Wednesday, November 9th was a day my friend Andrew and I needed to get away. Still feeling the aftershock of the previous night’s seismic events, we agreed that we needed to find respite from the chaos seeping through every channel of America. Plane tickets to a Latin American country were a little expensive, plus we both had to attend classes the next day. So we settled for Cali N Tito’s. And what a great respite it was.
When you first enter the parking lot (not even the restaurant itself) of the Lumpkin Street Cali N Tito’s, you are instantly teleported hundreds of miles south to a coastal locale with residents who know how to have a good time. By no means is this place fancy, but it is charming and authentic. The tattered and wobbly picnic tables are not optimal, but you’re willing to overlook it in the name of atmosphere. The outdoor dining area features palm trees rooting out from the pebble sand that layers the entire area, and even a rowboat.
Inside, which is where we had to sit to escape the cold, is only half covered and feels more like a shack alongside a beach. Colorful stringed lights and a collection of seemingly random decorations (like a four foot tall knight’s armor) serve to both provide flair to the restaurant and remind you not to take things too seriously.
Andrew and I ordered our meals at the cashier bar just in front of the lively and multicultural kitchen. I went for the Cubano milanesa, a unique take on your average Cuban sandwich, with a side of camote (Camo-tay), or fried sweet potatoes. He requested, at the server’s recommendation, Tito’s Fish Burrito. Just about everything on the menu is under $8 so, fortunately, we both had enough cash on us to afford our meals, as they don’t accept cards. We neglected to take advantage of the restaurant’s BYOB policy. Though we certainly could have used a few (or a lot of) beers after last night.
Perhaps sometimes you must sacrifice comfort in order to achieve authenticity. We had to switch to a table that was closer to one of the maybe three heaters in the place. But this was not enough to ruin the visit.
Nonetheless, we received our food in a timely manner and were impressed with its presentation and generous portions. My sandwich was sliced into large halves stacked on top of one another and garnished with purple cabbage and herbs. The roll was stuffed with breaded chicken, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, avocado, cilantro, and jalapeno. It was served with a side of “Special Pink Sauce,” which I did not use sparingly. The flavors all combined beautifully into a tangy, hearty, and spicy taste. The camote was equivalent to homemade sweet potato chips served with a chipotle sauce that brought the entire meal together.
The fish burrito was fresh and brimming. It contained lettuce, cheese, red onions, cilantro, chipotle sauce, valentina sauce, and, finally, plantains. The sweetness of the plantains blended with the spiciness of the chipotle sauce and complemented the tilapia exquisitely. I couldn’t help but drench it in the pink sauce too. In fact the pink sauce was so tasty that I couldn’t help but ask a server what was in it. He replied with a smile that it was just ketchup, mayonnaise, and peppers. What I thought to be a secret Cuban delicacy could in fact be easily made at a well-equipped fast food restaurant condiment station. I wasn’t disappointed by this realization, but rather thought it was quite fitting. Just like this sauce, Cali N Tito’s has you think, if only for an hour, that it is something so authentic that you must be in Latin America somewhere. But in reality, you are still back at home, overlooking a BP gas station.
My experience at Cali N Tito’s, though not my first, was a delightful one. It is a melting pot of culinary and cultural creativity. Its ability to transport its patrons to a far away island is unique from any restaurant in Athens. In uncertain times, sometimes we just need a break from it all and go somewhere exotic. Cali N Tito’s allowed me to do that. And gave me one great meal while doing so.