It was one of those September nights that makes you think you could wear flip-flops indefinitely. (As if the big “W” won’t be bringing its badass self back to town.) The warm, syrup-thick air stirred up kinetic energy on that main drag to the stars, Kinnickinnic Avenue, known by some on the South Side as “The Other Brady Street.”
All I know is that once KK gets a hair north of Lincoln, you have the feeling you’re in the center of things. LuLu Bar & Cafe is on the west side of the street. On the east, there’s a Mexican place called Riviera Maya and a Stone Creek Coffee.
At the intersection, on the southeast corner where bloated city buses make frequent stops, is Cafe Centraal (“Sen-trahl”), which a friend of mine coined “Hollander II” for the similarities to its popular sister restaurant on the East Side, Cafe Hollander.
Corners need solid businesses, places that function as the flame to our moths. That night in September, Centraal was the flame. It’s not because the food is any better than ordinary. Rather, parent company Diablos Rojos (also daddy to the East Side’s Trocadero) understands branding. From the insociant kids who work the tables to the comfortable-but-raw interior (exposed brick and pipes, vintage-looking signs, French bistro cane chairs), Centraal takes after the family. And not only in looks.
The food and drink are Hollander redux, with more item overlap than not. That means things like the Bitterballen (spiced meatball appetizer), frites with dipping sauces, split pea soup, blue cheese-and-candied-walnut Benelux salad, blackberry turkey sandwich, meatloaf, and steak and frites. If you want a Belgian or Dutch beer served in the appropriate glass, Centraal is your place.
It’s true that atmosphere can enhance food. If it’s the right night and the right server (and the Talking Heads are wailing about psycho killers on the stereo), that can happen. When the frites arrive piping hot, crisp and salty, they are addictive and off-limits to prying fingers. (And I like the dipping sauce options for them – from spicy Dijon mustard to Indonesian peanut sauce.) The curried chicken salad enfolded in warm, toasted flatbread ($8.95) has a good ratio of chicken breast to creamy curry dressing. It’s better than the average BLT ($7.95) or the burger (topped with Gruyre and mushrooms, or bacon, cheddar and braised onions, $9.95). Soups always seem to be a bright spot. Whether a thick, smoky split pea or the soup of the day (curried squash), it’s a hearty meal in a bowl.
Centraal has its place in the family – a younger sibling that follows its elders. That may not be a bad thing when the elders have successfully carved the niche.
Cafe Centraal: 2306 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-755-0378. Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-midnight; Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-midnight; Brunch Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Prices: appetizers $3.50-$9.95; soups/salads $3.95-$10.95; sandwiches $7.95-$9.95; entrees $10.95-$19.95; desserts $5.95-$6.95. Service: energetic, but green. Dress: Like a hipster. Handicap access: yes. Credit cards: M V A DS. Nonsmoking section: yes, but no wall dividing smoking from non. Reservations: not necessary.