Carma's Cafe is cool and cozy

Carma's Cafe is cool in more ways than one. Located a few steps below ground, the cozy space gets natural light but escapes the worst of the summer heat. The small coffee and sandwich shop also has a cool personality, doing what it does without much fuss. Sandwiches are not overstuffed, baked goods are not ridiculously sweet, and no, fries don't come with that.

This all seems to meet the needs of the mostly young crowd chatting about schoolwork and vacations or leafing through a New Yorker during a recent weekday lunch. Carma's seats about 20 at tables topped with rough-hewn tiles, and a rack by the door is stacked with magazines and newspapers that invite lingering. Not too long, though: A small sign urges visitors to limit their stay to 45 minutes during crowded times.

Carma Halterman opened the cafe six years ago with business partner Michael Lynch. They had little restaurant experience, she said, but couldn't understand why Charles Village didn't have a fun coffee shop. "I wanted it to be cool enough for kids but also the place they bring their parents," she said. She feels she has succeeded, and from what I saw, she's right.

The menu at Carma's is simple, consisting of sandwiches, salads, yogurts, baked goods and lots of coffee. It's also well edited, with each offering finding that sweet spot between familiar and just a bit unexpected. One item that's particularly good is a sandwich of flaky tuna, roasted red pepper and diced artichoke hearts, drizzled with just a little vinaigrette and served in a wonderful crunchy-crusted roll. Like other sandwiches at Carma's, it comes with a choice of salad, cold sesame noodles or potato chips on the side.

Carma's also sells the classic New Orleans sandwich called a muffaletta, which is stuffed with spicy meats and thick layers of cheese. It's a door-stopper, almost too heavy. The best thing about it is the layer of chopped olive salad, made refreshing with the addition of celery. I would have liked more of that, and less meat and cheese.

Nearly everything at Carma's is made in-house, including the yogurt (more on that momentarily) and the baked goods, but bread is from Stone Mill Bakery and the coffee is custom roasted and blended from Baltimore Coffee and Tea.

Since the kitchen has no grill, eggs and other breakfast options are out. Instead, Lynch, who is of Icelandic heritage, created a version of Icelandic yogurt, which is served with fruit, granola, or both. The vanilla-flavored yogurt is creamy and sweet, frankly not much of a departure from the big yogurt brands sold in supermarkets. But stir in a spoonful of the subtly sweet and tart blueberry compote served on the side, and you've created something kinda special.

No coffee shop is complete without a huge range of hot and cold drinks, and Carma's complies with lattes, cappuccinos, espressos and the like. It also offers frozen coffee drinks called Sno-Joes, frozen fruit drinks and sodas flavored with a choice of Italian syrups. We tried the pineapple, and liked that the flavor was kept to a subtle undertone.

Halterman said she prefers to hire people who do not have restaurant backgrounds, but she teaches them all to bake. The deli case is packed with healthy-sounding treats like trail-mix cookies and vegan pumpkin-muffin cookies. We opted for the blueberry muffin, a plump version with a clean flavor and texture, not too sticky or sweet.

Another thing that's cool about Carma's is the service. Though customers order at the counter, the food is brought to them, and empty plates are promptly cleared. As with everything else, it's done without fuss.

Carma's Cafe

Where: 3120 St. Paul St.

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Contact: 410-243-5200

Appetizers: $1.50-$3.75

Entrees: $5.95-$8.95

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

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