Tucked inside a row of industrial-looking buildings off San Mateo Road, Chocolate Maven Bakery & Café (821 W San Mateo Road, 984-1980) has always been one of those places that locals flock to for interesting breakfast and lunch choices that are easy on the wallet and, usually, the palate. My lunch visit proves the restaurant’s popularity hasn’t waned, but some extra attention to service and the preparation of daily specials is in order.
I was lucky enough to find a parking space in the industrial complex—the parking lot and the restaurant are usually so packed that street parking becomes the only other option, unless you're biking, busing or cabbing it. My dining partner and I are greeted at the host stand and seated promptly in the small and cozy dining room, with a wide view of the large production bakery (but not before we ogle the fancy housemade cakes, pies and pastries taunting us from display cases and shelves at the front counter). Panes of glass separate diners and bakers in the main dining room, presenting a quiet glimpse into the bustling routine that takes place there daily. Pinot noir-colored carpet, pale yellow walls, tasteful art prints and linen-covered tables give the dining room a distinct air of "fine dining," as do the gussied-up servers dressed in starched white dress shirts and black slacks. But to be clear, service here is casual and friendly, if a bit inattentive.
Coffee drinks are made with Santa Fe's own Aroma Coffee, a certified-organic roaster that services many other local restaurants in town. I order a double cappuccino ($3.75), and what arrives is mostly on the mark. The coffee, milk and foam are properly proportioned, but the whole of it is sprinkled with so much unrequested cinnamon that I must scrape it away to taste anything even remotely coffee-like.
A lengthy lunch and breakfast menu offers everything from omelets, pancakes, French toast and scrambled tofu to soups, sandwiches, quiche of the day, gourmet nachos and an array of made-to-order Roman-style pizzas. A special on this day promises a bowl of black mussels in saffron broth with grilled ciabatta and a side salad ($13). A heaping bowl of mussels arrives, and out of about 18 of them, five are dead and unopened. They should never have left the kitchen in the first place, and this is the first sign of trouble with the special.
The promised saffron broth has barely any saffron flavor or yellow hue, tasting more of fennel and herbs than anything else. "It's missing garlic, and it needs it," my companion says, and upon tasting it, I agree. The side salad of lettuce, carrots, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and red onion is piled too high on a tiny bread plate, making it difficult to tackle without trashing the butcher paper covering the table linens. The vinaigrette dressing is overly pungent with either garlic or onion, and there's way too much of it throughout the salad. The plate is pushed aside, barely touched, where it sits throughout the meal, with no inquiry or concern from the server or other staff members.
I order half a hot Reuben sandwich with a cup of the soup of the day: cream of broccoli and leek ($10 for the always-available combo). Now things are looking up. The juicy housemade corned beef is swimming (like I like it) in tangy housemade Thousand Island dressing and hit with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and a kiss of mustard, the lot of it sandwiched between two pieces of freshly baked light-rye bread. It's one of the better Reubens in town, worth any and all parking hassles. The soup is also good. Broccoli and leek flavors are both up-front and delicious, a great dipping elixir for the killer sandwich.
While pondering dessert, we request to-go containers for the mussels and broth and the salad. There is never an offer to take the food to the kitchen and package it up, which would help tremendously, as our tiny, dish-covered table doesn't leave much room for maneuvering. Our server appears with flimsy cardboard containers not suited to hold much liquid, and I request a soup container instead. She brings it, and I proceed to tip the broth and mussels into the cup. And into my lap. And onto the table. And onto the floor. Flush with embarrassment, I apologize, and the server assures me that it's "no big deal."
Despite the tasty pastries and other goodies on display, we skip them so I can get home and change into something less … mussel-y. I'll return for the sweet stuff, which I can vouch for as a longtime patron. But I might skip the special the next time I'm here.
AT A GLANCE:
Open: Breakfast 7-10:45 am; lunch 10:45 am-3 pm Monday-Friday.
Pastries, and other goodies available from the counter until 6 pm Monday-Saturday
Best Bet: Half Reuben and a cup of soup of the day