The good and the not-so-good are battling it out at Cafe Armageddon, the new Eastside eatery that promises diners "eclectic cuisine in a casual, nuclear age atmosphere." Right on target when it comes to casual, Cafe Armageddon is small and uncluttered, with cool black-and-white photos, high-backed red wooden booths, smooth jazz, and a metal-sculpture chandelier-of-sorts that I'd love to have at my place. The wait staff at this post-industrial hangout is... well, young and hip. Tattoos and body-piercing are the rule, and the service is kinda' like, "Yeah, cool, that's a good choice... one of my favorites." Cafe Armageddon's menu doesn't fall short of its eclectic vow either. Entrees range from classic sandwiches such as the monte cristo to the more exotic bistecca be-chamel, although Italian-influenced dishes do dominate. Offerings with names like The Wasteland (an artichoke dip), and Los Alamos Grilled Cheese (a classic grilled cheese sandwich with chipotle purée and avocado), keep the nuclear age theme in focus. But when it comes to execution of the dishes, Cafe Armageddon's kitchen too often misses the mark.
My meals at the restaurant have generally begun with an impressive bang and then sort of smoldered. The house salad, dubbed the Pre-emptive Strike Salad if ordered a la carte, is a hit. A plate of mixed field greens served with a Caesar-like vinaigrette is topped with strawberries, walnuts, pecans, and oddly enough, banana chips. While they no doubt surprise many, the banana chips work for me, providing that off-beat, even weird touch I suppose Cafe Armageddon's owners are after. Red-eye Bull Wings ($5.25), an appetizer of chicken wings and drumettes sprinkled with jerk seasoning and served with a cinnamon-laced mango salsa, offers a pleasing savory-sweet-spicy explosion on the palate. Another on-target appetizer is the Three Mile Island ($5.25), a slightly new take on potato skins loaded with black beans, guacamole, avocado, and cheese. The Nuclear Shrimp ($5.75), a banal batch of fried shrimp stuffed with chalky jalapeño cream cheese and paired with a slightly piquant pineapple salsa, left me unmoved, however, and the tamale soup ($1.75/cup) was riddled by an overabundance of salt.
But what truly lacked fusion during each of my visits to Cafe Armageddon were the entrees. Take the Armageddon Skewers, for example. Billed as skewers of charbroiled chicken and vegetables basted with lemon and basil, the kebabs arrived smothered beyond recognition with a gooey brown sauce that tasted suspiciously of powdered gravy mix. Another bomb was the Brazilian steak sandwich ($5.95). Served on a mushy, institutional-type hoagie bun, the "roast beef" resembled a flank steak that had been zealously pounded with a meat cleaver. The fettucine Sonoma ($8.50) was a sticky mass of marinara-tossed noodles studded with moist shrimp (the only redeeming part of the dish), and minute flecks of sun-dried tomato. But most off the mark was the salmon fettucine ($11.95), a bed of overcooked pasta studded with bits of raw garlic and topped with unseasoned fish that had been grilled to oblivion. The accompanying mixed vegetables were mushy and bland, bearing no trace of the white wine or herbs promised on the menu and a companion's side of rice pilaf proved to be converted white rice mixed with diced green bell pepper.
A couple of passable lunch entrees kept my overall experience at Cafe Armageddon from being entirely apocalyptic. Vegetarians will appreciate a full page of meatless menu options, among them the wheat roast fajitas ($5.35), a tasty, part-wheat, part-peanut butter substitute for the Tex-Mex favorite served with black beans and rice and all the fixin's. Those cravin' Cajun can opt for a "light" version of the shrimp po'boy ($7.25) served on foccacia bread with remoulade (in this case tartar) sauce and a side of new potatoes seasoned with thyme and oregano.
In part because of its location east of I-35 along the Manor Road corridor that supports Eastside Cafe, Mi Madre's, Planet Theatre, and the new Manor Road Coffee House, Cafe Armageddon is one of those places I'd like to see make it. Besides, its atmosphere -- a non-negligible part of the restaurant equation -- is working in the restaurant's favor. Perhaps if Cafe Armageddon is successful in reigning in its fall-out and refining its preparations, it just might be open every day until the end of the world like it so ambitiously prophesies.
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