An eclectic local taste

Cafe Don Jose is neatly tucked away between a dry cleaner and a karate school. The uniqueness of the restaurant is obvious from the moment of arrival: The dimly lit bar is directly to the left and an occasionally used piano area is to the right.

The atmosphere is “eclectic,” in the words of owner Julio Ruiz. The background music includes a wide range of easy listening tunes, from Frank Sinatra, to The Beatles, to Toni Braxton. The hardwood floors and cozy darkness contribute to an intimate yet open feeling, aided by a separate lounge, banquet area and two miniature dining rooms. Originally called Cafe Pepe in 1975, it became Cafe Don Jose in December 2001 after the former owner finalized a deal with Ruiz. Jose is a nickname for Pepe, so the choice was natural, Ruiz said.

There is a small bakery on the premises and loaves of Cafe Don Jose bread are baked every morning. The bread is black and served with chilled, lightly salted butter. It’s not pumpernickel; its taste is more unusual.

Prices on the menu average from $5-8, steak usually costs $2 more. The salads are fresh and consist of iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, zucchini, arugula and shredded carrots, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and served with a choice of a house dressing or oil and vinegar. The black bean and rice soup is hot and savory. It’s served with onions and needs only a little salt for taste. The veggie lasagna, however, has too many herbs, which make it taste strange, not living up to its delicious aroma.

The menu includes other things, such as pasta and picadillo, but some entrees are only served on certain days. A safe dish served every day is the chicken and yellow rice: A chicken leg is served beneath a mound of bright green peas and steaming yellow rice. The meat is tender, falling off the bone, and has a faint accent of citrus flavoring.

As a finish there is flan, cheesecake or ice cream. The macadamia nut cheesecake is an interesting novelty, a dessert that must be tried at least once.

The average price for a beer is $3.75; imported sangria is $18.95 a carafe. The domestic sangria is slightly easier on the pocket, at $15.95 a carafe. Drinks are served at the bar or tableside, based on preference.

Cafe Don Jose is comfortable, the staff is friendly and the food is fresh. The restaurant is perfect for a mature diner who enjoys a little ambiance mixed in with his or her meal.

m Grade: B+m Cafe Don Jose is located at 11009 N. 56th Street in Temple Terrace