Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mama Paparazzi (Paparazzi Cafe, 40-17 30th Avenue)

Paparazzi Cafe is case in point as to why we embarked on our mighty (dare we say noble?) mission to eat at every restaurant in Astoria. We've been conspicuously avoiding the many cafés lining 30th Avenue, expecting the wilted salads and half-hearted sandwiches meant only to stave off caffeine jitters that the denizens of these espresso hangouts undoubtedly acquire. And Paparazzi Cafe, from the outside, seemed to be the worst of the worst. It heralds itself with tacky plastic blue pop-out lettering. It's on the same block as another unpromising cafe, Vibe. It's called Paparazzi Cafe, as if you were supposed to pretend minor royalty or a Spears sister were going to wander in at any moment. We figured we'd go there for brunch (how hard is it to mess up eggs?) and cross it off the list. It couldn't be any worse than Time Cafe, right?

Once inside, we immediately knew we'd misjudged. For one, the menus read, "Paparazzi Cafe, soon to be Mama Salsa." The smiling waitress greeted us eagerly -- we were the only patrons in the place, as the other two people there were hanging out at the bar as employees waiting to go on shift frequently do -- and the brunch-time sunlight was streaming in, highlighting the geometric light on the walls and plants rooted in vases layered with what appeared to be seeds and beans. This wasn't a Greek frappe joint; this was a Colombian restaurant in a transition that we hope is less precarious than it appears.

The waitress quickly brought us two mugs of lightly frothed cafe con leche, then left us to peruse the menu. We were there for brunch, though it seems that Mama Salsa does a proper breakfast, and the dinner offerings were more extensive than the short but complete morning fare. In an effort to not meat-load as we did at Tierras Colombianas, one of us ordered the scrambled eggs with tomatoes and scallions; the other went for the full plato tipico of rice and beans, chorizo, and steak topped with the obligatory egg. Both were served with an arepa, which appeared to be formed by hand, topped with melted cheese.

And both were delicious. The red beans and rice seemed to have been prepared with a meaty stock of some sort and were seasoned with a spice melange that was unidentifiable but beautifully rounded, elevating the staple and making us wish more restaurants followed Mama's lead. The egg dish, which could have been carelessly prepared and still satisfied us, was fluffy without skimping on the veggies. The chorizo was spicy but heralded no gastronomic troubles, and when you get steak with breakfast for under $10, we're always delighted.

The improbability of the whole experience endeared the Paparazzi Cafe to us perhaps more than it would on the basis of the food alone, but the food alone certainly makes it worth a visit. Add in the absence of a crowd and a genuinely friendly service, and it becomes an excellent brunching option in a neighborhood full of them.

Price: It was a good deal.
Will we go again? We wish we could, but it's now closed, and the Mama Salsa renovation plan has given way to a French cafe.

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