We walk into Carmen’s and are met with an 18-seat horseshoe-shaped bar made of polished wood. Near the front window, which is framed by blue lights, there’s a shorter bar where you can sit, dine, and watch the crowds wander down Palafox.
We’re invited to sit wherever we’d like. Since it’s relatively early we get a good place at the bar with a view into the small kitchen. The bartender-cum-waitress immediately makes a point to enthusiastically tell us about the specials, of which there’s an entire sheet. MariCarmen Josephs opened Carmen’s to offer colorful food with eclectic nods to Spain, Italy, Mexico, India, Thailand, and Morocco. Her mission is clear from the variety of the menu.
We’re tempted by Thai yellow curry crab chowder, but go for the special at our waitress’s urging. It’s Indian beet and coconut milk soup, thick and tinged with garam masala, serrano chilis, and lime. Cilantro and mint garnishes offer their own accents to the coconut-y flavor.
Next, a Carmen’s favorite: Spanish lump crab toasts. There are five of these chewy-crunchy toasts layered with spicy arugula, chunks of jumbo lump crab and chorizo, a smidge of saffron, and gooey manchego: comfort food with a Spanish twist.
We also get carrot-whipped potatoes with kale, blue cheese, and bacon. Baked until golden in a Spanish cazuela, they’re an interesting blend of textures and flavors: a good option if you’re craving baked and mashed potatoes at the same time.
Next, a chicken tikki masala slider with cucumber-mint raita. The specials menu is offering clementine-ginger pepper jelly to go with another dish. But they are happy to bring me a portion. It’s sweet and spicy, moonlighting nicely as a chutney with the tikki.
Decidedly different but no less delicious is Julie’s North Carolina BBQ slider featuring MariCarmen’s mother’s blend of two North Carolina-style sauces. The meat is tender and the slaw well dressed. The BBQ sauce is zesty, with huge chunks of slow-cooked onion.
Finally, crustless cheesecake. It arrives in a white cup with brown sugar cream cheese frosting and a sprig of mint. The inside is less cheesecake and more blueberry pudding, but lovely with a glass of red wine. Speaking of wines: The list is well-rounded and nicely priced, with something for everyone.
By the time we’ve finished every morsel and get up to leave, the crowd has grown to include families, dates, and friends. No wonder: This is a comfortable place with comforting food.