Ah, the hip neighborhood cafe, that indigenous institution that springs up whenever a neighborhood has enough bons vivants, flaneurs, breakfasting businessmen, lunching girlfriends, Match.com-ers and cabin-fevered writers to support one. Venice has Axe; Hollywood has Ammo; Silver Lake has the Coffee Table. And now, Highland Park has Camilo’s Cafe.
Camilo and wife Amelia leased the building on York Boulevard ostensibly as a catering kitchen, but discovered, after committing, that a massive remodel was required. The area they originally designated as a storeroom, they decided, could be put to more fruitful use as a cafe for breakfast and lunch. They opened the doors last December, and it quickly became a beloved neighborhood fixture.
The room is a happy rubbed yellow, hung with paintings by a local artist whose subject matter is antic peanuts and oranges — peanuts and oranges in the ocean, peanuts and oranges on bare feet and a highway. The front window, its tab-topped indigo curtains drawn, overlooks York, with its intermittent bursts of traffic, and a pharmacy whose white-stucco midcentury architecture has not aged well.
At breakfast, four local businessmen plot at a corner table, fueled by the delicious house-blend coffee. At lunch, beside us, a designer illustrates a point by sketching on the butcher-papered tabletop, and there‘s a foursome of lunching ladies. And just before closing on a Saturday afternoon comes a family, the longhaired father and yoga-fit mother, their two kids, and one set of grandparents, everyone thrilled to be here.
Camilo’s is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. Breakfast consists of omelets, granola, pancakes and, my favorites, ”South of the Border Classics.“ Such pretty plates of food! Chilaquiles are tortilla strips fried till crisp, then stewed in the house ranchera sauce, topped with eggs and served with saffron-yellow rice, plump pinto beans and a bright-green wedge of avocado. And enchiladas de papa con huevos are a carbohydrate rhapsody: tortillas stuffed with crisped potatoes, drenched in a smoky enchilada sauce, and topped with eggs that, with the touch of a fork, gild with their rich, running yolks. The breakfast burrito, a rather more austere packet of eggs, sausage, beans and rice, is also very popular.
Weekend specials include eggs Benedict and Florentine, and a seasonal frittata. Lighter options abound: oatmeal, fresh fruit, and Amelia‘s trifle, a beautiful glass bowl of mostly fruit, with strata of granola and vanilla yogurt. Whole-wheat pancakes topped with fruit (a few strawberries, thinly sliced) are not memorable, and the syrup, too many times reheated, is stringy.
At lunch, it’s salads and sandwiches in pleasantly hefty portions. A respectable cobb can be tossed to order or served with its characteristic stripes of blue cheese, bacon, chicken breast, tomatoes and avocado on romaine. The Santa Fe chicken salad is a minefield of flavors: black beans, pasilla chiles, chips, corn, red onion, avocado, chicken, all tossed with lettuce and Camilo‘s spirited cilantro cream dressing. Grilled sandwiches are made on dense white Cuban bread; my favorite is the Cuban sandwich itself, the crusty, buttery bread flattened in a press around ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and thin, crunchy slices of pickles. And there’s always pasta; try the remarkably fresh and cheerful penne al fresco: basil, tomatoes and garlic with Parmesan and olive oil.
But save room for dessert. Amelia‘s apple is a cored Granny Smith stuffed with raisins and nuts, then wrapped in pastry, baked and served warm with ice cream, caramel sauce and a tuft of whipped cream. There’s also a delicious espresso flan, and a respectable bread pudding that comes swimming in a creamy cognac sauce. We‘ll have another cup of coffee along with that, please.
The service is friendly and good and only occasionally fitful; at any rate, it’s a far, far cry from the attitude found in certain Westside equivalents. Camilo‘s has caught on so well that the hours are being extended — starting in July, dinner will be served. In fact, if one judged an area by its local ”spot,“ Camilo’s interesting cultural mix, the easy, happy atmosphere, and low-priced, high-quality, delicious food might well occasion an eastward migration.
5816 York Blvd.; (323) 478-2644. Open for breakfast and lunch Tues.–Sun. No alcohol. Takeout and catering. AE, MC, V.