Hand Held 

In Richmond, tacos are the new pizza.

click to enlarge Mango salsa puts the finishing touch on fish tacos from Café Ole Carytown, prime take-out material for a spring picnic. - ASH DANIEL
  • Mango salsa puts the finishing touch on fish tacos from Café Ole Carytown, prime take-out material for a spring picnic.

We live in an era in which our children are the first generation whose life expectancy falls short of their parents, when kids get more than a 10th of their calories from soda and when almost a third of children eat two meals a day at fast-food places.

Betsy Harrell Thomas, owner of Richmond's two Café Ole locations, says she believes her restaurants offer an alternative to our fast-food nation.

After buying the successful downtown lunch spot a few years ago, Thomas recently expanded her horizons with the opening of a second, mostly take-out, cafe in the former Ben & Jerry's space at Cary Street and Colonial Avenue. Similar to its downtown location, Café Ole offers fresh and simple California- and Mexican-inspired fare at reasonable prices.

The space is painted bright orange, with paper banners festooning the simple room. Plans are in the works for more design modification, but with Thomas managing both operations, she has yet to find the time.

The menu includes burritos ($5.25-$6.50), quesadillas ($4.75-$5.95), tostadas ($3.95-$5.50), tacos ($2.50-$3) and salads ($5.95-$6.50). They come with the expected range of fillings: beans, cheese, chicken, vegetables and beef. What you don't necessarily expect is the freshness of the ingredients. It's also nice to know the oil used in cooking is being recycled into biodiesel through a program with Greenlight Biofuel.

On a recent visit on a weekday night, we sample broadly from the menu. The kids are happy with their cheese and chicken quesadillas ($5.95) — grilled flour tortillas with shredded chicken. Black bean quesadillas ($5.75) are equally good, with whole beans and fresh tomato salsa.

Burritos are large, and both well stuffed and expertly rolled. The vegetarian burrito ($5.75) includes rice, pinto beans, cheese and sautéed broccoli with sour cream, pico de gallo and guacamole. It's hearty and relatively healthy. The spinach burrito is tasty as well, with black beans, rice, cheese, steamed spinach and fresh salsa. Most of the burritos would benefit from a little more seasoning, but their simple preparation allows the flavors of the individual elements to shine through.

The best item isn't even on the menu. For years on Tuesdays and Thursdays I queued up downtown for Café Ole's fish taco, one of my favorite dishes in Richmond. You can find it now every day of the week in Carytown. Tender tilapia is blackened and served on soft flour tortillas with an exquisite fruit salsa. Two types of apples are cooked down with pears and topped with a smoky honey-chipotle sauce. It's a perfect combination of spicy and sweet, crispy and soft, and worth the trip at a bargain $3.25 each.

Tortilla chips are fried in peanut oil and are included with every order. In addition to the typical corn, chips made from flour tortillas are mixed in, special treats waiting to be found. Café Ole's salsa is smooth, more purée than chunky, and laced with bits of cilantro and undertones of cumin.

A sign on the wall indicates that nachos are coming soon (from $4.50 to $6.75), another indication that Café Ole is a work in progress. There are still some nuances to be worked through, in both the physical space and seasoning, but Café Ole has real potential. Its commitment to healthy ingredients is evident, and for parents looking for an alternative to chain fast food, this is an appealing option. With some slight adjustments, Café Ole could soon see lines coming out of its Carytown location too. S

Café Ole Carytown

2901 W. Cary St.


11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily


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