Hampden's Cafe Cito is casual, full of flavor

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Some meals require a bit of pomp and circumstance, and sometimes you just want to eat some great food without getting gussied up. Cafe Cito is the place for those times.

The cafe opened in May in the Hampden space formerly occupied by Roland Park Cafe and Deli. According to chef/owner David Sherman, the former owner of Nasu Blanca in Riverside, Cafe Cito aims for good, Spanish-influenced food, friendly service and a casual atmosphere. It succeeds on all three counts.

Scene & Decor The restaurant is currently open for breakfast and lunch every day except Monday, brunch on the weekends, and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. (In the future, dinner may extend to other nights.)

We visited around noon on a Sunday, snagging the second-to-last table in Cafe Cito's small, cute dining room. The space is friendly and cheery, with lots of natural light, one exposed brick wall and some funky wallpaper in the back, where a counter and partial wall semi-shield the kitchen from the dining room.

Drinks Cafe Cito is BYOB with a $5 corkage fee, but during our visit, we didn't see anyone taking advantage of the policy. Sherman says this is a more popular option during dinner hours.

During both day and evening, Cafe Cito is a happy place for coffee lovers, with options like Chemex, pour-over and cold-brewed available. We kept it simple with a standard cup of drip coffee ($1.89) from Oregon's famous Stumptown Coffee Roasters. It was rich, dark and nicely brewed.

Appetizers Cafe Cito's menu showed off its Spanish roots with a handful of appetizers, including butifarra ($8), warm duck sausage, split and served with white beans and aioli.

The butifarra, which originated in Catalonia, was the most authentically Spanish of the dishes we tried and also one of the best. The sausage and the beans were savory and well seasoned and the squiggle of aioli brightened and balanced the heavy flavors.

Entrees A trio of sandwiches ranged from good to great. The Spanish bird ($10), which piled chicken, roasted red peppers and arugula on ciabatta bread smothered in lemon aioli, was a capable and appealing, if not terribly exciting, combination of flavors and textures.

The braised brisket sandwich ($10), also on ciabatta bread, was presented simply, with just a smear of horseradish sauce and a dish of au jus (or, as the menu called it, "AWW jus") for dipping. But the meat was tender and the sauces were excellent, making the brisket one very nice sandwich.

The showpiece of the three was the "charcuterie sammy," ($10) a fun tapas platter spread between two pieces of bread. The mix included caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, spinach, basil and nduja, a spicy salami spread from Italy. We also added a fried egg ($1), an option on several items on Cafe Cito's menu, for extra heft and creaminess.

All the ingredients were tasty and well-matched but the nduja — full of flavor and just spicy enough — made the sandwich. We weren't even sorry that it arrived on ciabatta, instead of the tomato bread that was advertised.

Dessert Cafe Cito's butterscotch scone ($2.50) was a sweet reminder that the restaurant would be a nice spot to drop in for a cup of coffee and a quick treat. But the basil cremeux ($8), a pretty, sweet pudding studded with candied basil and served with crispy almond brittle and a sprinkle of fresh berries, was much more sophisticated than what we expected to find in a low-key cafe.

Service The butifarra, that fantastic appetizer, had one problem. It arrived after our entrees. It seemed like a kitchen mix-up, or perhaps a problem with the grill, and either way, our waitress apologized for the delay and we enjoyed the sausage as a pre-dessert interlude.

The butifarra episode was indicative of our overall experience at Cafe Cito. During the first third of our meal, service was somewhat sluggish and we thought we might have been overlooked. After our sandwiches arrived, though, the pace picked up considerably — and both our waitress and a roving manager were extremely friendly.

We chalked that up to timing. The restaurant was crowded during our whole visit but we arrived at the tail end of a rush, so we got the short end of the service stick at the beginning of our meal.

Even during the slower service moments, the restaurant's energy was fun and inviting. That, combined with a menu that's both interesting and well-executed, suggests Cafe Cito has a long and happy future in Hampden.


Cafe Cito

Back story: David Sherman, former owner of Nasu Blanca in Riverside, opened Hampden's Cafe Cito in May. During the day, the restaurant is a casual and very good coffee shop with a Spanish-influenced menu; on Friday and Saturday nights, Sherman serves dinner with "more Japanese flair."

Parking: Street parking

Signature dish: The "charcuterie sammy" is a lively and very likable combination of ingredients typically found on a charcuterie tray: caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, fresh spinach and basil and nduja, a spicy salami spread with Italian roots. Top it with a delicately cooked egg for even more heft.

TVs: None

Where: 3500 Chestnut Avenue, Baltimore

Contact: 443-682-9701; cafecitobmore.com

Open: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Credit Cards: All major except American Express

Reservations: Not accepted

Bottom line: Great sandwiches, coffee and Spanish-inspired tapas in a cute, friendly Hampden spot