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It’s a mall, yes, but this is no food court

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For several months, I’d heard friends and even strangers praise the food at Santa Fe Fashion Outlets, aka The Outlet Mall on Santa Fe’s southern edge near Interstate 25. I remained skeptical until a holiday shopping trip took me and a friend out that way. We arrived too late for food, but we had a cappuccino and a couple of pastries, including a beautiful, flaky, freshly made apple tart. What we sampled impressed me enough to make return visits for lunch and breakfast on other days. I wasn’t disappointed.

Cafe Vingt Cinq is owned by Joel Mazire, formerly a pastry chef at La Fonda’s French Pastry Shop. You usually see him on duty here, along with members of his family, both behind the counter or delivering orders to customers in the small dining room. The name translates to Cafe 25, a reference to Interstate 25, which has an exit nearby.

Because of the inauspicious setting, the high quality of the food surprised me. So surprised, I came back to make sure I hadn’t just caught the place on a rare, inspiration-filled day. Nope. Breakfast was as good as lunch. Having eaten my share of good meals at hole-in-the-wall cafes and mediocre meals at fancy-schmancy places, I should have known better than to stereotype.

Cafe Vingt Cinq
LOCATION: 8380 Cerrillos Road at the Fashion Outlet Mall, Santa Fe, 505-474-7300
HOURS: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays

Cafe Vingt Cinq, unlike food businesses I’ve sampled in other shopping malls, serves freshly made, upscale, adult choices. This family-owned, one-of-a-kind restaurant doesn’t specialize in 99-cent hamburgers or chicken nuggets. Instead, you can get a latte and a blackberry tart, house-made soup with good crusty bread or introduce your children to a fruit or chocolate crepe as a special treat. The food also is more expensive than standard mall fare, but decently priced for the quality.

At breakfast, a friend and I selected treats from the pastry case, which the staff assured us had been baked that morning: a small, buttery croissant and a very yummy raisin roll with plump soft fruit and a light sugar glaze. The coffee was fresh and hot and strong. My friend and I shared the Torte Normande, a quichelike treat of scrambled egg, ham, cheese and beautiful roasted red pepper wrapped inside a pastry crust and served like a high-rise slice of pie. What a pretty and delicious way to start the day. The torte, and the three varieties of quiche, are served with fruit for breakfast – sliced canned peaches and fresh strawberries and blueberries.

(Other breakfast options include French baked eggs, three poached eggs in a herb cream sauce, as well as the classic French breakfast of a baguette, jam, butter and coffee or a New Mexico Breakfast Sandwich, which pairs a sliced croissant with ham, cheese and green chile.)

My main complaint about breakfast is that it was pricey – $26 for one entree, two small pastries and two standard coffees. And, sadly, the hot food came on ice-cold plates, which led to it cooling off faster than I could enjoy it

Unlike breakfast, lunch options include daily specials posted on the blackboard as well as the regular offerings of sandwiches, panini, salads and crepes. Prices range from about $6.50 to $12.50. We sampled the mushroom soup, a respectable, hearty version and one of four soup flavors offered that day. I also liked the Turkey Panini with Swiss cheese and pesto. The bread was thin and crisp, the contents hot. Very acceptable.

I enjoyed the ratatouille crepe even more. The light, thin crepe was as long as the plate and loaded with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and a sprinkling of mozzarella that melted into the hot veggies. The crepe came with a beautiful little salad of fresh greens, red onions, cucumber and salty olives. I found the salad dressing too tart.

The waitress offered drinks refills and checked in on us with a smile. The restaurant invites customers to order at the counter, take a number and then wait for the food to the delivered. This is French food, remember, not fast food, and waits lengthen when the restaurant is busy.

The ambience? Cafe Vingt Cinq is exponentially more charming I would have expected from a space that sits between a mall entrance and the way to restrooms and the security office in a discount shopping mall. If you sit facing the display cases of palmiers, Napoleons and éclairs or the mural of a Parisian street scene, you can suspend reality. Listen to the piped-in French music and enjoy the food.

Cafe Vingt Cinq offers a pleasant place for a pre-shopping breakfast, a simple lunch or a leisurely mocha break between credit card swipes.