Ain’t She Sweet Café

(Lily Gabaree)

Ain’t She Sweet Café in Bronzeville serves up a smoothie worthy of a billboard–but glistening condensation and an upright straw meet their match with a decidedly solid sandwich. Originally opened in 2006 at another location two minutes away, the café relocated to its current space in 2010. Everything still seems new, and crisply clean, save for one exposed-brick wall. The set-up is simple: seating for twenty or so at small wooden tables, and only a countertop spread with cookies and brownies separates the dining area from the kitchen workspace.

Works by local artists adorn warm gray walls: a colorful painting declares, “I VOTED FOR OBAMA.” Black-and-white photographs of street scenes from Bronzeville’s past hang as reminders of the remarkable history of the surrounding neighborhood–Louis Armstrong’s old home is just around the corner. A wall-mounted TV quietly plays infomercials; a temptingly cushy couch shares a corner with a tic-tac-toe board.

The menu has comfortable standards–saucy sandwiches and crisp paninis, soups and smoothies, brownies and shakes–with some creative twists. Neighborhood favorites, according to the menu’s asterisked designations, include “Da Steve,” piled high with turkey, turkey ham, turkey bacon, cheddar, peppers, and more on a croissant, and the “Caribbean Jerk Chicken Wrap.” My companions ordered the Reuben Panini, the Chicken Caesar Wrap, and the Sweets Panini (chicken). After we ordered, a server presented us with paper place mats and a bag of chips each, though there was no promise of them on the menu.

The Reuben Panini proved heavy on the sauerkraut but not overly flavorful. The Sweets Panini (chicken, tomato, turkey ham, provolone and honey mustard) was better received amongst the group, though too light on the provolone cheese. The best came last in the Simply Panini. Simply furnished with deli turkey, tomato, spinach, Swiss cheese, and dabs of mustard, the panini was perfectly toasted, and the mustard surprisingly spicy.

More unusual were the accompanying frozen beverages. The vanilla milkshake came “blended with milk and flavor boosters,” as the menu reveals–perhaps the root of the  strange aftertaste. The culinary creativity continued to flow with the Muscle Up Smoothie. Composed of chocolate milk, banana, and peanut butter, the concoction was a bit like drinking liquefied Reese’s cups. While exciting for the first few sips, it turned overwhelming towards the end of the meal, certainly keeping its promise of hearty sustenance.

And then came the Very Berry Mixer. A friend (who frequents Jamba Juice four times a week) was suddenly silent after her first sip. Her eyes squinted thoughtfully, and, with the air of one betraying a dear friend, she spoke quietly–“It may be better than Jamba Juice.” Passed around the table, everyone confirmed the Very Berry’s superior fruity bliss; it was reminiscent of childhood popsicles, a blueberry-raspberry-strawberry summer in a sip.

Such welcoming coziness and gustatory satisfaction made it all the more surprising that, when we walked in–at noon on a Saturday–we were the only customers. Eventually things picked up a bit, several customers trickling in at a time, many ordering a sandwich to go. Perhaps it is more crowded during the week: Ain’t She Sweet bills itself as a meeting spot for local young professionals and friends. With six years of business behind them (two right next door to another café, the Bronzeville Coffee House), they’ve clearly tapped a certain market.

Their secret lies in their ability to make regulars out of passersby. I suspect we’ll be returning for the smoothies and the wonderfully friendly servers who bestow drinks with pleasant remarks. We munched happily on our chips and sandwiches, sipping our shakes and smoothies, and debated taking a Very Berry to go–alas, it was finished even before we managed to make it out the door into the afternoon sun. 526 E. 43rd St. Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm; Saturday, 11am-6pm. (773)373-3530.