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Small World

Haven't we liked this place before?

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If the woman at the register seems familiar, that's because she is. Betsy Thomas served you with a smile at her Carytown business, Betsy's Coffee Shop, back before she sold it, and she served you at Ellwood Thompson's before she decided to buy CafAc Ole. These days Thomas is serving up fast Mexican food downtown.

For the half-dozen of you Richmonders who haven't visited CafAc Ole, let's revisit the things you can deduce based on what you've learned so far. It's independently owned. It's family run. And the owner's a food industry professional — but not the type that's worked in every local kitchen for a month, gotten bored, gone on a bender and missed a shift. Thomas is the kind of restaurant professional who adds value wherever she goes.

Still skeptical? Is it because I said fast food? Let's clarify our terms: This food is fast. If you come during lunch rush (which is the only option, actually), there will be a line, but it moves quickly. You'll need to get your eyes on that chalkboard menu and decide, because your turn's coming.

A novice can't go wrong with the fish tacos; the place has made a name for itself on the strength of this recipe: blackened tilapia with mango and apple, chipotle honey sauce and red cabbage for bite.

If you're particularly hungry, the big-as-your-head burritos are filled with nicely grilled steak, chicken or slow-cooked shredded beef. Each variety gets added kick from flavorful Spanish rice and beans.

The other staples of fast, low-brow Mexican-American fare, tostadas and quesadillas, offer the palate a reminder of what these straightforward but all-too-often-neglected culinary inventions really can deliver: delicious sustenance in just the right amount of time. 

Even the tortilla chips get extra attention with a few crisp flautas in each order of the standard corn variety, a surprise as special as a note from your mom in a brown bag lunch.

More than at any other meal, lunch is about location, and nestled near the corner of Sixth and Main streets, Ole is a restaurateur's dream: high volume practically guaranteed. But constant crowds equal success only when a kitchen operates without any snags, and Thomas and her staff seem to know how to flow. What's more, they seem to like what they're doing — an especially important trait in a completely open kitchen. 

Thomas maintains a relaxed smile in the midst of the noon storm, and she won't be irritated if you stand in the wrong line on your first visit. But the routine is two lines, two registers. Go all the way to the left to pick up the to-go order you phoned in. 

At first glance this may seem the best option, judging from the length of the line. But the dine-in counter moves surprisingly fast. The staff behind the counter communicates clearly, expediting orders and keeping tables turning. So don't panic at the mass of humanity that stretches from the cashier to the door.

I've ordered out, walking away with a sack of delicious, fast food. If you stick to the burritos and tacos you can get out without Styrofoam, a detail that must please employees at the James River Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Partnership for Smarter Growth and the League of Conservation Voters, which all share the building with Ole.

I've also settled into a table and noticed that unlike other fast-food restaurants, CafAc Ole offers plenty for diners to observe. It's not elegant dining, but it's a clean, comfortable, engaging space. There's a wall-sized map of the world that gives a sense of connectedness to the agencies on the floors above. The clientele wear the uniform of downtown businesses, but otherwise represent the diversity of the capital. 

They sit, hungry and slightly grumpy, and then bite by bite grow happily fed. For just a moment after my meal I watch the crush and flow of urban life and the merging of cultures and the smiles of the people as they pause to savor a simple pleasure before returning to their workaday world. Then I relinquish my table to the next in line. S

CafAc Ole ($)
2 N. Sixth St.
225-8226
Lunch weekdays
Wheelchair accessible
Nonsmoking

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