Like many eateries with a South of the Border menu, Flagstaff’s Café Ole on the Southside pulls out all the stops with its décor. The folksier, the better. The restaurant, whose motto is “fresh Mexican cooking from the heart,” stops traffic on South San Francisco with its brightly-painted front covered in angels, harvest produce and a huge, scarlet heart wishing peace and 10,000 blessings.
Inside, mismatched wooden tables look like they could have come from mama’s kitchen where tortillas were patted out, round and flat. Icons are displayed amongst a huge collection of crosses on vibrant walls. Greenery with lights, stoneware, ceramic birds and more make guests grin.
Heather and Alex Mowl bought Café Ole five years ago and kept the original owners’ family recipes. “We spent time with them in the kitchen and learned how to cook all the food, and then, we put our own stamp on the menu,” Heather Mowl said. “We serve traditional food, and like other countries, Mexican food has regional cuisine. We make simple, perfected food. Everything we do is basic—our beans are beans—and we let the flavors shine. The fresh ingredients are the main show.”
Café Ole is known for its calabacitas. This dish can be vegetarian, vegan or chocked full of meat. It can be served as enchiladas, tacos, a burrito or a quesadilla. The calabacita filling is a combination of yellow squash, zucchini, corn and tomato and tastes hearty with a sunny sweetness from the vegetables’ natural sugar. If ordering enchiladas, the next decision is red or green sauce. Or have it both ways by asking for them Christmas style. The green sauce is light and fresh, while the red has a depth and intensity of color and flavor. The corn tortilla has a soft, grainy tooth.
If you prefer a standard combination plate, try a taco and tostada which, of course, comes with rice and beans, so let’s start with those. The refrieds are robust with whole beans, and though I usually pass on Spanish rice, the creamy texture begged for another forkful. A fiery-colored taco shell held nicely-seasoned, shredded chicken and exploded on contact, part of the messy entertainment of Mexican meals. The chicken tostada had an additional slather of beans to hold it together under duress, and like the taco, came dressed with a finely-diced salad of cabbage, tomatoes and cheese.
The two meals above were gluten-free as are a good number of items on the menu—a big appeal for certain diet-restricted or health-conscious customers. Café Ole’s flavorful sauces, sides and crisp chips are all wheat-free options. Speaking of chips with its sidekick salsa, the hallmarks of any Mexican café, theirs is verde with heat and zest. No matter what your order, ask for guacamole, that smooth cup of cool to dress up any dish.
Daily food and drink specials have a dedicated customer following. Mole Monday draws in Brooke, who swore she has eaten everyone’s mole, and Café Ole has the best. Tamale Tuesday is a family process to produce homemade masa packets, and on Friday and Saturday, crowds come for the “famous and fabulous” green chile pork enchiladas.
The hardest part of eating Mexican cuisine is saving room for dessert. Try. The tres leches is a Latin favorite made with three milks as the name implies. Sweet and moist, the cake sponge sits among ripe, quartered strawberries and clouds of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon.
At this time of year, Café Ole’s signature beverages begged to be ordered. They are made with an injection of prickly pear syrup and served as lemonade or a margarita. The Mowls also recommend the heavenly pomegranate-mango margarita. The café makes red sangria throughout the year, and in summer, they delight in making a crisp, refreshing white sangria. So, for anyone who craves a bit of cool in a glass and heat in the food, they can sip and linger at one of the best, tucked-away Mexican joints in Flagstaff. NAMLM Gail G. Collins
Learn more about Café Ole at their active Facebook Page.