Latin Fusion

by Susan Hamilton & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ord of mouth: It's the most reliable way to find out about the best places to go. So when actress Ellen Travolta recommended her favorite North Idaho Latin restaurant to our arts and culture editor, we decided to pay a visit ourselves.

& r & Caf & eacute; Carambola occupies an unassuming spot in a small strip mall off Northwest Blvd. in Coeur d'Alene. Once inside, the warm colors draw you in, just like a welcoming plate of cantaloupe and honeydew melon splashed with fresh lime.

& r & The afternoon my family and I stopped by Caf & eacute; Carambola, it was past closing time but the eatery was still open. A large party was finishing up a meal and enjoying a lively conversation. Co-owner Carlos Aguilar welcomed us in. A former diving instructor in Cancun, Mexico, Aguilar showed us some of the salads in the caf & eacute;'s display case. Meanwhile, his wife, Colomba, was busy in the kitchen. Her culinary resume is impressive: the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where she learned how to make fusion-style global cuisine; plus culinary and restaurant experience in Argentina and Cancun. Colomba specializes in Latin American cuisine, featuring specialties from Mexico, El Salvador and Cuba. So it's no surprise that Caf & eacute; Carambola's menu of salads, soup, specialty sandwiches, quesadillas and wraps all have that sizzling Latin flair.

& r & I'd heard about the caf & eacute;'s Incan quinoa and corn salad with tomatillo dressing ($4.50). Sadly, there was none left, so I tried the special tomato, avocado and red onion salad with lime vinaigrette ($4). My daughter (always the pasta lover) couldn't pass up the farfalle salad with garlic and cilantro pesto ($4). Both salads were satisfying and bursting with flavor. Colomba gets most of her produce from a local garden, so her dishes burst with fresh, vibrant flavors. Corn and black bean salad (flavored with Serrano chiles and cumin) and mixed greens are also offered. Soups run the gamut from Brazilian squash and coconut with ginger and corn relish to pinto bean with bacon and fresh tomatoes ($3-$4).

& r & Caf & eacute; Carambola's six sandwiches carry the Latin theme forward. My husband tried a version of the Carambola club ($5 half, $7.50 whole). The chipotle drizzle added a nice kick to the moist chicken, cheese, tomato, lettuce and avocado enfolded in multi-grain bread. (You can have more heat by adding pickled jalapenos.) Specialty sandwiches include El Cubanito with chipotle pulled pork, pineapple salsa, Swiss cheese, garlic drizzle, mustard and pickles; El Argentino with meat of your choice, chimichurri (an Argentine herb sauce), tomato, lettuce and mayo; and El Mexicano with shredded beef, fresh cheese, cilantro pesto and pico de gallo sauce -- all for $3.70 a half or $6 whole.

& r & My daughter tried the quesadilla sola -- a simple flour tortilla folded over melted mozzarella cheese with pico de gallo sauce ($3.80). She declared it one of the best quesadillas she'd ever had -- moist and soft, with the accompanying tomato and herb sauce just spicy enough for her taste. The quesadilla con ensalada includes a mini-salad with shredded lettuce, corn and bean relish, and chipotle cream ($4.50, or $5.50 with meat).

& r & Carambola wraps are all customized. I chose the chipotle aioli, pineapple salsa, chicken, tomato and lettuce in a fresh tortilla ($7.50). The meat was tender and flavorful, not stringy or hard as it can sometimes be. The chipotle aioli added a touch of heat and the pineapple salsa was sweet and tangy, making a very successful wrap.

& r & I was pleasantly surprised to see two large glass containers with aguas frescas ($2) on the counter, such as you'd find south of the border. My Jamaica (hibiscus tea) was the perfect cooler on a warm day -- slightly tart and sweet. My daughter enjoyed the watermelon flavor that packed a fresh-juice taste. Assorted desserts are made fresh daily, like tres leches cake (white cake soaked in creams) with housemade cajeta (caramel) sauce ($4) and espresso and coconut gelato cake with chocolate sauce ($5).

& r & Even though we were the only customers seated outside, Carlos checked on us after we had our food, which arrived quickly. As we were leaving, I noticed that he was engaging customers in conversation about Puerto Vallarta.

& r & Next time we're in Coeur d'Alene, we'll no doubt stop by Caf & eacute; Carambola for another helping of Latin cuisine and hospitality. As the Aguilars say, "A little spice, a little mambo, a little flair, a lot of fun -- the essence of Carambola."

& r &

Caf & eacute; Carambola, 610 W. Hubbard Ave., Suite 110, Coeur d'Alene, is open Mon-Fri 11 am-3 pm. Call (208) 676-8784.