Public Interest 

At the Citizen, good taste has nothing to do with size.

click to enlarge Barbecue tofu spring rolls get a dousing of sesame fruit sauce at downtown’s hottest, smallest eatery, the Citizen. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Barbecue tofu spring rolls get a dousing of sesame fruit sauce at downtown’s hottest, smallest eatery, the Citizen.

This one is a little difficult to find. While I make my way up slightly treacherous stairs to the Citizen, a woman asks me if the restaurant is anywhere around. I nod and her sigh of relief brushes past me down and around the corner. The décor is similar to your high-school math classroom: easy-to-clean hard tile floors and all-purpose paint bearing that odd sheen. A few additions such as vintage napkin holders and Mason jars with bay leaves and rosemary push toward a vibe but never quite get there.

A fleeting thought: Is this intended simplicity? Is it utilitarian?

Either way, get a good glance at the unextraordinary surroundings when you arrive, because with garlic or fresh-baked nectarine wafting through the tiny restaurant, the simple setup fades. Through the haze of thick quiche redolent with collards and Gruyère, or after a bite of crunchy chocolate-chip cookie specked with bits of caramelized fig, the ambiance seems just … right.

Roasted garlic paste, basil and provolone provide a backdrop to massive slices of tomato ($5.50) packed into a smashed and toasted La Sabrosita bolillo roll. I mourn with a patron when he’s told that the sandwich will be around just a little bit longer. The chilled white bean salad ($4.75) is a large, interesting take on a healthy option. Toothsome white beans are mixed with roasted Carmen peppers, marinated eggplant and basil. Bites are cold sweet pepper, pasty bean and fresh herb.

The sloppy José ($5.75) is a well-put-together play on a sandwich with salty Tex-Mex ground beef as opposed to its sweet-leaning American brother. Too large for the price (that isn’t a complaint), it is true to its name and needs a few napkins. Barbecue spring rolls ($5) bring to mind the “fat guy in a little coat” from the movie “Tommy Boy.” Smoky chunks of barbecued tofu, peanuts and lots of greenery heavy on the cilantro strain their thin rice paper wrap. Cumin potatoes, offered as a side, are chunky, pleasantly dry and nutty. Farro, a grain similar looking to brown rice but rounder, is served as a special side on one visit. Tangy with dressing and firm, it’s hearty and easily a stand-alone.

Eager-to-please and jovial service is a constant during lunch and breakfast. A peppery scrambled egg and cheese slider ($2.75) is served with a whistle. The omelet ($5) is whipped up quickly with a grin and rolled with everything like an inside joke: apple-wood bacon, cubed ham, cheddar, caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms. Toasted bread is generous on the side as is the trough of consistently sold-out buttery Byrd’s Mill grits. Quiche ($5.50) is dense with Gruyère and studded with wilted collards, packaged invitingly in flaky crust. The only totter is the coffee ($1). It doesn’t mesh with the other far-above-par offerings, and for that alone it is noticeable.

The Citizen’s menu changes regularly to reflect seasonal offerings, hence the removal soon of Hanover tomatoes but the addition of roasted butternut squash with tahini. Soups change daily. A thin and zesty sweet-potato soup ($3) thickened with crema is a filling choice, and sausage gumbo with chicken ($3.50) is an appealing option for upcoming fall days.

Because the cafe is open only on weekdays during breakfast and lunch, it’s a good idea to get there before big meal rush hours. As it becomes a downtown cult favorite, pickup might be the best option. Missing the opportunity to break into a flaky, just-from-the-oven, barely sweet croissant with slices of warm nectarine would be a travesty, no matter the location. S

The Citizen
909 E. Main St., terrace level
Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Correction: In the print edition we mistakenly referenced "Saturday Night Live," and not "Tommy Boy," as the source of the "fat guy in a little coat" scene.

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