Two Austin Cafes that seem more like hideaways
Reviewed by Rebecca Chastenet dé Gery, Fri., Jan. 18, 2002
Cafe Mundi1704 E. Fifth, 236-8634
Monday, 8am-5pm; Tuesday-Thursday, 8am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-11pm; Sunday, 9am-3pm
I always have mixed feelings when it comes to writing about "secret" places like Cafe Mundi. While it's presumptuous to conclude that my Eastside lunch hideaway will be transformed by the hungry masses simply because of my praise for it here, it is certain that the lack of a crowd could ultimately lead to the cafe's demise -- a loss I'd mourn even more than its mainstream discovery. So, that said, I'll share my compliments for this little gem of a coffeehouse/cafe with Chronicle readers, many of whom are probably already familiar with Cafe Mundi as an off-the-beaten-path nightspot for live music, open mike, and poetry and other readings.
Set in-between the railroad tracks and East Fifth Street (between Comal and Chicon), in a secluded courtyard shared by an ever-changing Mexican restaurant, and Isle Temple Healing Arts Gallery, the cafe covers a lot of space. Spool tables and plastic lawn chairs stretch out under a grove of mature crepe myrtle trees, and an adjacent, brick-pathed garden plot overrun with banana trees, bamboo, and the usual xeriscape greenery offers similar seating. Scattered throughout the outdoor space are metal sculptures of all sizes and shapes, a couple of birdbaths, and a wee playscape for the tots. Up a step or two to the cafe's terrace, sturdier wooden tables and mission-style chairs are up for grabs. Once inside, the cafe adopts a more intimate, exotic feel, with its eclectic collection of mosaic tables, mysterious music, changing art, and a well-worn collection of community service, political, and musical announcements and ads. The art's for sale, as is a selection of mugs and other assorted sundries.
Food and beverage orders at Cafe Mundi are placed at the counter, sometimes with the owner Jessica herself, who also starts from scratch daily to make her soup and specials. While the soups (cup, $2.50; bowl, $4) have won me over every time -- a tremendously tomato-y cream of tomato and basil, and a brothy cumin-laced lentil creation afloat with carrot disks, mushroom hunks, and zucchini are particularly memorable -- it's the sandwich plates, with their chips and salsa sides, that really do the trick for me.
My lunch of choice at Cafe Mundi is the Roasted Red Bell Pepper sandwich ($5.50). Layered between two slices of spongy, chewy focaccia sits a soft, caramelized blend of red peppers and onions dressed with a soy garlic marinade. A shaving of cheese tops the peppers along with leaf lettuce, tomato, and red onion. Another favorite is the Easy Cheesy ($5.30), which combines provolone, feta, and Swiss cheeses with salty sunflower seeds in-between the same slices of focaccia, this time spread with a creamy chipotle mayo for a subtle kick. Cafe Mundi's three salad plates are also worth trying out, the simple, generous Greek Salad ($4.50) is my pick for its mound of salad greens, feta, and fat Kalamata olives. For dessert, pick a pastry by Quack's from the case, or ask for a Chai shake ($3.20), and slurp up vanilla ice cream with the house Chai blend of black tea, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger and steamed milk. Cafe Mundi's menu features basically the same thing at the dinner hour Tuesday through Saturday, although early morning birds can cop a bagel for a buck or two, granola with yogurt ($2), a breakfast sandwich with eggs and other garnishes ($2.50 to $4), migas with cheese ($4), and, on weekends, a mammoth waffle with assorted toppings for $3.50 to $5.50.
Cafe Mundi does a mean business in coffee, with 10 espresso offerings alone to choose from. There's espresso with hot water, with creamy froth, with whipped cream, with steamed milk, with chocolate, with caramel, with cinnamon, or with flavored syrup. A bottomless cup of the house coffee will set you back $2.50, but there's plenty of reading and people-watching to do at the cafe, so that's a small price for what can easily turn into half a day. Cold bevs include iced coffees, Italian sodas made with flavored syrup and club soda, the vitamin-C-packed hibiscus hurricane ($2), and a Body Groovin' Lemonade made with cranberry, pineapple, and orange juice in addition to lemonade ($1.80). If you're feeling adventurous, order a yerba mate, Argentina's brew of choice, and sip the bitter leaf infusion from the odd perforated spoon/straw and plump round gourd for $1.50 to $2.80. Newcomers to yerba mate would be well advised to sweeten the drink up a little with steamed milk and honey. Ask for advice if you're unfamiliar with the stuff. Jessica and Co. will pleasantly offer enlightenment.
With its cool, feels-like-you're-in-a-friend's-back yard kind of setting, Cafe Mundi, by virtue of its relative isolation, demands relaxation. It's the perfect midday retreat -- an oasis of sorts, just minutes from downtown. The food is honest and homemade, and there's a coffee choice or two for just about everyone. The cafe is totally no-frills and resolutely laid back. I love it. The "secret" is out.