Assessment | Cafe Unido sells nice espresso. However the Panamanian meals is spectacular.


Given the job of making a breakfast menu for the hungry, harried D.C. buyer, Jovana Urriola might have thrown bacon, eggs and cheese right into a tortilla and known as it a wrap. However at Cafe Unido in Shaw, the industrious Panamanian chef is brimming with greater concepts.

Urriola’s model tucks in a sofrito aioli, mashed avocado, velvety kidney beans and a hidden enhance of texture within the type of concolón, the crispy rice from the underside of the pot prized in different cultures as tahdig or socarrat. Each ingredient is evenly organized in a bundle sealed by a seared seam. The fundamentals — fluffy scrambled eggs, uniform planks of crispy bacon — are flawless. It’s not any previous roll-up. It’s El Breakfast Wrap. (And it’s priced accordingly at $16, together with a aspect of tart dressed greens.)

The chef stated she took inspiration from the Mexican burrito and bowls of Panamanian beef and rice. “There’s a widespread phrase that we are saying in Panama: ‘Rice, beans and meat, at all times for the individuals.’ I needed to try this in a wrap,” Urriola stated.

At this outpost of a Panamanian espresso firm that sources from micro-lots and sells uncommon Geisha pour-overs at market-price ($10 to $12 on a latest go to), Urriola’s cooking greater than retains tempo with the drinks. Each time I go to, I depart with some new appreciation for a pickle or condiment made on the premises, or another contact of refinement. Everybody I’ve taken there appears to echo my response: That is manner higher meals than you’d count on from a espresso store.

There are such a lot of attractive choices for breakfast and lunch that I’ve but to attempt every little thing. What I’ve sampled within the spare area, stuffed with pure mild and black-and-white panorama pictures, makes me wish to faucet on the shoulders of the Howard college students I see buried of their books and inform them to concentrate. One thing particular is occurring right here.

That’s because of Urriola, 33, whose résumé features a season on “Prime Chef Panama” and a stint as actor Owen Wilson’s personal chef. She was working a restaurant in Panama Metropolis when the pandemic hit, then signed on to assist Unido open its first stand-alone cafe in the USA (the model additionally has a stand in La Cosecha, subsequent to Union Market in Northeast Washington).

Urriola credited Café Unido co-founder Mario Castrellón — the chef and proprietor of Maito in Panama Metropolis, a daily on the Latin America’s 50 Finest Eating places listing — with providing her artistic freedom to pursue her thought of “fashionable Panamanian delicacies.” To wit: The model’s Panama areas have adopted Urriola’s remedy of the Unido Breakfast Sandwich. Urriola builds hers inside a cluster of 4 candy Hawaiian rolls, with a bubbly brown crisp of mozzarella cheese spilling out round fried eggs, bacon, avocado and a guava scorching sauce.

The food regimen of the Central American isthmus is closely influenced by Afro-Caribbean and Chinese language cooking; the previous is mirrored in a easy coconut curry served over tender rooster breast (good grill marks!) subsequent to supple grains of coconut rice and a light-weight software of pumpkin seeds for extra pop.

Be aware the Asian influences in a time-intensive pork stomach sandwich: A 24-hour marinade flavors the meat with lemongrass, ginger, lime juice, cinnamon and low. The pork is then slow-roasted, shredded and piled on a potato bun with a pickled salad (I might fortunately snack on the candy ribbons of carrots), a cashew-based mayonnaise and a glaze produced from cascara, a fruity, bitter tea produced from the husk of the espresso plant that’s discarded earlier than roasting. (Cascara additionally lends a tamarind-type pucker to Urriola’s home ketchup.)

Are you able to inform the chef is a stickler for particulars? Urriola stated she refused to purchase premade yuca dough for her carimañolas, fritters full of floor beef. As a substitute, she tinkered for months along with her methodology, boiling the basis vegetable with bay leaf and garlic and letting the mash dry out earlier than frying light-weight torpedoes devoid of any density. “The key is to let it relaxation,” she stated. She mills natural Mexican corn to make the shells for small empanadas with a deep maize spine that makes me consider a healthful Frito.

My solely gripe with the restaurant has been skinny pancakes that fell flat, however even there I’m charmed by a shock cocoa crumble within the vanilla mascarpone mousse. My most popular deal with? The orange raspadura latte with a syrup produced from the citrus rind and unrefined sugar. The identical syrup is a typical taste for a Central American shaved ice dessert known as a minuta.

Throughout breakfast and brunch, Urriola has given prospects a lot to think about. Unido not too long ago hosted its first pop-up, a Latin road meals evening paired with pure wines and a vinyl soundtrack, to provide the chef one other artistic outlet for dinner service.

Espresso geeks have the chance to speak by way of rotating roasts from small producers that work straight with Unido. Head roaster Francisco Flores stated there are batch brew and espresso drinks for patrons who need their caffeine jolts with out the dialog, however on the opposite finish of the spectrum, he leads a espresso omakase service that goes deep on course of and ends with cocktails such because the Panama Cliche (rum, chilly brew and burnt banana syrup).

On a latest go to, I paid $12 for a pour-over of Abu Geisha that was giving me a harmony grape vibe earlier than opening up into one thing extra like a dark-chocolate-covered strawberry. For purchasers who could also be skeptical of the worth tag, Flores emphasizes the wholesale price and the way it’s not supposed to be an on a regular basis drink. He’d somewhat you consider it like a glass of wine or a boutique IPA — “a deal with which you can give to your self as soon as every week.”

That sounds wise. However all my encounters with Urriola’s finesse-filled cooking have been so rewarding, I’m unsure I can wait that lengthy.

908 W St. NW; cafeunido.com.

Hours: Closed Tuesdays; 7 a.m. to five p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to five p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Nearest Metro: A couple of blocks from U Road/African American Civil Battle Memorial station; half a mile from the Shaw-Howard College station.

Costs: Breakfast $16 to $27 (for steak and eggs); bowls and sandwiches $12 to $22.



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