When you buy a restaurant, you get everything, for better or worse.
The oven that sounds like a jet engine. The Costco-bought sandwich fixings. The tub after tub of Crisco.
“I don’t think I’ve ever used Crisco in my life,” Tony Brown says.
It’s not on the menu here, either. It just sits behind the salad case, until he figures out what to do with it.
Last month, Brown bought the J-Walk Bakery with his mother, Marti. They’ve been hustling ever since to turn it into a café that focuses on scratch-baked (Crisco-free) goods, high-end sandwiches and, above all, vegetarian-friendliness. Brown is also the head chef at Mizuna, and he brings a haute sensibility to the $7 on-the-go sandwich.
The result is Stella’s Café, a 15-seat herbivorous oasis in a meat-forward neighborhood near the courthouse. Stella’s best-seller so far is tofu banh mi ($7), a filling mix of soy-and-ginger-marinated tofu topped with pickled daikan radish, pickled cucumber, pickled carrots, pickled red pepper, cilantro and a sriracha aioli. There are four vegetarian sandwiches in all, three of which are vegan.
The Browns haven’t ignored carnivores. There’s a pork and pancetta meatball sandwich ($7), with pickled onions and a mustard aioli topping the titular spheres, adding a creamy tartness. It’s smoky, tangy and cool. And when Brown calls it “pretty hearty,” that’s an understatement.
An array of salads ($3.50/$6) rotates daily, and there’s a single soup du jour ($2.75/$3.50) for now, along with Marti’s baked goods — muffins, cookies, brownies, lemon bars, scones and coffee cake. They’re also keeping J-Walk’s Doma coffee.
The Browns didn’t advertise the opening — they don’t even have a sign above the door yet — they just told some friends (granted, well-connected ones) and hoped word would get out.
By last Thursday, it had. The lunchtime crowd had filled all of the café’s tables. Brown says they’ve been gaining about $100 of business a day since opening and are thinking about adding another 25-30 seats. It’s good news for a location — in a hinterland on the wrong side of Monroe from the courthouse, but not quite to the Flour Mill — that has been a revolving door of cafes and coffee shops in the last few years.
Brown says he wants to eventually offer his pickled items in jars for retail sale, Portlandia-style, but he isn’t sure who to call about that. Can you just sell canned goods off the shelf? That’s one upside to the neighborhood.
“Well, the health department is a block and a half away,” Brown concluded, “I guess I’ll ask them.”
Stella’s Café • 917 W. Broadway Ave • Mon-Fri 7 am-4 pm • (326-4675)