Kiva Cafe is a Breath of Fresh Air

Seth talked last week about how downtown dining is all about location, location, location. We may not have the variety of midtown, but we boast loads of places to eat that are pleasant places to be as well.

Kiva Cafe on Reade Street is just such a place, and the food is terrific to boot. Kathy over on Serious Eats tipped me off to Kiva’s $8.50 soup and sandwich deal, and her picture was so enticing that my friend Gigi and I went the next day. The food was just as excellent as I had hoped, and the cozy feel and super-friendly staff make this a place I’ll be returning to often.

It’s a word I hate to use about restaurants, but there’s no way around it: Kiva Cafe is cute. It’s bloody adorable. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.

Not pictured here: Four two-tops against a banquette by the window and about another 6 or 8 stools at a counter on the other wall. I don’t know how crowded Kiva gets–it’s a bit off the beaten path–but I can easily imagine not being able to get a seat.

It’s got a great neighborhood vibe. The guy pictured here, a woman stopping by with her son, and I wound up in a conversation about Norman Mailer’s wives. When was the last time that happened to you at Pret a Manger?

Kathy said the service was very slow, but that was definitely not my experience. We were served very quickly, and all of our food was piping hot. This may be because business was slow when we went. All of the sandwiches are made to order, so I can imagine things getting a bit backed up.

This was my soup, mushroom barley. It sounded perfect for a cold wintry day, and it was. The bowl was bigger than it looks in this picture, and the only reason it’s not full to the brim was that I got the last of the batch, which the guy behind the counter apologized for. My friend Gigi’s soup was nearly overflowing:

That’s a heaping serving of  lentil chili, which Gigi was kind enough to let me help her finish. Both soups were excellent and clearly homemade. The mushroom barley was appropriately mushroomy, and the lentil chili–a soup I wouldn’t normally be that excited about–was so well seasoned that I’d eagerly order it next time.

There are two soups available on any given day, and the selection changes daily. Kathy reported having a Tuscan white bean and a black bean, and based on the two I had, I’d happily try any soup this tiny kitchen cranks out.

Our soups were each accompanied by a half-sandwich for the not-too-exorbitant price of $8.50. The portions, especially of the sandwiches, will likely leave some Lunch’ers a little disappointed, but I wouldn’t leave Kiva hungry on any but my most ravenous of days.

Gigi ordered the Genoa sandwich, which contains salami, cheese, and olive paste. The menu on menupages says that the cheese is mozzarella, but I’m pretty certain that’s not right. I think it was something much creamier and sweeter like a mascarpone. Whatever it was, it was delicious and a great complement to the sharpness of the olive paste, which is an ingredient I’d like to see more of.

The bread on both sandwiches was amazing. Much better than anything I’ve had in the financial district, where shoe leather often seems to be an acceptable vehicle for meat and cheese.

This is my sandwich, the Portabella, which contains the eponymous mushrooms along with parmesan and… drumroll… olive paste. (I guess Gigi and I were really in an olive paste mood.) It’s served warm, and boy is it good. This is one of those that gets a cartoon-style double take after the first bite. All the ingredients just work terrifically well together. The bread, in addition to just being very good bread, is nicely toasted which keeps if from getting soggy from mushroom juice and provides a great contrasting texture.

If you’ve got a sweet tooth after your lunch combo, try a banana-chocolate chip muffin for $1.25.  They’re quite small, but pretty delicious too.

As I said above, I’m definitely eager to return to Kiva Cafe, both for the relaxing vibe and for the outstanding food. The portion sizes, particularly of the sandwiches, definitely leave something to be desired, but the thought and care that’s clearly put into everything Kiva serves makes up for it in my book. Especially when I considered the soups and sandwiches available closer to my office in the Financial District. By and large, the sandwiches are execrable and the soups are nearly all Hale and Hearty, which aren’t bad but all tend to taste pretty much the same.

Kiva Cafe is a place worth the visit, and all the more so because they seem so happy to have you.

THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)

  • A relaxing and comforting place to take a break from the working day.
  • Truly delicious soups and sandwiches made from scratch using good and interesting ingredients.
  • Soup and sandwich for $8.50 is–sadly–a great deal down here.

THE — (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • $8.50 is not a little money for not a lot of food.
  • Not a ton of soup or sandwich options here, and I don’t want to schlep over to Reade Street to find that I hate both of the soups available that day.
  • Kiva is a small place, and I can easily imagine that when it gets busy, service gets slow.

Kiva Cafe, 139 Reade Street (btw. Hudson and Greenwich), 212-587-1198


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