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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 9.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Taco Tico
Cafe Costa Rica tastes like the tropics

Cafà Costa Rica
141 S. Butler St., 356-9830 (catering: 442-3544)
11:30 am-2:30 pm and 5:30-10 pm daily. All items $6.50 and under. Street and ramp parking. Not wheelchair accessible. MasterCard and Visa.

The Mango Man is on the move today, baking a pork empanada, whirring a banana smoothie, taking orders, making change, clearing tables. The Mango Man is a one-man show, greeting the customers and dishing up the tacos, all with a big Tico smile.

The Mango Man is Thony Clarke, proprietor of the new Cafà Costa Rica, and he is indeed from Costa Rica. From LimÃn, in fact, a sleepy town on the Caribbean coast, land of coconuts, mangos, bananas and lemon trees. It's near Tortuguera, a major nesting place of the Atlantic great sea turtle.

There is not much to remind Thony of sunny Costa Rica in this tiny subterranean bistro near the Capitol, except for a lone potted banana tree, which looks as if it desperately wants to get back home. There are a few tables, seating for 10 at the most, a counter for ordering and nonstop salsa music to set the mood.

The cafà has a subtitle ' El RincÃn Tico ' which means the Tico Corner. And Ticos are what Costa Ricans fondly call themselves. This is the only Tico corner in Madison, and the only Costa Rican restaurant.

In a place this small, the menu is necessarily limited, and wisely so. Still, the Mango Man manages to display most of Costa Rica's typical foods ' mangos, of course, and bananas, coconuts, pineapple, cilantro, plantains and the dish without which any Costa Rican meal would be impossible, rice and beans. Locally, rice and beans are called gallo pinto. Translated literally, this means 'spotted rooster,' and don't ask me about that one.

There is always a daily special, and it always costs $6.50. The most popular is the chicken curry, which customers have requested so often that the Mango Man now makes it the daily special two or three times a week. On this day, the plato del dÃa was roast chicken, a leg and thigh, served with a simple salad with cilantro and, of course, rice and beans. The chicken was roasted to perfection, just enough food to carry one through the afternoon, especially when paired with a (nonalcoholic) piÃa colada smoothie, which is delightfully fresh-tasting. Other smoothies include strawberry, banana and pineapple.

The tacos and burritos here are very good. Each is offered with beef, pork, chicken or tilapia fish. The Caribbean taco is made with a soft-shelled corn tortilla, lettuce, tomato and cilantro, while the Tico burrito is wrapped in a large flour tortilla and served with lettuce, tomato, sour cream and cilantro. Both come with a choice of two homemade salsas, and it is here where the Mango Man shines the brightest.

The green salsa, which he calls Monteverde (after Costa Rica's famous cloud forest) is based on jalapeÃo peppers. The other, Mango Man salsa, is Thony's very own creation, based on a family recipe. It is a red salsa based on habanero peppers, and includes garlic, onions and secret ingredients that the Mango Man declines to divulge. He hopes eventually to bottle and sell it at the restaurant. This salsa is hot enough to enliven nearly any dish, but not scalding enough to cause permanent injury. To my taste, the Monteverde attacks the mouth in a smooth and friendly fashion, while the Mango Man, with a definite peppery character, goes right for the back of the throat. I love it.

The empanadas, encased in the traditional half-moon pastry crust, include veggie, cheese and beef, among others. The Mango Man does not make every kind every day, but you can call and learn what empanadas will be in the oven on any particular day. My pork empanada was terrific, the pulled pork faintly aromatic with spices, the crust flaky and fresh.

The special Costa Rican dinner includes beef or pork, rice and beans, plantains, salad and sauce.

Thony Clarke found his way to Madison the way most immigrants have ' through a family connection. He arrived in the United States in 1998, spent two years near family in Reading, Pa., then in 2000 moved to Madison, where other family members lived. After several years operating a food cart on the Capitol Square, he saw the opportunity, four months ago, to expand into this little basement space. Now he serves from the food cart only at special events around town.

The Mango Man also runs an active catering business, and will be happy to stage a Caribbean party for you and your guests, complete with a full Latin menu, an ice cream sundae and smoothie bar, decorations and lights, and a DJ for dancing. Thony is also working on a liquor license, and soon hopes to add some festive Caribbean drinks to the restaurant menu.

In running a restaurant this small, a guy needs every advantage he can get. So the Mango Man, in addition to cooking and serving lunch and dinner seven days a week, and running the catering operation, and hitching up the occasional food cart, will soon begin serving breakfast for those early-arriving workers across the street in the GEF office buildings.

The Mango Man is definitely on the move.

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