Do you ever get the wrong impression from a place just from its name? That's my story with The Mermaid Cafe, a coffeehouse that serves select sandwiches, soups and homemade bakery items in Schenk's Corners, where Winnebago meets Atwood on the near east side.
Somehow, early on, I got the impression that The Mermaid Cafe was a sub shop. Not so. It's much more of a coffeehouse that serves a few excellent sandwiches -- not subs. When a coffee joint has some word that's coffee-related in its name, like "joe" or "java" or "beans" or "grind," it seems like it's primarily devoted to coffee; and if the name's a non-coffee-related word paired with "cafe," it seems like it must be more about the food.
I don't know where exactly that leaves The Mermaid Cafe, which is named after a line in the Joni Mitchell song "Carey" that talks about buying a bottle of wine, laughing, toasting to nothing and then destroying your empty glass. Well, this Mermaid Cafe doesn't serve liquor and it closes at 3:30 p.m., so it's unlikely that you'll encounter that kind of romantic, reckless behavior.
But with its chalkboard menu and free scrawl-wall and somewhat vegetarian/organic-leaning menu, you may well be reminded of a cafe in northern California circa the early 1970s. And if you're a fan of that nearly perfect Joni album Blue that "Carey" is from, you may find yourself humming songs off it long after your visit to The Mermaid is over. (It turns out that songs really are like tattoos.)
But, more to the point: The Mermaid Cafe has some of the best sandwiches and panini around, ranging from $5-$7.
From the sandwich menu, the bahn mi immediately caught my eye, due to my recent encounter with the bahn mi at Angkor Thom Market. This version is roast beef on a real crusty baguette, with the traditional bahn mi pickled veggie condiments of daikon radish and carrot, with cilantro and a soy mayo. There was no application of liver paste on this one, but the marriage of the flavors, while perhaps not 100% traditional, did make for a terrific sandwich. The baguette was also a fine counterpoint to the veggies inside.
The "Dehli Deli" is a turkey and avocado sandwich on whole wheat, with coconut curry aioli. The curry comes through loud and clear, and the avocado -- real avocado, not green sour cream -- is a delight.
One of two soups of the day, the Caribbean carrot, was a knockout: colored a mild mango orange, it was flecked with cilantro. The mellow flavor leaned heavily to ginger with a little, I think, allspice. The cilantro leaves could have been minced, and the ginger did start to become too predominant halfway into the cup, but it was a vibrant soup, far from run-of-the-mill broth ($3.50 cup, $4.50 bowl).
Other sandwich selections include brie and ham, roast beef and homemade hummus, tuna, and "the Mermaid's lunch" (cheddar and basil pesto). For breakfast, check out the breakfast sandwich, made with New Century Farm organic eggs. The coffees are fine, or choose a fair trade organic tea. Brownies, carrot cake, and vegan cupcakes fill out the pastry case. There's limited seating, with a bar in the window and a handful of tables.
Sure, it's a far cry from Matala, but Schenk's Corners seems like the perfect spot for The Mermaid Cafe.