Irie and a half!
Cafe Connection1007 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
An enticing aroma wafts from the open door of Cafe Connection on L Street, midway between 10th and 11th streets. This is surprising, because the previous Cafe Connection owners somehow generated a pervasive industrial-cleanser odor that, for at least one potential diner, was a stench well north of repellant.
But this smell is the antithesis. More than inviting, it’s intoxicating. Sturdy. Redolent. Beguiling. Like in cartoons, where the tips of the smell’s tendrils turn into a beckoning finger and draw a besotted character by their nostrils to the source. Yes, that intense.
Perhaps part of the intensity stems from the shock of awesomeness replacing years of mephitic olfactory oddness. Whatever the reason, the threshold is swiftly crossed and the inevitable question immediately posed: “What smells so good?” Chicken stew. Cool, but it sure doesn’t smell like what Mom ladles out for Sunday supper in Pleasantville, USA. (Before it goes color, of course.)
And indeed, the answer comes, it is not. This is Caribbean chicken stew, mon. Homemade Caribbean chicken stew, fresh daily. Hook lodges firmly in corner of mouth. The Cafe Connection crew begins reeling in this big mackerel. Except it’s 10:30 a.m. A needless blood oath is sworn to return forthwith and experience the dish in its full fulsomeness. Needless to say, lunch comes early this day.
Cafe Connection is not Celestin’s Restaurant. It’s a quick and reasonable breakfast joint: egg, potato, sausage or bacon for $4 and an egg-and-cheese burrito or muffin with bacon, ham, turkey or sausage for 50 cents less. There’s also a dozen or so relatively mainstream sandwiches, a half for $3.99 and a whole for a little more than $6. A fellow patron oohs and aahs over her half pesto chicken sandwich, which, as halves go, is fairly broad of beam.
Indian spiced chicken and roast beef with poblano catch the eye, but there is no turning away from the chicken stew. Other than chicken, the obvious components are cabbage and large carrot coins. The sauce sticks to it and has a faint cinnamon flash. It’s served over a wide swath of white rice with a mixed green salad that includes spinach, some iceberg and cabbage. Molly, who appears to handle most of the heavy lifting behind the L-shaped counter, says her favorite dressing is Thai peanut. Pour it on. That is the Monday special. A vegetable curry is served daily.
There is also a hot sauce. Is there ever. Cafe Connection knows how addictive it is and offers small containers for $1. The key ingredient—and that of a spicy pour-over for the jerk chicken—is a stalwart of Jamaican cooking, the Scotch bonnet pepper. They look like a tam-o’-shanter. Sort of. In terms of Scovilles, the measure of heat in a pepper, a jalapeño can go as high as 8,000. Scotch Bonnets start around 100,000. There is some thinly veiled surprise when a request is made for seconds on the sauce. Yeah, it tingles and burns, but it doesn’t overpower, just thrums along like a well-stoked campfire.
Wednesday is beef stew. A bit of pilot error here. The intent was to return for the fabled jerk chicken, repeatedly recommended for the thrives-on-heat thrill seeker. The beef stew is heavy on potatoes, and the rice-potato combo nearly constitutes a starch OD. Still, another swell target to pour the spirited salsa upon.
Finally, it is Thursday. Jerk chicken. Debbie, one of the owners, is present to take a deserved victory lap. Attendance is significantly higher than earlier in the week. The chicken rides atop a volcanic island-shaped pile of fried rice with peas, carrots and beans—lima and green. There is a lemon-juice-diluted “normal” sauce to pour on the chicken and a greenish skull-and-crossbones version, which bites and won’t let go like an ornery dog on a pants cuff.
“Hot enough?” the behind-the-counter crowd asks with wide grins.
A friendly and engaging staff. Daily homemade Caribbean fare. With a salad and drink for under $8? Refreshing fruit spritzers. Irie and a half!