Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Trio Of Lunches At Sweet Pea Cafe

I remember reading about Sweet Pea Cafe several years ago in the Akron Beacon Journal and was reminded once again of its existence about a year ago when Jane Snow mentioned them in one of her weekly electronic newsletters (to which I highly recommend you subscribe). But it wasn't until I happened to be in the Fairlawn area one day for lunch that this quirky, VERY out of the way place popped into my head as a potential candidate for lunch. Nestled in a multi-business building suite, the cafe was only a single block east of Summit Mall, but for those who only drive on the major roads, it can be a bit intimidating to find.

Sweet Pea Cafe was located at 117 Merz Boulevard, Fairlawn, OH, 44333 and can be reached at 330-794-7952. They do have a website, but it appears to be fairly incomplete and only somewhat helpful. Parking at the restaurant was in the lot in front of the building.

Here was a shot of the front of the space occupied by the restaurant:

Storefront of Sweet Pea Cafe
For my initial visit, I had decided to go for a late lunch at 12:45 PM figuring that most of the lunch crowd would have come and gone. While the restaurant was about half full when I got there, within fifteen minutes, the crowd had shrunk considerably. When I walked in the door, someone behind the lunch counter motioned that I should sit wherever I'd like. As it appeared that many of the tables by the front door hadn't been bussed in a while, as soon as I picked a four-top by the window, someone immediately came over and cleared and wiped down my table.

After finishing with the cleaning of my table, he handed me the menu:

Sweet Pea Cafe's Menu Page 1
Sweet Pea Cafe's Menu Page 2
From the little feedback I had seen on Yelp and Urbanspoon, I knew that Sweet Pea Cafe had many devotees of the food. A lot of the positive comments revolved around the fact that the menu was vegetarian friendly. Even more comments were made as to the freshness of the food. While I wasn't particularly looking for a vegetarian meal today, I was in the mood for something fresh and tasty.

After placing my lunch order, I sat back and surfed the web on my smartphone while I waited for my lunch to be prepared. After twenty minutes with nothing coming out of the kitchen, I began to get concerned. The cafe was only one-third full and it was taking the kitchen a long time to get my food out. While I had the flexibility of no set time limit for my lunch, lots of other patrons might not. I can only imagine how long it took to get food if the place was packed during peak dining hours. Finally at about twenty-five minutes after originally placing my order, my lunch arrived.

Here was a photograph of the hamburger platter with a side of Sweet Pea Cafe's "country potatoes":

Hamburger Platter
I had upgraded the basic burger ($7) with American cheese (+$1) and bacon (+$1):

Bacon Cheeseburger
I had ordered the one-third pound burger to be cooked medium and when I bisected the burger using the steak knife my server provided to me upon my request, I got a much better view of the interior of the burger patty:

Bisected Bacon Cheeseburger
Sadly, this burger was cooked somewhere between medium well and well done. Fortunately, it was still juicy. With the addition of a little yellow mustard and ketchup, I took a bite and was rewarded with a good, but not great burger. On the plus side, the bun had been nicely toasted which not only added a nice textural element to each bite, but also helped to keep the bun from disintegrating when the juices from the burger leaked out. Also nice was the bacon which tasted freshly cooked and crispy. The tomato was red and sweet, but there was just a bit too much lettuce. It bordered on salad territory and made the sandwich a bit more difficult to eat.

Accompanying my burger was a serving of the country potatoes:

Country Potatoes
When I asked my server what country potatoes were, he seemed to have a hard time describing them to me. As soon as he set the plate down, it was obvious that they were simply roasted new potatoes. The potato wedges were hot and creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside. However, they were grossly underseasoned, bordering on completely unsalted. Every now and again I thought I detected a hint of salinity, but it just wasn't enough. I have debated endlessly about whether eggs should come out properly seasoned (I think they should), but a bland potato product? Had the menu stated that they were purposely unseasoned to allow the diner to adjust it to their preference, I might have given these a pass. As no such mention was made, I have to ding the restaurant for this oversight.

In the end, from start to finish, my initial meal took approximately one hour to complete. Which, as far as lunches go, isn't terrible. But, with the restaurant at only one-third capacity when I went, I don't know that I'd be willing to tempt fate and go right at noon. They are open for breakfast and lunch daily, and have dinner hours Thursday through Saturday. From what I've read, they also do a special prix fixe meal the second Saturday of each month. While the potatoes disappointed me today, the burger was good enough that I'm definitely willing to give this hidden Akron eatery another try ... and that's exactly what I did.

