Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, February 20, 2003
Top of Z Class

Café Zamba is a standout amid an embarrassment of quality Northside Mexican eateries.


Café Zamba

1549 N Main St, FW. 817-626-6525. Sun-Thu 7am-11pm, Fri and Sat open 24 hours. All major credit cards accepted. (No bar and no BYOB, either.)

Fort Worth’s North Side is stuffed with Mexican restaurants. Into the crowd now comes Café Zamba, and you can crack me on the head with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe if this restaurant doesn’t serve some of the freshest Mexican food around.

Lots of restaurant visits on the North Side start with a cerveza — not at Café Zamba. This restaurant neither serves nor allows alcohol, so my guests and I started with coffee. The mocha was made with Mexican chocolate (the nectar of Aztec gods) and lived up to its lofty origins. It was rich, dense, and tasted better than a liquidy Hershey’s Kiss.

We began dinner with Zamba shrimp tortilla soup and the soup of the day, cream of spinach. A nearby gallery owner had recommended the tortilla soup, and it exceeded expectations. (Describing perfect soup is like explaining falling in love. You can list the ingredients — fresh shrimp, avocado, and tortilla strips — but you’ll pull up lame trying to define the caliber of the stock. For the record, though: This one was probably chicken with undertones of citrus and hints of cilantro.) The cream of spinach, which, curiously, was not loved by all the women at my table, tasted like super-creamy creamed spinach with a hint of nutmeg — it made me weak in the knees. The spinach was so fresh it had a slightly metallic aftertaste and so perfectly underdone that it squeaked against the teeth.

All of our entrée selections came from dinner specials page. We had one unsatisfactory entrée, one good entrée, and two exceptional entrées. The roasted red pepper pasta was boring (unsatisfactory): It was just angel hair pasta topped with cheese, chicken strips, and exactly six slices of roasted red pepper. And it was supposed to be accented by a garlic-and-white-wine sauce, but no garlic was discernible. The good entrée, Chicken Zamba, was the sum of its parts: an inch-thick chicken breast covered in mushrooms, corn, jalapeños, and a generous slab of melted mozzarella. Face it, it’s hard to resist anything that comes topped with melted cheese. This dish came with rice and a salad crowned with freshly made but salty guacamole.

The table favorite was the dreamy, delicious Tilapia Nayarit. Named for a Mexican state on the Pacific coast, this dish was made up of perfectly blackened tilapia with a creamy garlic-and-tomatillo sauce. Rich sauce is the perfect accompaniment to tilapia, which is typically pretty bland. This delish version tasted like fresh, creamy-garlic salad dressing added to blanched and mashed tomatillos.

The chicken chimichanga, the deep-fried burrito that’s the specialty of Mexico’s Sonora province, was the second excellent main course. It came simmering beneath the best sauce of the evening — chipotle cream. This sauce tasted as if it had been made from smoked, ripe, red jalapeños; its smoky flavor was like unsweetened chocolate tempered and lightened by cream.

We ended our meal with slices of chocolate mousse cake and cheesecake. Although the menu refers to the latter as New York-style, this dessert was as close to the real thing as the Las Vegas casino New York, New York is to Manhattan. It was light and fluffy, not dense and overbearing like most cheesecakes created in the 212 area code. The dry and stale chocolate mousse cake, unfortunately, went begging for love at our table.

This converted warehouse is uncomfortably bright at night. It’s not the place to bring a date if you wish to keep your age a secret. (My gang of fortysomething girlfriends felt Zamba was bright enough to cause wrinkles.)

This restaurant is also loud. Although the floor has been carpeted by owner Alejandro Floresthapa and his partner, the ceiling is so harsh and high that sound gets excruciatingly amplified.

A breakfast visit to Café Zamba revealed more truths — this is a wonderful restaurant, and it’s lovely in the light of day. The walls are covered with paintings by Nick C. Kirk and sculptures by Julee Wood, and the bathrooms are spotless. A large painted-glass window in each bathroom lets in natural light.

For breakfast, my guests and I shared a fresh fruit bowl filled with pineapple, melon, and strawberries, topped with chopped walnuts and la lechera (a sweet, milk sauce). Every slice of fruit was ripe, and the milk sauce was neither cloying nor overbearing. The French toast, made of 6-inch-long oval slices of homemade white bread, was a near perfect rendition. It was soft in the center but not underdone and flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.

My favorite breakfast delicacy was the machaca — shredded beef — with a taste not unlike leftover pot roast, with scrambled eggs. It came with refried pinto beans and crumbled queso blanco (a dry, white cheese). Café Zamba also makes good use of French tortillas (OK, they’re called crepes). Z spinach crepes, filled with spinach, onion, and tomato, then topped with the chipotle cream sauce, disappointed one companion who wanted a fat breakfast taco, not a filled crepe. Still, the confection was commendable.

Even with the glut of Mexican restaurants on the North Side, Café Zamba is an institution in the making because it’s top-shelf and the only place in town where you can get delightful food all weekend long.

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