The Gnarly Barley pale ale I was sipping at Corner Café and Brewery in Tequesta was rich and full-bodied, with a yeasty finish that reminded me of the bread my mother used to bake when I was a kid. Mom didn't bake bread often, so when she did, it was special. She'd place the dough in loaf pans on the countertop to rise, and the smell of fresh yeast would permeate the house — a smell that only grew stronger while it baked. Later, I'd spread butter over the still-warm slices and savor the way the thick crust gave in to my teeth, how it pulled apart in ropey strands, releasing a plume of fragrant steam into the air. After tasting that bread, returning to the supermarket's bleached white loaves always seemed like punishment. Everyone deserves to eat real bread, I thought. Not that processed stuff.
Sadly, my mother never brewed beer for me when I was growing up. But Corner Café's brew evoked a similar feeling to that bread she made. Both exhibited the wonders of four simple ingredients — grain, yeast, water, and time. But more important, both were proof that food and drink crafted by hand, with care and passion, will always outdo food that's mass-produced. As I dipped pieces of Corner Café's excellent poppy seed rolls into a plate of roasted garlic-infused oil and washed it down with sips of that fabulously bold pale ale, the point just became clearer: Everything at Corner Café tastes fresh and vibrant because nearly all the food and drink it serves is handcrafted in house.
Heading up that DIY ethos are owners Jim and Lisa Hill. The couple purchased Corner Café seven years ago after Jim lost his job in the food management business. Although Lisa had her doubts about the restaurant at first, she managed to leverage her experience as a dietitian into a simple philosophy: Nothing they served would be processed or contain additives. That meant almost everything needed to be made from scratch.
Since then, the pair has surrounded themselves with like-minded staff. They brought in German-Latino chef Juan Macias, a former cruise line toque who wanted to cook in kitchens around the world so badly that he would lend his services to them for free whenever he was in port. And in late 2008, the Hills completed the picture by adding a small micro-brewing operation run by longtime customer Matt Webster. "Matt was always bringing his homebrew in for people to sample, and I was surprised at how good it was," says Lisa. "After the fourth or fifth time I said, 'Oh my God, you have to do something with us.' " Their one-and-a-half barrel brew system currently pumps out a shocking 80 kegs per month. The reception has been so good that Webster plans to build his own brewery next door to the café with the Hills as investors (his Gnarly Barley also won a gold medal at the Florida Beer Championship last year).
The couple's presence is evident in both the food and the service at Corner Café. Lisa, a striking woman with dark hair and a relaxed demeanor, floats around the dimly lit dining room with a matron's grace, greeting guests and dropping off plates. Matt, meanwhile, tends bar, popping out to deliver his sudsy creations with an ebullient "Cheers." Regulars fill up the modest bar and huddle around the blue-tiled tables, asking after the owners the way you might catch up with a friend. "Where's Matt at? I haven't seen you in ages! How've you been?" Watching them interact is like attending a dinner party at an old friend's house; albeit one who can cook his ass off and still hit the living room in time to entertain.
Macias, meanwhile, asserts his presence from the kitchen, which turns out a menu so large and varied it's almost impossible to believe he can handle all of it without a few days of prep work for each service — especially considering Corner Café does breakfast and lunch seven days a week with dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The selections reflect Macias' international travels well: In the dinner menu alone there are nods to Germany, Latin America, France, Italy, and Louisiana, with some Old Florida thrown in. Surprisingly, everything is cooked with a level of authenticity befitting a restaurant specializing in just one cuisine.
The wide variety does make deciding on one path exciting, however, if not a touch difficult. The appetizers alone could have you going the bar-food-and-beer route, turning Francophile with escargot and mussels Monica, or noshing on simple, Italian-themed "pizzettas." With our pints of Gnarly Barley, we tried café potato skins ($8), crisp half-filled potatoes lavished with enough smoked Gouda, applewood bacon, and crème fraiche to win fans at either a football tailgate or a cocktail party.
But I was personally smitten by gator fritters ($9), a dish that evoked the Keys even better than the restaurant's quirky table lamps and mismatched art framed with driftwood. Macias lets Florida alligator masquerade as conch; a perfect fit, in that the gator's dense flesh has a similar texture and flavor to the shellfish. The fritters are deeply meaty, finished with a tangy chipotle aioli that tastes like jerk-style barbecue. I practically licked the sauce off the plate along with bits of fresh salsa with mango, cucumber, tomato, and jalapeno — the salsa's bright, clean flavors serving as a flawless ode to Florida.
Webster's beer is easy to pair with almost any of the dishes, mainly because each of the five varieties is so well-balanced. His Julio's Jefe-Weizen, a wheat beer with the flavor of bananas and cloves, was a star at our table. "This is the kind of beer I dream about," my dinner guest, Danielle, extolled between sips. At $3.75 a pint, it's also cheaper than most of the mass-produced domestics you'll find at bars and restaurants. A dollar more nets you a formidable 24-ounce pour.
Like the beer, the entrees at Corner Café aren't just inexpensive — they're a steal. Hill says she and her husband have not raised prices in more than two years, and I imagine their emphasis on fresh ingredients has a lot to do with that.
And so, here's what $18 will buy you at Corner Café: A slow-braised lamb shank, tender enough to be flicked apart with your fork, yet rich with bold, grassy flavor. A "Bavarian sauce" on the side is a mix of meltingly soft root vegetables married so thoroughly with lamb stock you'd think a vegetable and an animal managed to reproduce. It's served over spaeztle that has the same authentically chewy texture as the stuff a friend's German mother used to make. I'd expect to pay $30 or more for something of this caliber in West Palm or Fort Lauderdale; even then you probably wouldn't get a portion this big or this well produced.
While my friend Joe was awed with the lamb, another was equally inspired by a tofu-filled enchilada ($17). Inside the crisp, greaseless fried tortilla was a mix of spinach, veggies, and boldly-seasoned tofu, topped with more of that fantastic chipotle aioli and fresh salsa. "This tofu has so much flavor!" my vegetarian companion exclaimed. Our waiter decided to tease her a bit. "That's because it's pork, dear. Isn't that what you ordered?" Her jaw half dropped before he retracted his joke with a smile.
I knew what I was eating was definitely pork — medallions of tenderloin, actually, crusted with pecans and pan-fried, then topped with a sweet and savory peach sauce studded with caramelized sections of the fruit ($19). It was superb; full of ripe fruit that perfectly complemented the pint of the deep, dark beer called Terminally Ale I had switched to.
"I've never had a meal where every dish was this good," one of my friends said, spooning up her saffron-infused paella ($22), a dish teeming with moist scallops, shrimp, and lobster.
Joe — trying desperately to finish his entire plate of lamb and still sneaking a few bites of the paella — decided at last to give up. "I think I just felt something inside me snap," he said. With a little coaxing, we guilted him into just one more beer, a slice of brownie chocolate chip cheesecake ($4.50), a cup of coffee, and a skiff to float himself home in.
After leaving Corner Café, what struck me most about the place was the name. Sure, it is indeed tiny and tucked into the corner of a quaint strip mall. But the name somehow feels deliberately understated. It's almost as if the Hills were trying to tell us that this time spent making food and drink from scratch, crafting it with love and care, should be the average — something you could find in every corner café in every town in South Florida.
If only that were the case. I would definitely make Corner Café my everyday spot.