I knew that after my first visit was complete that I would be returning for a second relatively soon. About two weeks after my initial go-round, I decided to stop in for another lunch. The lunch crowd must really vary day by day because for today's visit I arrived shortly after noon to find the restaurant even less full than when I went last time. The good news was that my meal this time not only fit into the one hour time window I try to stick to for lunch, but actually only took forty-five minutes from the time I left work until the time I returned.

When I walked in, I checked out the specials board and noticed that they were serving a white chicken chili today and with the temperatures hovering outside in the mid-50's, I thought this might be an appropriate way to start my meal. When my server approached me, I asked about the chili. She apologized and said that the soup du jour wasn't chili but a hearty pork stew. She never gave a reason for the disparity, but the thought of the stew sounded just as appealing as the chili so I went ahead and ordered a cup.

Here was what arrived at my table just moments later:

Hearty Pork Stew
And here was a close-up shot of the pork stew:

Close-Up of Hearty Pork Stew
Filled with chunks of pork, carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbage, this definitely lived up to the definition of the word hearty. A bowl of this with some nice crusty bread and a salad and you would be good to go on a cold day like today. While the liquid portion of the stew was closer in consistency to a gravy, that was only a minor criticism. The stew was seasoned well and it was clear when I first tasted it that some type of acid had been used at the very end of the soup making process to lift and brighten the flavor of the finished product. It didn't taste sour, mind you, just fresh.

Since I had only ordered a cup of soup, I was able to substitute it for the salad that was normally served with my main course for today, the macaroni and cheese. I have read interesting reviews of the macaroni and cheese omelet that Sweet Pea offers, but not being in a particularly breakfasty kind of mood, I decided to try the macaroni and cheese entree sans eggs. They offered the dish both as a vegetarian and carnivore option, served with either eggplant or prosciutto respectively.

I decided to get my macaroni and cheese with the roasted eggplant:

Macaroni and Cheese with Roasted Eggplant
Topped with what appeared to be panko and toasted under the salamander before being plated, Sweet Pea's version was creamy and delicious. The noodles were cooked completely, but still had a bit of tooth to them and they were sauced such that they were neither dried out nor swimming in the cheesy sauce. The sauce was complex and tasted like a blend of cheeses; I suspected at the very least Cheddar to be one of the players. When I asked my server about it, she didn't know either, but a gentleman who I am assuming is either the manager or the owner stopped by my table to let me know that the sauce was a combination of Cheddar, Jack, and American cheeses. The American, he noted, was used specifically to give the sauce extra creaminess.

The one downside to the dish was the eggplant. When I tasted a piece of the eggplant by itself, it was nicely caramelized and conveyed a subtle sweetness. The problem was that this flavor got lost in the cheese sauce. I like the idea of offering a roasted vegetable mixed in with the macaroni and cheese; I just think it needs to be a little more assertive in flavor.

A thoughtful touch today was my server's inclusion of a bottle of Cholula brand hot sauce that she brought with my entree:

Cholula Hot Sauce
While I hadn't asked her specifically for the condiment, when I added a few drops to the pasta dish, the vinegar from the hot sauce actually helped cut through the fattiness of the cheese sauce and the spice from the chilies took an already good dish and elevated it even more. While I used the hot sauce quite sparingly, the flavor added to my enjoyment of this dish immensely, so much so that I may just have to start adding hot sauce whenever I have this American classic in the future.

For my third and final lunch at Sweet Pea Cafe, I decided to order off of the daily specials board. As with my previous visits, there was always both a vegetarian option as well as a meat-based selection on the panini board. When I saw that today's meat-based panini was a Cuban sandwich, my mouth instantly started watering. A good Cuban sandwich can be a thing of beauty and I was curious to see what the kitchen would send out to me. After reading the description on the board, however, I was left with two questions. First, the board listed the cheese being used as "Jack." Not Colby Jack or Pepper Jack, just Jack (bonus points for those readers who get the television show reference I just made). Every Cuban sandwich I'd ever eaten prior to today had come with Swiss cheese. The other variation today was that instead of yellow mustard, a brown mustard was being substituted.

