As I sit at the Café del Mar in Fort Bragg,
the building begins to rumble slightly. The building, shaped as a long triangle, has the Skunk Train tracks near its northern border, hence the gentle shaking of my house-made drink, a Champagne shrub cocktail as the train trundles past the window. A shrub refers to this type of drink, usually an infused mixture of fruit, vinegar, or spirits.
I know I made a good menu choice when my Caribbean Plate of Cuban beans and rice, grilled local rock cod with pico de gallo, braised greens and fried plantains arrives. This modest restaurant was previously a tacqueria and still has a bit of the causal burrito shop vibe. Local art adorns the walls and the small bar is packed with regulars.
The menu and drink selection is night-and-day different from the previous ownership. A high-quality selection of beers includes North Coast Brewery (their next door neighbor), Ballast Point, and Eel River Brewing Company to name just a few.
My shrub cocktail pairs Tanglewood brut with a slightly fermented concoction of citrus, ginger, mango, and cider vinegar –– refreshing and tart with the perfect amount of sweetness.
Café del Mar has been open for nine months and the word is out. This is the place for healthy local food prepared with an eclectic flair. Owner, Isael Alcala, is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. He and his family have lived in the U.S. since 1988. “My father died of cancer when I was three from being overexposed to pesticides while working in the fields,” Isael remembers. This experience and the commercialization of the food industry is what prompted him to pursue having a healthy restaurant. “The menu is a combination of things I always wanted when I was traveling around the world,” and his menu reflects that vision.
I’ll tell you it was hard to choose between my entree and the Blackened Portabella (gluten-free) or the Chicken Sofrito with cabbage and pickled onion. The house-made pickles, shrubs, and sauces are the magic of Naka Hassel, business partner in Café del Mar. Her culinary expertise lends itself to piquant pickles, creative shrub concoctions and sauces like the spiced tomato juice used in the Michelada, mixed with lager and the glass coated with house-dehydrated chili lime salt. Naka’s culinary handiwork is evident in the unique drink offerings; she also has a hand in the visual ambiance of the restaurant.
Unable to polish off the generous portions, I took the rest home for the spouse. I smiled when my bill arrived tucked into a spaghetti western paperback. Café del Mar has character I will not soon forget. Next time I will get that sofrito.