The first incarnation of Kader Camara's Cafe Mocha was a small shop on Howard Street's Antique Row. There, customers had the joy of discovery. Maybe they would come in for an investigatory cup of cappuccino and a pastry and leave with some of Camara's healthful cafe fare. Before long, Camara's food, especially his sandwiches, many of them sprinkled with North African or Caribbean influences, developed a good reputation.
Last fall, Camara, a native of Guinea, moved Cafe Mocha into the renovated Railway Express building. The new space has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the multilevel space is brightly painted from floor to ceiling with warm colors. The best things about the space are the two-story windows that look out onto St. Paul Street's buzzing traffic and, just beyond it, the plaza in front of Penn Station.
On the minus side are issues of visibility and access. There is an exterior banner advertising Cafe Mocha's presence to northbound vehicular traffic but not really anything on the sidewalk level to attract passers-by. You can't see into the cafe from the sidewalk at all, and locating its entrance, on the side, depends on some dogged reconnaissance. The cafe presumably draws reliable business from the commercial and residential tenants of the Railway Express building, but this new location is, frankly, a worry to me.
I worry about the effects that an unpredictable customer flow might have on such a modest operation. I think some of the problems we encountered there are attributable to the cafe's being unprepared, under-lardered or understaffed when unexpected company wanders in.
When Cafe Mocha is on its game, with a bowl of lentil-tomato soup, or with its roasted salmon or curry chicken sandwiches, it's a major pleasure-giver. Camara uses unusual ingredients in these sandwiches - black beans, squash, plantains and potatoes. The salmon is a real hunk of salmon, too, cooked nicely.
But it's rare for me to find anything as unappetizing - or as distant from its menu description - as the salad nicoise we were given. No green beans, no olives, no artichokes, iceberg in place of romaine lettuce and, saddest of all, a clump of tuna salad instead of hunks of albacore. We tried this salad at the end of a three-day weekend, and maybe that was the problem.
That tuna salad can be ordered on a tuna melt, one of about a dozen signature sandwiches, wraps and panini that Cafe Mocha sells. Tuna, like meatloaf, is a thing that everyone likes a certain way, which is my way of saying that Cafe Mocha's is too mushy and mayonnaise-y for me, and a little bit sweet. But I'd have recommended it still if there had really been melted Swiss cheese on it, too. What was with this lack of cheese? Or, was that smeary stuff on these sandwiches a kind of cheese? But if you have to pull apart a sandwich and wonder about it ...
In retrospect, a cheese panino, ordered a few weeks earlier for breakfast, also had mysterious cheese issues. It was a decent sandwich on fine ciabatta, but at the time we wondered if it really was filled with Gruyere, Emmenthaler and cream cheeses because it seemed so very gooey and blandly creamy. I really liked a breakfast burrito, though, served in a fluffy, warm tortilla, its scrambled-egg filling fancied up with black beans and fresh salsa. The breakfast menu also includes a few other hot dishes, as well as granola, oatmeal, berries with yogurt, and pastries.
I think that with the right formula, Cafe Mocha can work as well as it did on Antique Row. Right now, it seems a little lost and lonesome.
kader camara's cafe mocha
Where : 1501 St. Paul St.
Hours: 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service: ** (2 stars)
Ambience: ** (2 stars)
on the menu
* Tomato-lentil soup: $3.75
* Breakfast burrito: $5.95
* Cheese panino: $5.95
* Curry chicken sandwich: $6.95
* Roasted salmon sandwich: $7.25
* Reuben: $7.25
* Salad nicoise: $7.95