Diner: Home-style, with Gator

Allyn's Café is eclectic and a tad eccentric

If not for a sign noting Allyn's 1991 birth, I would have assumed the place had been around longer. The eclectic, sometimes eccentric, home-style food and atmosphere have won Allyn's a large repeat-customer base. Whether you're a meat-and-potatoes type, a vegan or the sort who wants to say you've eaten gator, there's something for you at the Columbia Parkway cafe.

A friend and I were surprised to find a lively crowd of diners and bar-goers on a recent Monday evening. We settled into a cozy booth in the lower dining room, near the bar. Every table has the classic dineresque alter of flowers and red candles, along with plenty of hot sauces (unnecessary additives for our wimpy taste buds). Wall space is fully utilized ... antique radios, cuckoo clocks, photos of happy patrons and the most impressive collection of German beer steins that I've ever seen.

We arrived geared up for an evening of Cajun and Tex-Mex — Allyn's claims to fame — so we didn't get to try anything from the Italian or Po' Boys sandwich portions of the menu. For the more sophisticated palate, a French section is the most recent menu addition.

The super-long wine list is super-reasonable (state-minimum prices, plus $5 corkage), and Allyn's features over 100 bottled domestic and imported beers.

I had a Great Lakes Dortmunder ($3.25), while my friend trusted his blind faith in the Abita Purple Haze ($3.25), feeling silly when he realized it was a raspberry wheat ("Purple Haze," hello ...). He negotiated a trade. I refused.

Fearing we'd regret it afterward if we didn't, we ordered the Shrimp and Gator ($8.25) appetizer. Blackened shrimp and reptilian tail-meat were served over red pepper and garlic linguini. The menu describes gator as tasting like chicken and pork combined, but beneath thick Cajun spices, it was tough to say. "Chewy, a little rubbery," commented my friend. Nevertheless, the quirkiness factor made it worth it, along with the accompanying triangle of jalapeno cornbread — moist, sweet and smoky. A House Salad (included with my friend's entrée) was nothing out of the ordinary, but refreshing and comforting all the same.

Allyn's has recently added many creative, locally inspired Caesar salads, including a Hyde Park Caesar ($10.95) with blackened yellow-fin tuna and a Mt. Lookout Caesar ($10.95) with chicken. My plain half-Caesar ($3.95) was one of the best I've had, thanks to the anchovy, egg (cooked) and garlic-lovin' house dressing.

I took the server's recommendation of the Black Bean and Tofu Fajita ($8.95) as the best meatless option. All Mexican dishes come with black beans, Mexican rice, refried beans (lumpy and authentic), salsa and sour cream. Inside a thick, floury tortilla, the tofu was soft, verging on mushy, and somewhat bland. But it was piping hot, and melted soy cheese and peppers picked up where it left off. Cilantro-jalapeno salsa atop was more potent than it appeared.

My friend had Al's Cajun Seafood Platter ($14.50) with blackened catfish, shrimp, jerk scallops, Cajun rice and "veg-o-day" (broccoli that evening) with zesty, tangy cocktail sauce. While he loved the scallops, hush puppies and rice, the catfish was too salty for his taste, even after a squirt of lemon.

We finished with Deep Fried Caramel Banana Cheesecake ($2.95). Wrapped in a cinnamon flauta-like shell, I wasn't as disturbed by the artificial banana flavoring as I expected, and oozing chocolate sauce definitely helped.

Our server was casually amiable and knowledgeable, but missed a few details. Water refills were granted upon request, and we had to snatch silverware from a neighboring table when ours disappeared with salad plates.

Al loves his garlic — if you're planning a romantic evening, come well stocked with breath mints. Al also loves music, with live music four nights a week. The Blue Birds Big Band (Swing) on Sundays, an acoustic singer-songwriter's night on Tuesdays, the Goshorn Brothers (Rock) on Thursdays and Dave Nutt (Rock) on Saturdays. ©

Allyn's Café
Go: 3538 Columbia Pkwy., Columbia-Tusculum

Call: 513-871-5779

Hours: Sunday­Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday­Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Prices: Inexpensive to moderate

Payment: All major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken, pork ... and gator! Along with vegetarian sandwiches and vegan-friendly Mexican and salad entrées

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