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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Thony Clarke and Lora Garrett
Café Costa Rica, 141 S. Butler St.

Credit:Susan Kepecs

Why you should go: Café Costa Rica's Latin soul food packs lots of bang for your buck, and the little downtown hideaway is loaded with tropical ambience.

In 2005 you were working three shifts on the street - "Mango Man never sleeps," you said. How's life changed, now that you have the restaurant?

Clarke:More work! I'm more comfortable cooking, my creative mind is gettin' down with it, and our clientele is growing. But we still have the cart. Mango Man is out and about.

Garrett: We're not doing the late-night cart, so that's a relief. Literally, the carts were going 24 hours a day - one of us would sleep while the other would get the next cart ready. The restaurant's more responsibility, but it's not 'round the clock, which is great.

What inspired you to open the restaurant?

Clarke: It was fate. Mario [Moya, who, with wife Yolanda Fabregas, owned Guantanamera, the Cuban spot at this location] wanted to retire. He kept insisting that we take over. Finally we talked to the landlord, Chris Quinn, a really excellent guy. He helped us out.

Garrett: The deal was falling through - the funds we'd counted on didn't come through in time. We were about to give up. We thought it wasn't meant to be. Chris saved the day; he called us up and said, "You're doing it!" He financed the project for us. We celebrated our grand opening a year ago July. We still keep a picture of Yolanda and Mario on the counter for good luck.

Any new creations on the menu?

Garrett: The lunch menu's similar to the cart's, but dinner is a little more sophisticated. It's good Central American home cookin', but we kicked it up a notch.

Clarke: People must try the Island Special of shrimp or fish in yummy coconut sauce. The recipe comes from my mom, but I take it to another level. It's a burst of flavor that feels so good, kind of sweet and acidic at the same time. It comes with rice and beans, and salad.

Besides what's on the menu there's gonna be a lot of new specials to keep things interesting. It's our job to keep people coming in - there should always be new things to try. For fall I'm launching a coconut extravaganza. I've got a whole bunch of tasty recipes with coconut and ginger.

Garrett: We're doing breakfast, too. We open at 7 a.m. We have café con leche and really good, strong Costa Rican coffee or espresso.

Clarke: The Tico sunrise breakfast, Gallo Pinto, is rice and beans with tortillas and eggs scrambled with onion, tomato, cilantro and garlic. Plus coffee. And we have Wi-Fi.

Garrett: Thony's been making up new drinks, which is funny 'cause he doesn't drink.

Clarke: The "Dark 'n' Stormy" - that's me! No, really it's ginger beer with lime, Jamaican Myers's rum and ice. You can also have it without the rum. All our drinks come with or without alcohol. Our little girl is addicted to the nonalcoholic mojitos. Now we're doing a mojito smoothie, too. I'm the Mango Man, you know - I'm a smoothie freak.

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