In N. Liberties, parrilla waits to be set free

Arbol Cafe serves a mean lomito, but the owners hope soon to fire up an outdoor grill in their triangular garden.

Let others plow the postindustrial earth for their boxy hotels and anomalous high-rises. Oscar and Beth Acuna have more modest plans for their little corner of Northern Liberties.

That corner would be the isosceles garden outside their tiny Arbol Cafe, pointed like a ship's prow toward the Standard Tap (across Second Street at Poplar) - a sip of green in a sea of brick.

And in it, come spring - the Lord willing and the entire business climate don't tank - Oscar has plans for what might be the city's first outdoor parrilla, which is to say a wide, wood-burning fireplace upon which Paraguayan (or Argentinian, or Brazilian) strip loin steaks and chicken thighs will be char-grilled.

Beth, who also owns a family video store in Narberth, has her own plan: Movie nights; old classics flickering in the night on a big, blank wall.

Arbol Cafe is a cozy hidey-hole in its own right, a half-dozen tables, exposed brick walls, a red-white-and-blue-barred Paraguayan flag draped near the door, a salute to Oscar's national origin. (His family owned a small restaurant near Asuncion where he picked up home cooking and meat-cutting.)

It has a modest breakfast-lunch menu, trimmed down from its first printing: "We had more," says Beth. "But all they wanted was lomito. Lomito. Lomito!"

So the lomito ($7.50) they get. It is a robust affair, not skimpy on the protein, the classic version of the sandwich: a thin piece of steak (but not paper-thin), smoked turkey ham, "broken egg," romaine, port salut cheese, and mayo on a buttery brioche from Le Bus. (There are a sprinkling of soups and bagel sandwiches, too. But who cares?)

There is also a supremely comforting dish (available for Saturday and Sunday brunch) called asado a la olla con kiveve (key-vay-VAY). This involves tender, beefy short ribs that are slow-cooked in their own juices, paired with a revelation (to me) called kiveve, the native Guarani word for the irresistibly lush butternut polenta that is as canonical - and fanatically personal - in Paraguayan cookery as cheese grits are in South Carolina's Low Country cuisine.

Oscar starts the kiveve by boiling butternut squash, then adding onions sauteed separately, then mashing the mixture before sprinkling it with the cornmeal, mozzarella cheese, a bit of cream and - this, he says, is a difficult balance - the proper proportion of salt and sugar.

It binds you to the stove, as slavishly as a proper risotto: "For a half an hour," he says, "you cannot move. You have to stay on top of the kiveve," stirring until it is just the right texture - neither too runny, nor too thick, looser than mashed potatoes, but not watery.

In the end, though, it is the combination of the meaty beef with the mildly sweet, creamy polenta that gives the dish its personality - a sum far richer than either of its parts.

Arbol, of course, is Spanish for "tree." And it is ultimately the garden outside where the Acunas see the future of their BYO cafe. It is in tatters now, its life as the rustic patio for the coffee shop that preceded Arbol in evidence.

Weeks ago mothballed heat lamps still stood forlornly, tin soldiers chained to a tree trunk. Strands of bulbs looped around the perimeter, freshly re-fenced. A weatherbeaten tire added an Appalachian touch.

But a landscaper had been hired. The fence was nearing its first staining. The crated parrilla was yearning to be freed - eager to sear its first skirt steaks with honeyed guava sauce.

Behold the glimmer of a garden of eating in Northern Liberties. Beer under the stars. Smoke in the spangled trees.

Let us pray for its safe passage and early flowering.


Arbol Cafe

209 Poplar St.
215-284-5788



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.