Caritas Village Coffee Shop is possibly the warmest and most welcoming place to eat outside your grandmother's home. It's colorful, with local art on the walls, and filled with natural light. The service couldn't be friendlier or speedier. It's a place you want to linger after you eat. Conversation flows easily among tables and over to the soft seating area.
It's all by design, but more on that later.
Caritas Village Coffee Shop
Address: 2509 Harvard
Telephone: (901) 327-5246
Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Hot lunch is available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. only.
Reviewer's choices: Muffaletta ($6.50 with side); Chicken BLT ($6.50 with side); meatloaf ($6 with two sides and bread); lentil soup ($4 or as a side with sandwich).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars
The community center is in the heart of Binghamton, at the corner of Harvard and Merton, the crossroads of a revitalizing community. In the yard of the center and here
and there in the neighborhood, words are planted in recycled five-gallon paint buckets: peace, love, respect, beloved. All good things -- but you probably want to know about the food.
The menu is simple: Sandwiches, salads and homemade soups for lunch and dinner, plus a plate lunch option with meat and two sides. But simple food can be delicious, as it is here.
CIA-trained chef Erik Waldkirk (that's Culinary Institute of America, by the way) prepares the meals in exchange for using the commercial kitchen for catering. (Ibtisam Salih makes the soups, though.)
Sometimes the bread is made in-house, and sometimes it's not, but it's a fine quality either way. The bread for the muffaletta is studded with Italian herbs. Mixed with the finely minced and very tangy olive salad, it makes for one of the most vibrant versions of the New Orleans sandwich around. It's not one of the giants made to feed a family, but it's big enough to satisfy a hearty appetite.
Sandwiches come with potato salad, chips or soup. Don't even think about anything except the soup, especially this time of year. We tried the chili, which was a little bland but which we livened up with salt and hot sauce, and the lentil soup.
The latter was very good, and gave off the vibe of being good for us, too. It was thick, full of vegetables, served in a bread bowl.
There are special sandwiches daily; don't miss the Chicken BLT if you have the opportunity. A generous chicken breast is grilled and added to a basic BLT, somehow creating a sandwich that is larger than the sum of its parts. It could be as much to do with the chicken as anything; it was a boneless skinless breast, yet tender and moist.
Caritas Village opened four years ago, in December 2006, but it was a secret for a good while. The restaurant is actually The Village Coffee Shop, an integral part of the community as envisioned by founder Onie Johns.
"Food is a way of breaking down barriers," she said.
"We have African, African-American, Asian, Latino, Afghani and Caucasian people living in a four-by-eight block area."
In the large dining room, neighbors eat next to businessmen grabbing a huge club sandwich for lunch (I only saw it, but I envied it). We witnessed folks sharing tables, all as Johns intended.
It was impressive enough to draw my attention away from the food, but it eventually returned.
We tried the meatloaf with au gratin potatoes and greens, which came with a roll for $6. Meatloaf is so often greasy and covered in tomato gravy, and I expected something similar. Instead a thick slab of meat full of onion and minced vegetables came under the thinnest coat of brown gravy. It was plenty down-home enough to get my fix, but it was, in an elusive way, a slight cut above. Greens and au gratin potatoes were fine, though nothing exceptional.
It's the excellent sandwiches (starting under $5 with a side) and soups that will get me back at the Village again and again.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223