I like small things—microscopic paintings, mini tchotchkes, small spidery handwritten poetry notes that I can tuck into my wallet. And certainly, there is a childish awwww factor involved, but it’s also the idea of being able to carry around this thing that you love, of being able to pocket the pleasure.
Walking by the Red Velvet Café on Fourth Street gives me that tiny, tingly thrill. The bay window in the front, the brightly lit interior is a finger curling in invitation, promising solace and sweets. The new spot is small and adorable: a much-needed respite from the street’s high energy, craft-beer-and-hot-dog-fueled wantonness. Brick walls wrap around, light wood floors and tabletops, and a sparkling clean counter topped with cupcake stands, blackboard menus, and all sorts of coffee paraphernalia. A single pink flower winks from each table.
Owner Krizzia Yanga stands, ready for action, behind the counter, and is soon joined by her cousin Zedeeka Fulay. Both are charming and explain the offerings with enthusiasm. A unique feature—other than the obvious, which is that the café is the only place on the strip serving coffee—is the around-the-world-in-80-cups style of the drink menu. Coffee preparations ranging from Cuban to Vietnamese to Thai are created authentically and to order, featuring house made chai spice mixes and beans from Impero. There are also bubble teas and myriad smoothies available.
As Fulay creates the Thai iced tea, she pours it from one cup to another and back again, over and over from a distance of a couple feet. It’s fun to watch the orange liquid cascading through the air, but it’s not just for trick: “See, I’m pulling the tea to help distribute the sugar,” she explained. Once finished, the drink is topped off with a bit of evaporated milk to give it a marbled appearance. Sweet, with dashes of vanilla and black tea flavors, this could be the drink of the summer.
Fourth Street is the second site for Red Velvet Café; the first, in Pickerington, and was opened by Yanga’s parents. On this night, mom Lida is in the kitchen helping out, as well as running food and welcoming guests. A range of paninis are served, but instead of being filled with the same ole roast beef or tuna salad or blah blah blah, each sandwich is layered with Filipino fillings. As Lida explained, she and her family want to introduce Ohioans to Filipino flavors in a comfortable manner, so instead of serving the dishes on the traditional bed of rice, sliding the meats into a panini bridges the two cultures. One day, they hope to open a Filipino restaurant.
The lechon paksiw Panini (pulled pork) is flavored mainly with bay leaves, onions, and vinegar and is not as sweet as the American version with its sugar-based sauce. It is cooked down until it is so soft it melts in your mouth, the sometimes-stringy, chewy characteristic disappearing into the roasting pan.
Fulay laughs when asked to describe the bistek, a steak version.
“It was the only dish my dad knew how to make and he would marinate the steak all day so it soaked up all the flavor,” she said as she described this process, her hands excitedly make opening and closing gestures, as if soaking up the sauce herself. The actual bistek is a little messy, with the brown sauce oozing out of the sides of the crisped ciabatta bread. It is the deep flavor of the earth, grounded in hints of soy and onion. Each panini is served with a bright baby spinach salad, with sliced tomatoes and salty feta cheese.
There is also hamon (ham), which is flavored with a bit of pineapple, a vegetable panini, and a chicken adobo version, featuring the taste trifecta of bay leaves, vinegar, and garlic. For the morning coffee and nosh crowd, the avocado toast is no joke, with its sort of healthy aura and creamy avocado spread turned into a filling meal with bacon shards, feta cheese and a poached egg topper.
For dessert, there are cupcakes. Like, mountains of them, which is what originally brought the café in Pickerington its legions of fans. Flavors from can’t-go-wrong salty caramel to Buckeye to the purple-hued taro sit in wait underneath glass domes. Taro, a root commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking, is potato-ish, but with a noticeably sweeter lean. Close in flavor to non-overwhelming vanilla, with a delicious, not overly-sweet, buttercream frosting, the taro cupcake represents.
Red Velvet Café is a sweet curio on the Fourth street shelf, but, alas, too big to fit in my pocket. However, I am sure I can fit a panini and a cupcake into my book bag…maybe even two.