DINING REVIEW: Smiley's Cafe will have you grinning

BY MB PARTLOW mb.partlow@gazette.com - Published: August 2, 2013 | 11:25 am 0

I can't count how many times I walked by Smiley's Cafe and Bakery and thought, "I should stop in there sometime." I was always in a hurry, always on my way to somewhere else.

Now comes the part where I kick myself. When I finally did cross the threshold, I discovered a delightful, homey restaurant with ample portions of down-home comfort food. They bake their own bread. They offer four kinds of pancakes, which they serve all day. The tables and chairs are as mismatched as the decor, but it all works as eclectic charm.

First, a note about the service: When you walk through the door, you'll proceed across the dining room and place your order at the counter by the bakery cases. Food and drinks will be brought to you, but the busier they are, the slower the service may be. Also, the entire menu is written on chalkboards behind the counter and on the adjacent wall. For people like me, who want to read the entire menu before they decide, it can be awkward.

You can start your day at Smiley's with breakfast. They don't open until 8 a.m., which leaves out some early birds, but the wait is worth it.

All the pancake batters are made from scratch. You can get a stack of buttermilk, Louisiana sweet potato, 4-grain or Southern cornmeal for $5.95. The best part? You can mix and match your stack if you want to try more than one kind. That's what I did on my pancake plate ($7.95), which came with two pancakes, two eggs and my choice of breakfast meat.

Since the sign out front said, "Best bacon in town," I went with that. A big boast, but the bacon was thick cut, properly smoky and just salty enough, with a hint of sweetness. The 4-grain pancake was thick, fluffy and nutty, very hearty and filling. The cornmeal pancake was thinner and crisper, with a tiny crunch from the cornmeal.

The only thing that would improve the pancakes would be if they came with real maple syrup instead of faple (fake maple). Faple syrup fails on so many levels, from texture to flavor, that I'm not sure why it even exists. Before I start gnashing my teeth, let me say that Smiley's offers the option of blueberries, blackberries or chocolate chips in your pancakes for an additional $1.50, and if you take that option you can skip the syrup completely.

If you aren't up for pancakes, you could have a breakfast sandwich, all of which come on thick, toasted slices of homemade white or whole wheat bread. The Emma Lou ($7.95) holds two eggs, pepper jack cheese, dill cream cheese, bacon and sliced tomatoes. The vegetarian got a handful of fresh baby spinach substituted for the bacon. The cream cheese really pulls the sandwich together without being heavy. The sandwich comes alone, with nothing on the side.

Another treat is the crabcake omelet ($9.95). These are real crabcakes, with just enough binding to hold them together, enlivened with Cajun seasoning, celery and onion. The omelette comes with a bright remoulade sauce (the bigger and bolder brother of tartar sauce), plus home fries and two huge slabs of toast.

Walking the line between breakfast and lunch was the shrimp and sausage grits special ($7.95). A big bowl of creamy grits (slightly underseasoned) was studded with sweet chunks of breakfast sausage, which were topped with shredded cheese and plump, juicy shrimp. This came with two eggs, which were cooked a little past the requested over easy, and cornbread. The large bowl of grits overshadowed the eggs hiding on the platter beneath, making the eggs difficult to get at. A separate plate for the eggs and cornbread would have solved the problem nicely and made it easier to maneuver the eggs onto the grits where I wanted them.

Willing to be accommodating, the menu at Smiley's says you can substitute your meat, toast or home fries out for crisp vinaigrette greens, cheese grits or sliced tomato. This is a nice feature, especially for vegetarians.

Squarely on the lunch side are the salads and sandwiches. The Cajun turkey po'boy ($8.95) is a combination of roasted turkey, fresh lettuce and tomato, cream cheese and real olive spread on a sufficiently sturdy muffaletta bread. The Cajun potato salad on the side, one of several to choose from, was decent. Flecked with diced onion and celery for crunch, it had just enough Cajun seasoning in the mayonnaise dressing to make it interesting but not overwhelming.

Another treat is the Asiago crusted ham and tomato cheese melt ($8.95). Fat, juicy slices of tomato and thin slices of ham with your choice of cheese are sandwiched between two thick slices of bread. The outside is slathered with butter and coated with Asiago cheese, then grilled. This is like a grilled cheese on steroids - crispy, salty, chewy and cheesy.

The honey chipotle pecan and mandarin orange salad ($8.95) is food porn on a plate, plus it's delicious. Fresh mixed greens with ribbons of carrot, wheels of cucumber and chunks of tomato are topped with mandarin oranges and these decadent, sweet, spicy pecans for crunch and heft.

For an extra charge, you can add blackened fish, a crabcake or Cajun roasted turkey. I opted for the fish ($4), and it was flaky and moist, a nice complement to the veggies.

Do yourself a favor next time you're on Tejon Street. Don't walk by Smiley's, walk in.

Restaurant character: Casual, relaxed and comfortable, like a farmhouse kitchen. Mismatched furniture and eclectic decor make it a place you can be equally at home reading the paper by yourself, taking your family or having a business lunch. And the food is pretty dang good.

Rating total: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Food: 4 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Service: 3 out of 5 stars

Value for the money: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Address: 323 N. Tejon St.

Contact: 328-9447; no website

Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday

Entrees: $5.95-$9.95

Alcohol: No

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: Yes, plus any item with meat can substitute sliced tomatoes or spinach.

Wi-Fi: Yes

what's online

As of July 24

- 90 percent of 195 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 3.5 out of 5 stars based on 49 reviews on Yelp

- On Facebook but not active.

- Two violations were corrected during a January inspection by the El Paso County Health Department

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