Zocalo Café more than just a coffeeshop

Breakfast, lunch and dinner food selections, live music and work by local artists, are some things the Zocalo Café offers besides coffee

OWNER CATHERINE BELL takes a rare break at the Zocalo Café and Gallery

People have actually brought food into the Zocalo Café and Gallery, says proprietor Catherine Bell.

For them and anybody else not aware of the kitchen in the back, she has one simple message.

“At the Zocalo, we’re more than a coffeeshop.”

My lunch companion Bob and I will vouch for that.

Yes, the Zocalo began as a coffeeshop and was an Internet café for a time.

Since Bell got out of politics a couple of years ago, the former Vancouver Island North MP has evolved the Zocalo well beyond its beginnings.

If you don’t go there to order a steak dinner that will cause you to loosen your belt a notch, you can still find a selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner food that will satisfy.

While the Zocalo is not the exotic south-of-the-border eatery the name suggests (it’s Spanish for meeting place), Bell and her inventive chefs put some clever touches on their dishes.

The day Bob and I showed up for a late lunch, Catherine said their lunch special had sold out. The Thai green curry prawn noodle salad disappeared “really quick. It was really yummy, the word got out and it went.”

The Zocalo is open for breakfast every day of the week and Bell said she took the breakfast menu and “kicked it up a notch.” With dinner servings Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays that began more than a year ago, Bell has had to expand her complement of chefs. For example, she recently hired Andrew Martin, formerly of Toto in Comox.

“Our food is good,” Bell said. “It’s homemade. It’s funky, it’s delicious, creative. We have some standards like chicken club and BLT, but we also have daily soup we make from scratch and daily specials we create.

“I just tell the cooks, tell me what you want to create and I’ll get you the ingredients,” Bell said, adding that they are working on a new menu. “We try to source local ingredients when we can.”

Meals are made to order rather than being pre-made.

Keeping it simple, Bob ordered a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich and cream of celery soup. The menu says the cheese is melted to perfection, and Bob seemed to agree. He said it was just what he needed for lunch.

I was seduced by the wild salmon burger, which came with pesto mayo, lettuce, tomato and (for me) irresistible red onion. All of the ingredients were first rate, including the multigrain kaiser.

I made the mistake of also ordering a spinach and fruit salad — not a mistake because it wasn’t good — it was great. I just didn’t expect it to be that large.

I also didn’t anticipate it would be as good as it was.

Besides a generous amount of moist spinach leaves, the big bowl included several types of fresh, delicious fruit. A topping of raspberry vinaigrette would have been very satisfying in itself, but there was more.

A crumbly substance generously sprinkled on top at first looked like bacon bits.

Not so. Sweet, but with a distinctive other taste, it baffled me. A helpful server said it was ginger rolled in honey and secret ingredients that she was not at liberty to discuss.

Since I couldn’t finish all the food, Catherine packaged the rest of the salad for me to take home, adding some crumbly ginger bits for good measure.

The Zocalo also does special themed dinners such as Greek Night, Cuban Night and tapas. Parties booking the 50-seat venue can request a themed experience.

Besides the food, Bell regularly presents live music for the evening openings. The Zocalo is licensed, too.

If this weren’t enough variety, artwork regularly adorns the walls, accounting for the gallery part of the place’s name.

“I think that adds quite a bit to the ambience,” she said. “These are all local artists.”

In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Zocalo does indeed serve a large variety of coffees in case all you’re looking for is a coffeeshop. I savoured a creamy mocha.

The Zocalo Café and Gallery at the corner of Fifth and Cliffe in Courtenay is open for breakfast Mondays to Fridays from 7 a.m. to noon and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 to 2. Lunch is served beginning at 11 a.m. Dinner is served Thursdays to Saturdays starting at 5 p.m.

For more information, visit www.zocalocafe.ca or phone 250-331-0933.

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