When my server came to take my order, I asked about the Jack cheese. I don't think she understood the point of me asking about the cheese, but when I asked if I could substitute Swiss cheese in place of the Jack, she happily agreed. In a rather odd twist of fate, a different server explaining this exact panini to a table next to mine described the sandwich as coming with Swiss cheese and not Jack cheese. So clearly, somebody at Sweet Pea knew how to make a proper Cuban sandwich. But I digress.

After around twenty minutes or so, my sandwich and side arrived:

Cuban Sandwich and French Fries
Here was a side shot of the Cuban sandwich:

Side Shot of Cuban Sandwich
What to say about this sandwich? The outside was hot and crusty. The inside was cool to lukewarm. The ham had been placed on the sandwich in thick "steak" form, not shaved thinly. The pulled pork was juicy but nearly flavorless. The chopped pickled added a bit of crunch but almost no acidity. The brown mustard was actually an impossibly thin layer of grainy mustard spread on just one side of the sandwich. The Swiss cheese was nicely melted.

Was this a bad sandwich? No, it wasn't. Was this a Cuban sandwich? Technically, all of the ingredients were there. In spirit, however, this was not a well thought out sandwich. The ham, barely warmer than refrigerator temperature, was so thick that if you didn't manage to bite completely through the sandwich would yank all of the other ingredients out from the two pieces of bread as you pulled the sandwich away from your mouth. The acidity and bite from the mustard and pickles did almost nothing to help cut through the fattiness of the cheese, ham, and pulled pork. While the pork added some much needed juiciness, by itself it had little character. Finally, the bread. Instead of a nice crusty roll with a soft interior, Sweet Pea's version was so crispy on the outside that I thought I might damage the soft lining on the inside of my mouth as I took bite after bite.

The other component on the plate were the fresh cut French Fries:

Fresh Cut French Fries
Post frying, these potato sticks had been tossed unevenly in a dried herb blend and salt as some of the fries were completely bland and some had seasoning. While the fries succeeded in not being greasy, they were also fairly limp and not crispy at all. Applying ketchup help to hide the seasoning inconsistencies, but nothing could compensate for the lack of crispiness in these potatoes.

Honestly, I'm torn over Sweet Pea Cafe. I wanted to like them as they are the very type of restaurant at which I want to spend my money. Based on the research that I did before going, many people obviously do like them as the restaurant has always been busy (at least when I arrived). While some of the dishes have been successes, there have been an equal number of misses, too. While I would rather spend my money at a place like Sweet Pea Cafe than any of the national chains, given their so-so record over three separate visits, I have to recommend that if given the choice, Continental Cuisine, Mr. G's Pizzeria, Beau's Grille, or even Pub Bricco (review coming soon!) might be a better choice if you are in that neck of the woods. Nothing was outright bad, but not knowing from visit to visit what to expect makes me leery to recommend whether you should spend your hand-earned dollars at this little eatery in Fairlawn.

Sweet Pea Cafe on Urbanspoon


DineInDiva said...

I wanted to like them, but the three times I tried them the food was meh, and the final time, after sitting completely ignored by the staff for about 10 minutes, I got up and left.

Sounds like nothing has changed.

Tino said...

@DineInDiva: How long ago was your final visit?

It is such a shame because Sweet Pea Cafe represents exactly the kind of locally owned hidden gem that I love telling other people about and want to see succeed.

That being said, you know as well as I that each restaurant has to be measured against the same measuring stick if what we write is to be considered fair and valuable to our readers.

J said...

I agree w/ DineInDiva. The food is average & the service is pretty awful. They need to take some kind of training for service, because I have not seen even CLOSE to stellar service here in the past 2.5 years. I don't think we'll be back.

George said...

I believe Sweet Pea Cafe is more popular for it's breakfast menu than anything else. I work in Fairlawn, but live in the Cleveland area (I believe Sweet Pea's breakfast is almost on par with Tremont's "Grumpy's") so I've visited there for breakfast numerous times based on dozens of recommendations from coworkers. I must say I've thoroughly enjoyed their breakfast everytime I've visited so far, however, I do agree about the service. I visited on a Sunday morning and while the food was nothing less than I expected, it took forever to get it (slammed busy) and the portions were noticeably smaller for the same price as compared to say a Wednesday morning.

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