The food in this flamboyantly decorated coffee shack is surprisingly good.

Three's Company 

The food in this flamboyantly decorated coffee shack is surprisingly good.

My friend Bob isn't a superstitious soul, but he does think it's a bad sign if he walks into a restaurant and there's nobody in the dining room. It's an omen, he says, that there's something terribly wrong with the restaurant. I told him that I have experienced the flip side of that theory. After waiting for a table in the always-crowded and soulless chain restaurants in this town, I've sometimes felt the same "omen" while looking at the second-rate menu or sitting forever before a server finally appears. A dining room doesn't have to be empty to generate that uncanny sixth sense that the dining experience is going to rank high on the freak-o-meter.

But the cold night that Bob, Shelby and I walked into the empty dining room at Café Expresso III — a few minutes after 6:30 p.m. on a Friday — we gave one another the same quizzical look: "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

The dining room looked inviting enough. The mismatched tables were tidily set with napkins, woven place mats and shiny flatware. Candles flickered, and a recording of Latin jazz was audible. But there didn't seem to be a soul in the place. Not a customer, not a waiter, not a cook. We stood there for a moment, wondering what to do next, when suddenly a grinning face poked out from behind a potted palm. "Here for dinner?"

I had to do a double take before I realized that I knew that face. "Chuck Tackett?" I asked. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Tackett, a columnist for a local gay weekly newspaper and host of a late-night disco radio show, frequently pops up in unlikely places. But I'd never seen him working in a restaurant. "I'm a volunteer here," he explained. "The owners are friends of mine." Then he waved his arms and announced, "Take whatever table you like."

It wasn't a difficult choice; there are less than a dozen tables in the joint. We shuffled over to a glass-topped table and sat down on cast-iron chairs (the kind you might find on a sunny patio in Palm Springs). Chuck passed out plastic-covered menus and explained the night's dinner special.

"It's Guatemalan pork," he said. "One of the owners is Pedro. He's from Guatemala. The pork is cooked in a spicy red sauce. It's real good. But I wish you could come back tomorrow, because that's when Pedro is making Guatemalan enchiladas. They're really delicious."

"Is this a Guatemalan restaurant?" Shelby asked.

Well, not unless one feels that a single daily Guatemalan-inspired entrée is the extent of the culinary trip south of the border. A Guatemalan restaurant would make sense in this neighborhood, which boasts plenty of good Latin American restaurants. But the menu at Café Expresso III leans more toward Italiano cuisine. There are nine entrées listed on Café Expresso III's dinner menu, and more than half are pasta dishes. There's also grilled salmon, steak, pork and a hamburger.

When Chuck vanished into an unseen kitchen to bring us some nonalcoholic beverages — the two-year-old venue still doesn't have a liquor license — we took inventory of the cluttered dining room, which was bedecked and bauble-covered for the holidays to its very last inch. Even without the holiday drag, it would be an eyeful: The concrete floor is painted acid-green, the exposed ductwork is mustard-yellow, and much of the wall space is covered with vibrantly colored original paintings by the restaurant's other owner, Luke Heckbart.

The dining area is tiny (the building was once a gas station), so the busy décor is slightly overpowering. Dining there is like eating in a dollhouse. "A gay dollhouse," Shelby said.

There were no appetizers on the menu, but I was starving, so we all ordered soup. Chuck brought out some warm bread and butter — but no bread plates.

"You know, I've driven by this place a million times," Shelby whispered. "I thought it was a taco stand."

I'm equally guilty of having passed by this oddball building at the corner of Southwest Boulevard and Summit without giving it a second glance. I suppose the name of the place led me to assume it was a coffeehouse. And it is, serving up lattes and macchiatos in the morning. Shelby wondered: If this was Café Expresso III, what had happened to I and II?

Pedro followed Chuck out of the kitchen with three steaming bowls of soup — black bean for Bob and an excellent version of Italian wedding soup for Shelby and me — and explained that the first two Café Expresso operations had been small coffee stands at the Indian Springs and Mission Center malls. The third venture is more of a full-service operation, with Pedro and Luke trading server, cook, manager and dishwasher duties.

That's a lot of juggling, and I'm not sure how they'll pull it off if this dining room ever gets busy. But to their credit, the food in this flamboyantly decorated coffee shack was surprisingly good. The soups were terrific; the Cuban-style black bean was thick and comforting, and the Italian wedding zuppa came loaded with tiny meatballs, onion, carrots and cabbage.

Bob, the poster boy for a meat-and-potatoes diet, surprised me by ordering the burger instead of the more likely choice, the "char-grilled steak of the day" and a baked potato. The restaurant, he told me later, just didn't look like a steak joint to him. Shelby was more adventurous and requested chicken Augusteo fettuccine — not a traditional chicken fettuccine but pasta and sliced chicken in a slightly pink cream sauce that packed some chile-based heat. "It's a lot spicier than I expected," he said.

My dinner, the Guatemalan pork, was less spicy than I thought it would be, but it was succulent and tender, smothered in a mildly seasoned tomato sauce and heaped with green peppers and onion.

For dessert, Bob and Shelby practically inhaled the Cuban flan, which was drenched in topaz-colored caramel sauce. Shelby had never tasted flan before and decided it was "a cross between vanilla custard and cheesecake." Well, something like that.

I thought of returning for a late-night meal the following day so I could try those fabled Guatemalan enchiladas. On weekends, Pedro and Luke keep the kitchen open until 2:30 in the morning. "We get the after-bar crowd, a lot of hungry neighborhood people, too," Luke says.

I couldn't stay up that late, so I made my next visit during the lunch shift, when the enchiladas would be available as a special. Bob and Ryan insisted on coming along. Ryan wanted a Cuban sandwich after spotting a banner outside the building promoting them. This ad hung near a hand-painted sign on the building promoting "Ruben" sandwiches (named for Rubén Blades, I guess). Ryan gave a thumbs-up to Heckbart's authentic Cubano: a crusty roll slathered with butter and mustard and stacked with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and pickles. Ryan wished that Heckbart used a fancier mustard than the bright-yellow ballpark variety, but I told him that was the stuff on the Cuban sandwiches I ate in Miami.

Bob loved his corned beef panini on grilled sourdough bread, served with a big mound of homemade cole slaw made with slivers of tart apples. I had to wait a bit longer for my lunch; the Guatemalan enchiladas require freshly parboiled cabbage. The finished product was worth the wait, but what most gringos like me think of as an enchilada bears no resemblance to the trio of towering constructions that Café Expresso III serves. The Guatemalan enchilada has a crispy tortilla base, topped first with a mixture of hot, chopped chicken; potatoes; carrots; a jumble of cabbage and onion; and, finally, a few slices of pickled beets and a dusting of Parmesan cheese. The beet juice drips down into the cabbage and onion, staining each enchilada a shade of violet-pink. Be warned, it's awkward and messy to eat. I started to use my knife and fork but was scolded by Heckbart, who insisted that I eat it by hand. I did, but here's a word of warning: Don't eat one wearing white.

We weren't the only customers in the place during lunch (a handful of other patrons showed up as we were finishing our meal), which I thought would be reassuring to Bob, who doesn't trust empty restaurants. But he has decided that he prefers Café Expresso when it's less Expresso and more laid-back. You get more personal attention when you're sitting at the only occupied table in a restaurant. Café Expresso isn't a clubhouse, but it's tempting to keep it a secret so I can pretend that it is.

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