Swiss Classics at Cafe Hibiscus 

Waiter, There's Aloha In My Soup

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DINERS HALF-JOKE about thrashing reviewers who call attention to their favorite undiscovered haunts. Until now, I've never truly understood this rather myopic sentiment. Given the unusual, highly affordable, and hearty Swiss classics served at Cafe Hibiscus, however, I'm hesitant to sabotage my future visits in the service of publicizing this noteworthy little neighborhood phenomenon.

If you've ever driven down NE Alberta, you've missed it. I never saw it until last month, despite living in the neighborhood for three years. Tucked behind a medical office just yards off the main strip, chef and owner Jennie Wyss serves a focused menu of hard-to-find (hard-to-find-done-well, at any rate) old-world comfort dishes like jagerschnitzel with spätzle, Szegediner goulash, and rösti. Her restaurant, with its blended Hawaiian-Swiss decor and straightforward Swiss cuisine, is an inviting mix of refined food and warm hospitality.

Cafe Hibiscus' offerings distinguish themselves by coming across as neither excessively portioned nor overly rich. It's a rare thing to walk away from a full plate of such food without dreading the next hour of laborious digestion. Here, starch-supported entrees of sausages, stews, and schnitzels seem delicate despite their ample portions. The prices are also curiously low for dining room service: entrees range from $8-12 (prices are rumored by the staff to rise this year, which will no doubt get them in line with the average entrée index of about 1983).

Free, hot bread may seem like a trivial thing, but its significance to a restaurant guest—here: sit and be fed before the routine of cost and choice begins—is of primal importance. This disappearing token of hospitality is wordlessly provided, along with ramekins of their family's mysteriously smooth and tangy Swiss dressing.

Before I start to sound like Andy Rooney's hack brother, though, I'll move on to the heart of the matter.

A variety of cold salads are available as appetizers, but start with the Swiss Salat Teller sampler ($8.75, plenty for two). Chilled and richly flavored, the Wurst Salat with thin half-moons of knockwurst and cheese, as well as the Tuna Salat (light, fresh, and aromatic with dill), were stand-outs. A hot starter of Croute Emmental ($7), toasted bread topped with thinly sliced ham, Emmenthaler cheese, and a mushroom cream sauce, is also substantial enough for two to share.

Entrées come with either a crisp, creamy fresh coleslaw or simple green salad, and a choice of either spätzle or rösti. Rösti ($5) are the ultimate expression of hash browns: shredded, mixed with a mince of bacon and onion, and fried to a deep golden crisp. (They are offered with a $1 fried egg when ordered à la carte, which makes for a solid mid-day or evening breakfast.) Spätzle, "little sparrows," are a small dumpling something like a twisted gnocchi; batter is knifed off a board into boiling water, set, then lightly browned in butter. These are a strictly traditional example, the style I remember from a trip to Bavaria.

The goulash ($12.50) is tender, braised Carlton Farms pork in a light cream sauce, and typically lives on the specials board. The most expensive special on offer was the pork jagerschnitzel with chanterelles in a light sauce reminiscent of a pan-built demiglace (a princely $14.50). For only $9.50 there is no better deal than the bratwurst plate: a large, juicy, velvet-smooth sausage grilled and smothered in deeply caramelized onion petals, served with a tube of sharp Swiss mustard. A thick and fully flavored vegan lentil stew ($9.50) will satisfy guests of any dietary stripe without seeming like an obligatory menu inclusion.

Worth noting is a large section of affordable yet uncompromised children's fare that hews respectfully close to the adult offerings. There are no burgers or chicken nuggets, but rather a carefully chosen assortment of $3.50 wienerli (frankfurters), schnitzel (chicken or pork, with browned butter and lemon), cheese or marinara spätzle, and rösti. The warm and educated staff is family friendly, happy to run either crayons or pints of Stiegl helles to your table.

Also worth noting is a five-item sandwich menu ($8-$9, including salad or coleslaw), featuring a sturdy wienerschnitzel cutlet version, as well as a cult-favorite herbed roast chicken breast.

We over-fed a family of five on well-prepared and graciously delivered food for $40 one evening, including an outlay of their no-frills desserts. A Swiss cafe awash in Aloha vibes might sound like something of a novelty act, but in simple terms of value, service, food quality, and my immediate desire to return for lunch the next day, it's a far more serious contender than its quiet reputation would lead one to believe.

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Open Tues 5:30-8:30 pm, Wed-Sat 11:30-2:30 pm for lunch and 5:30-8:30 pm for dinner. Beer and wine only. Reservations recommended.

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