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Cruzin' Through Dinner

[whitespace] Steve Wilson and Lisa Aluff
Robert Scheer

Steaking a Claim: Cafe Cruz Chef/owner Steve Wilson (right) and cook Lisa Aluff: with their Halibut steak speciality.

Cafe Cruz has a high old time carrying on its irrepressible tradition of bold food, bold libations and bold attitude

By Christina Waters

A ROW OF SIZZLING chickens rotating on spits eloquently whispers about the bold and big-flavored menu at Cafe Cruz on 41st Avenue. While the poultry juicily turns, the regulars at the adjoining bar are having a grand old time playing dice, swapping lies and singing "Happy Birthday" to anything that moves.

In the adjoining cluster of cozy islands separated by low adobe walls, dining is happening on a boisterous scale. Part of the appeal here is the interactive setting. White butcher paper and crayons adorn each table. The menu offers aid and comfort to almost any appetite and taste. Prices are right in line--and portions are enormous.

The three of us had been here before and knew enough to order up some fine wines by the glass. Bob likes white and went for an excellent Honig Sauvignon Blanc ($5.75), while Rosemary and I zeroed in on the David Bruce Pinot Noir 1995 ($5.75). We also knew enough to make moves on the celebrated house specialty, the Maryland crab cakes ($8.95), still better than ones I've had in Annapolis.

We also agreed on an appetizer of grilled eggplant topped with smoked mozzarella and roasted red bell pepper ($5.95), which proved to be lovely. For once in my recent restaurant experience, the grilled eggplant was actually grilled to the point of doneness. Unfortunately, two out of three of our next dishes proved to be done to the point of collapse. But let's linger for a while on the positive news.

Even though our waiter tended toward bombast, he was very good at what he did. He pointed out house favorites, made suggestions and was on top of any additional requests we had throughout the meal. He also talked Bob out of having the special roasted pork loin dinner, and into the alderwood-smoked boneless pork chops ($14.95) instead.

Bob said he liked them. But, hey, they were big, very big. Boys like big slabs of pork. And I don't blame them. But I do blame the chefs who cooked the living you-know-what out of these burning hunks of pork. They were drier than Death Valley in August, and even the very tasty homemade applesauce couldn't help.

Meanwhile, over on Rosemary's side of the entree table, a plump filet mignon--cooked exactly as ordered--arrived wrapped with an intensely flavored slice of Corralitos bacon and a chunk of roasted garlic Gorgonzola butter the size of a baby's fist ($20.95). Surrounding the wonderful beef was a cloister of roasted mushrooms that were nothing short of wonderful. (Stay with me, I'm leading up to something).

Meanwhile, over on my plate sat a still life of something oval encrusted with very dry, tasteless almonds. The "something" proved to be desiccated halibut, cooked to the point of cremation ($16.95). Inedible, it nonetheless offered the extreme unction of a glorious froth of wonderful mashed sweet potatoes.

Along with each entree came our choice of two side dishes. Rosemary chose french fries. Wrong. Like kindling, they could have been used to ignite a forest fire. I chose the sweet potatoes. Yea. Bob chose mashed potatoes. Wrong again. They had been zapped by the kitchen's flavor extractor. We also had helpings of Swiss chard. Wrong choice again.

The chard was presented almost raw, or as Bob put it, "charding new culinary territory." Our waiter actually went the distance and asked the kitchen to try again. The "cooked" chard he brought back was equally raw. Raw Swiss chard is not nice.

For dessert, we all split a slice of house cheesecake. Tart, tangy and not too sweet, it was topped with something pretending to be whipped cream ($3.95). It was aesthetically pleasing, though, with beautiful designs around the side of the creamy wedge, done in papaya and raspberry purees with pretty chocolate tracery designs swirled through.

Everybody at Cafe Cruz really has a good time. Maybe big portions are enough to keep patrons coming back for more.

Cafe Cruz
Address: 2621 41st Ave, Soquel
Phone: 408-476-3801
Hours: Lunch Mon-Sat 11am-2:30pm, dinner daily 5-9:30pm.
Entrees: Moderate
Cuisine: * 1/2 Big-shouldered New American cooking gets a lot of attention but needs more sensitivity.
Service: ** 1/2 Loud and occasionally perfunctory; staffers can be helpful and willing to please.
Ambiance: ** For those who like their dining experience on the burly side, Cafe Cruz offers the exuberance of an adjoining bar.
Overall: More bar than restaurant, this address seems to please a host of locals with huge portions and cost-effective enthusiasm.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *OK

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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