Restaurant Reviews

Bluejay's Cafe in Fort Lauderdale: Southwestern-Inspired Dishes and Plenty of Charm

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On rare Saturday and Sunday mornings when my fiancée and I get out of bed late, she makes a batch of French-pressed coffee; I fry us eggs over easy and top them with a rustic salsa I make from jalapeños, tomatoes, and fresh oregano from our garden. We sit on the patio, swiping warm tortillas through egg yolk and spicy salsa.

I get the same warm, inviting feeling eating breakfast at Bluejay's Cafe, a charming mom-and-pop bistro on Second Street in downtown Fort Lauderdale. There, chef and co-owner Jeremiah Buchanan serves a similar breakfast in the mold of his native New Mexico: eggs scrambled with chorizo sausage, topped with a layer of gooey jack cheese, and finished with his piquant house-made green chili ($8). Sipping a cup of coffee from a table on the sidewalk out front feels almost as cozy as my own patio. This, despite the fact that the restaurant is just steps away from riotous party area Himmarshee Village. In fact, it's right next door to Original Fat Cat's.

Buchanan and his wife, Zandra Lindgren, opened Bluejay's Cafe in June. It's the couple's first restaurant, so they decided to go with what they know. For Buchanan, that's the spicy Southwestern food he ate growing up in New Mexico. For Lindgren — a tall, fair-skinned blond who tends to the front of the house — it's the familial hospitality of her native Sweden, where the couple met ten years ago. These newlyweds have been married only twice as long as their restaurant has been open. Good for them.

Bluejay's does not look like the product of two first-time restaurateurs, however. Its bare, cinder-block walls lend the small space a clean, modern look, while high ceilings and broad wooden tables give the illusion of more space. The room is comfortable, but a bench in back by the kitchen is the best seat. It's cozier, and you can watch Buchanan working in the kitchen from there.

Like Buchanan, I grew up eating the Mexican-inspired food of my home state of Colorado. I remember my parents cooking with so many of the same ingredients: lots of chilies, potatoes, eggs, chorizo, and spices like cumin and cilantro. I feel like I can relate to the guy: Buchanan may be a white guy from New Mexico, but at heart, he's la Raza. Bluejay's menu reflects that in dishes like soft corn tacos made with chicken, skirt steak, or tilapia, served three to an order for $8. Chicken wings ($8) are marinated in chipotle — that's a smoked jalapeño — and served with a sinus-clearing garlic-horseradish dip in place of blue cheese. Buchanan also grills tender skirt steak and serves it with red onions and corn salsa, makes tamales in-house, and tops grilled corn on the cob with more chipotle and tangy lime ($5). The latter is just the kind of food we need more of in Fort Lauderdale — simple and inspired by tradition, it's the kind of hip and trendy bite that you don't need to drive a Ferrari to enjoy.

On my first visit, I stopped in for a quick lunch and found the place packed with guys and gals in business attire, each talking about office politics over their lunch breaks. I was alone and didn't have any office drama, so I filled my mouth with a cup of tortilla soup ($4). Bluejay's unique version has a clear and complex broth, mildly spiked with chilies and chunks of roasted chicken. It tastes more similar to a traditional Mexican soup called posole than the tomato-heavy tortilla soup you get at other restaurants. The major difference being there was no hominy (fat corn kernels that are ever-present in Mexican cuisine), even though there were little pieces of fresh corn off the cob; along with tomato, onion, and crisp tortilla strips floating on top.

I also ordered a Southwest chicken sandwich for lunch ($8) — you can get a less adventurous herb-seasoned chicken sandwich if you're not in the mood for one marinated with zesty chilies. But as other tables around me got their lunch orders, ate, and paid, I was left waiting. It turned out to be a service gaffe — the waitress forgot my order. She came back again to double-check on what I got, but she still ended up getting it wrong and sending out a roast beef sandwich instead. Eventually, the kitchen got it right. Lindgren herself came to the table to apologize and tried to comp my meal (I insisted on paying). Any new restaurant is bound to have service problems, but at least it made efforts to correct it.

I can't think of the last time I brought my grandmother to Himmarshee Village — she's pretty hip for 85, but I doubt she'd dig the vibe that emanates from a lot of the restaurant/bars there. But damn it if she didn't love Bluejay's. My second visit was for a great meal with my whole family. It started with an order of crab and avocado dip ($12), which is actually sautéed lump crab meat served over cumin-scented guacamole. Served with tortilla chips for dipping, it reminded me of the crab enchiladas served at local Tex-Mex joints but much more sophisticated. In the same vein, the lobster flatbread ($14) was elegant yet lip-smackingly good. The bread was like a semithick pita topped with chunks of lobster and shrimp, sweet kernels of corn, and salty-sharp cotija cheese. In place of sauce was Bluejay's signature chipotle lime mayo: tangy, creamy, and tingly all at once.

Not everything was as flawless. The fish of the day was grilled mahi-mahi ($18) perched over yellow rice with a rustic "pico de gallo" made with tomatoes and hearts of palm. "It's too bad," said my dad, John, "because the flavors are so fresh, but the fish is way overcooked." I thought the same of the "Southwestern paella" ($16). It was less like paella than a sauté of mussels, shrimp, and scallops plated on top of Spanish rice (albeit, nicely).

More my speed: tamales ($12) stuffed with shredded beef and napped in a red sauce made from ancho and chipotle chilies. I asked our waiter if I could have it spicy, and the kitchen obliged. The tart, slightly smoldering heat of the sauce paired well with creamy yellow masa. I could taste the chicken stock, the cumin, and the corn husk it was cooked in too. I have never seen a tamale plated so beautifully. Buchanan has a painterly eye for his plates — I think it does make the food taste better.

Bluejay's has the requisite bistro burger, and it's damned good. The house version, called the "Bluejay" burger ($10), is a moist, glistening inch of beef, larded with blue cheese and applewood-smoked bacon and nestled into a warm brioche bun. My brother Chris swore he'd return to try the green chili-topped version. But for me, I'll take my green chili over breakfast, particularly the huevos rancheros ($8). Bluejay's serves those ranch-hand eggs just right: their yolks slightly oozing over a griddled corn tortilla, with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, and red onion sopping up the juice. I'd slather a bite with some roasted tomato salsa that comes in a metal tin on the side, take a big sip of coffee, and soak in the wonderful weather that is just now trickling into town. Yep. That feels about right.

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John Linn