that it moves with relative speed; the Quinns haven't been doing this for 22 years for nothing. Or else I go to Plan B and walk past the exhibition pastry kitchen, beyond the temptations lying in wait at the bakery counter and into the wine bar, where there's a second Cafe Latté at work. This one features plate-size pizzas and follows the same fresh ingredients/quick service framework that makes the cafeteria line such a hit.
Crusts are sturdy and crisp, and they need to be, to hold up the ingredients that get piled on with abandon -- a four-cheese combo, a pungent pesto, artichokes, smoked turkey and caramelized onions, to name a few -- mixed and matched into 15 varieties. The pizzamakers also toss a decent Caesar, and the $10 tea plate -- loose-leaf tea, cream cheese sandwich, a few sweets -- is a welcome alternative to an afternoon repast.
The other option? Walk across the street to Bread & Chocolate, Latté's cute little sister (867 Grand Av., 651-228-1017). The menu is much more focused, chiefly made-to-order sandwiches at lunch, a few panini at breakfast. Like its older sibling, B&C's baked goods stand out, particularly the chewy, buttery cookies (including an outstanding snickerdoodle) and a fudge brownie so good I can see myself asking for a transfer on the No. 63 bus and making a five-minute emergency brownie pit stop.
Latté has its quirks. Most tables are one flight up, and navigating the Brady Bunch-style stairway with a heavily loaded tray can be an anxiety-producing proposition. The dated setting -- remarkably durable, given the traffic -- could use a pick-me-up. First-timers may find the setup confusing. The mechanics of ordering dessert are not readily apparent, either.
Latté is justifiably famous for those enormous desserts, although some are better than others. Cheesecakes, done up in a zillion variations, don't have quite the right creamy-yet-dense texture. Fruit tarts are almost glaringly sweet -- but kudos to their excellent shortbread crusts -- and a nicely spicy chipotle-laced flourless chocolate cake is sludgy when it should be fudgy. But count me a fan of the lovely layer cakes dressed in gently sweet whipped cream and the first-rate shortbread cookies.
And then there's a certain buttermilk-laced chocolate cake. Derivations on the recipe -- German chocolate, an iconic turtle drenched in caramel and pecans -- are probably more famous, but they pretty much define overkill, even for a sugar hound like me. But to each his own, right? Give me the wicked pleasures of that unadulterated chocolate-on-top-of-chocolate cake, every time.
Rick Nelson • firstname.lastname@example.org