Invite a Spanish-speaking friend to join you for a meal at Portland’s Quiero Café, and the two of you might inadvertently kick off a beverage-themed Who’s On First skit.

“Quiero Café,” you suggest, not realizing that phrase can also be interpreted as “I’d like coffee.”

“OK,” your friend answers. “But where do you want to go?”

“Queiro Café.”

And…scene.

Co-owner Alejandra Herrera is well aware of the name’s multiple meanings and their potential for wordplay. “People sometimes already know the words mean ‘I want coffee,’ but it’s also about love. We always say that when you start dating someone, you say te quiero. When you’re more into it, you say te amo,” she said. “It’s like a lower level of love, but it’s still love.”

Co-owner Carlos Guzman puts up an order. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Herrera and her business partner, co-owner Carlos Guzman have clearly put a lot of love into the casual, counter-service restaurant they opened in the former Trattoria Fanny space this May. The interior is brooding and tropical — charcoal-gray walls and dark-stained woods set off by steel chairs and barstools in two shades of green and a vivid, wall-length mural of oversized philodendron leaves. It feels like the dining room in the eye of a hurricane.

Yet staff are upbeat and eager to walk diners through the extensive menu of more than 30 beverages and three dozen pan-Latin dishes. “It’s a lot to take in, but it’s all good,” empathized a server on my second visit. Then, perhaps sizing me up for someone who can’t handle his chilies, offered: “Don’t worry, it’s not spicy except for the chicken empanada ($3.75).” The contrarian in me insisted on trying one. It turns out the smoky, chipotle-braised, pulled chicken breast filling would barely register on the Scoville scale.

Indeed, you might get a surprise if you come expecting the prickling, peppery heat of some Mexican dishes. South American cooking is not necessarily spicy, especially dishes that evoke Herrera’s Chilean or Guzman’s Colombian heritage.

“In Portland and Saco (at the other branch of Quiero Café), we just wanted to show people that Latin food is more than just tacos and quesadillas — it’s more than Mexican food. We want to do food from many regions and give people a real taste of Latino America,” Hererra said.

Central to this mission are baked, Chilean-style empanadas (all $3.75 apiece): compact hand pies with crimped, cracker-like crusts. To help diners differentiate among identical-looking empanadas, the kitchen artfully stencils each with edible ink to identify the type of filling inside.

The puerco, or pork, empanda. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Among Quiero Cafés best Chilean empanadas are the Tomate, a calzone-esque blend of mozzarella cheese, chopped fresh tomato, basil and spinach; its fraternal twin, the Champiñon, which substitutes diced button mushrooms for tomato; and the superior Puerco, stuffed to bursting with shreds of laurel-and-orange-spiced pulled pork butt and a caramelized sweet plantain.

However, wet fillings create what Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood might provocatively term “soggy bottom problems” for several of the empanadas, most especially the Vegetales. Others, like the too-sweet, pineapple-and-ham Piña, or the flavorless yellow-rice-and-black-bean starch bomb Frijol, are imbalanced and forgettable.

Sadly, the dense, overbaked flan ($3.50) is equally humdrum, as is a side order of desiccated sweet plantains ($6.50).

Patacon, a fried savory plantain with lots of toppings. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

This is not to say that Quiero Café doesn’t know what to do with plantains. In the chicken Patacon ($13), one of the restaurant’s half-dozen large-format “Big Bites,” the kitchen squashes rounds of unripe green plantain together into a single flat disc and griddles it to a crunchy, toast-like consistency, then piles it, tostada-style, with slow-cooked chicken breast, avocado and lashings of aioli and pink, ketchup-tinted mayo.

“That’s one I like with the black habañero hot sauce you’ll find on the table,” the counter staffer told me. I took her recommendation and cautiously dabbed a few dashes of the tarry-looking El Yucateco salsa on my Patacon, then, discovering that the dark potion added more smoke than heat, went back for more.

There’s a brighter, more heat-driven option in the green version — one that works beautifully to enliven the cheesy shrimp empanadas ($9 for two), a gluten-free, deep-fried version of Quiero Café’s signature dish that is encased in a crisp, arepa-like cornmeal dough.

If you opt to test out the hot sauces at your table, be sure to have a drink handy. A smoothie, like the coffee version ($5.50), gently bitter and sweetened with banana and honey, is a good option, as is a fresh-squeezed limeade ($5.50) or one of the four ice-blended frappé “fruit juices,” made with either water or milk. My favorite is lulo ($5.50), an astringent, citrus-like fruit whose spiky tang is blunted best by slugs of whole milk and a few spoonfuls of sugar.

As good as Quiero Café’s drinks are, sandwiches are the real stars of its wide-ranging menu. In particular, the choripan ($9), an Argentinian sandwich of char-grilled pork chorizo sausage, crimson pickled onions and aromatic dribbles of chimichurri sauce. Every bite reminded me of another of my favorite sandwiches: Vietnamese banh mi. And while I’d never call them cousins, the two are like Darwinian sparrows diverging in form and flavor, but eternally linked through a common DNA of crusty French bread and charcuterie.

Still, the best dish I tasted over three visits to Quiero Café was the Hot Dog Colombiano ($10), an over-the-top, libertine sandwich that one of my guests called “my new favorite sandwich in Portland.” Maybe it was the snappy, garlicky beef hot dog that did the trick, or oversized, sweet-dough bun, or perhaps the indulgent layers of mozzarella, finely crumbled potato chips, sweet pineapple salsa, ketchup and mayonnaise, or the three hard-boiled quail’s eggs. Who’s to say?

All I can tell you is that I went back the next day at lunchtime for another, extending my decadence another 24 hours and amplifying it with an order of the crisp, savory, aioli-and-queso-fresco-topped yucca fries ($7).

Well, Quiero Café, it’s official: te quiero. But keep making such bewitching sandwiches, and it won’t be long before I’m ready to set my napkin down and commit to a full-throated te amo.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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