At the very end of Court Street, in a quiet corner of Connecticut, hides a true Middletown gem. Café 56, a small breakfast and lunch eatery, opened just this past summer but has already garnered praise throughout the community. From their signature “Tacandwiches” to their exquisite homemade cakes, Café 56 features “food of the Americas,” wedding classic American food with Portuguese and Mexican influences and incorporating a splash of French flavors.
After speaking with chef and owner Sabrina Cortes, it was clear that she takes food very seriously. Monday through Saturday, she arrives at the restaurant at 4 a.m. to begin preparing the day’s meals. She is responsible for cooking everything but the pastries and breads, which are made by baker Ed Thereault. Together, they serve a growing group of hungry patrons who come to try the distinctive offerings of Café 56.
The chefs pride themselves on serving fresh, creative food of the Americas. The style is influenced by Cortes’s Guatemalan heritage and her studies of French cooking, as well as by her previous career as a chef on a cruise line. One of the biggest draws to the café is Cortes’ innovative creation: the “Tacandwich.” Part taco, part sandwich, the “Tacandwich” includes traditional taco ingredients stuffed into a soft, fresh-baked Portuguese roll. Of the five varieties, we highly recommend “the Cubano,” a combination of slow roasted pork, locally smoked ham, two cheeses, pickles, and house-made Havana sauce. The warm bread is crunchy and flaky on the outside but soft and moist on the inside. The ingredients complement each other perfectly, and the pork, which Cortes roasts herself, almost melts in your mouth. The sandwich is served with a batch of homemade potato chips, complete with a thick and flavorful homemade dipping sauce.
Of course, the “tacandwiches” are not the only delicious items on the menu. Other options include more traditional sandwiches, salads, a multitude of breakfast choices, and daily specials including omelets, soups, empanadas, quiches, vegetarian options, and hearty dishes referred to as “pot meals.” In true Wesleyan style, Cortes doesn’t want to subscribe to labels—the cuisine is not simply Latin American or Mexican, but a blend of several different styles.
“I called it a ‘café’ because I didn’t want it to seem like a taco joint,” Cortes explained, “I wanted to keep it broad.”
Whether you’re craving Latin American specialties or simply a B.L.T., the expansive menu offers something for everyone. Cortes’s favorite is the Ranchero, one of the breakfast “completos.”
“The Ranchero is beautiful,” Cortes remarked. “It is a quesadilla topped with black beans, refried beans, melted cheese, and a fried egg. It takes eleven steps to make.” Although it’s one of the most elaborate items on the menu, it certainly sounds like it’s worth the effort. However, for people with only 30-minute lunch breaks, Café 56 also provides a variety of “grab ’n’ go” lunch options.
To satisfy the customer’s sweet tooth, Thereault makes nearly every dessert you can imagine—cakes, tarts, muffins, scones, croissants, and more. The dessert case, which grabs your attention as soon as you walk in the door, varies from day to day depending on what’s fresh and available. Some of Thereault’s specialties include alphajores (a popular South American cookie that is perfect for dipping in coffee), flourless chocolate cakes, the Café 56 Red Velveteen Cake, and a Coconut Lime cake topped with caramel buttercream icing.
“Ed tries to create everything without artificial additives,” explained Cortes. “He likes to keep everything ‘naturally done.’ We don’t use Crisco or lard; we use pure butter. And we don’t do big quantities; everything is completely artisanal.”
We tried a slice of Thereault’s pumpkin cheesecake, a unique treat for the fall and winter months. The pumpkin flavor highlights the rich, creamy cheesecake, but what is even more interesting is the crust. In place of the traditional graham cracker bottom, we were surprised to find a crust made of champurrada—a Guatemalan dunking bread—which provides a unique flavor and texture to this classic American dessert.
Café 56 treats its food as artwork rather than business. Cortes believes it is important to preserve the creative aspects of cooking, and it shows in everything she makes. A Guatemalan native, she grew up in a country where food and cooking are significant parts of the culture.
“Guatemala is basically all agriculture,” Cortes told us. “It is 87 percent of the land. Nearly all of the women learn to cook because it increases their chances of getting married.”
Interestingly enough, she started off as an architect, but fell in love with the food business while designing a restaurant building. The owner of the restaurant offered her a job, and she left architecture to work there for three years.
“I thought, ‘This makes sense; this is for me,’” she said.
In 1989, she traveled to San Francisco to study at the California Culinary Academy (now known as Le Cordon Bleu). After graduating two years later, she sailed the world for nine years and worked as a chef on cruise lines. She then came to Connecticut to open her own restaurant: Café 56.
The space itself is very old, dating back to the early 19th century. Although somewhat small, the restaurant has an old-fashioned counter that seats seven people along with a few tables lining the walls, which are adorned with paintings of macaws reminiscent of the Mayan culture. The kitchen is completely open so customers can watch their meals being prepared from scratch.
Currently, Café 56 participates in the 860 To Go program, a delivery service for customers within a 10-mile radius of the restaurant, and they will soon be starting their own delivery service. However, we recommend going downtown to check out the actual restaurant, as the old-fashioned yet exotic ambiance truly differs from most other Middletown eateries.
At Café 56, the quality of the food is sure to draw in visitors, thanks to the hard work and talent of the two dedicated chefs. With such a strong emphasis on creating an interesting, international menu with a wide variety of delicious options, it is no wonder that this restaurant is becoming a popular Middletown destination.
- Ari and Alex
102 Court Street, Middletown, CT 06457
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