Note: This restaurant has closed
I didn't know much about Cafe Zula before heading for dinner there one Friday night in September 2003. I knew it was a relative newcomer to San Leandro (being only a couple of years old at most) and that it served Creole food. I had a vague memory of a visitor to my website recommending the restaurant to me some time ago and the little I'd found about the restaurant on the web had been positive, so I figured it was worth a try.
Despite its tall ceilings and wide facade, Cafe Zula occupies a deceptively small space on East 14th St. In San Leandro. The room is quite pleasant and cheery, its elegance being a bit surprising for the neighborhood. Even more surprising are the prices on the menu; most main dishes start around $16 for pretty simple fare. Indeed, the menu could not have been simpler. There were 5 or so appetizers (mostly vegetables and seafood) and a few more entrees (these included fried and roasted chicken, a pork chop, a couple of steaks, ribs, gumbo and jambalaya and a few seafood dishes). All main dishes came with a choice of two side dishes (which included mashed potatoes, twice-baked potato, cabbage, macaroni & cheese, rice & beans, carrots, sweet potatoes and others). In all, I think you could describe the fare more as "Southern" or even all-American than Creole.
We split two appetizers of deep fried zucchini and popcorn shrimp. They were both well received. Michaela, in particular, liked the parmesan cheese that came with the zucchini (she's a cheese fiend, what can I say?).
I had the roasted herbed chicken as my main dish, with a side of mashed potatoes and carrots. The chicken was good, tasty and juicy, if a little skinny, but not more remarkable than the chicken I make in my home rotisserie. For $17 I was expecting something more exciting. The mashed potatoes and gravy were fine - and Mika ate a couple of the boiled carrots. Mike had the smothered short-ribs, with sides of mashed potatoes and macaroni & cheese. He liked the ribs and I thought the (wine?) sauce was pleasant but not particularly outstanding. Again, it's the type of food I can make at home without too much trouble. The macaroni & cheese, on the other hand, was a complete failure: overdone and not very flavorful.
Our friend B. had the grilled snapper, which seemed to come with a bell pepper salsa. He liked it well enough, but we thought the portion was pretty skimpy for the price. Our friend C. had the Caesar salad, which she found to be merely "fine."
We skipped dessert, which seem to consist mostly of pies.
Service was fine - the (corn)bread and water were replenished, and the waiters worked well in the small spaces between the tables. They had highchairs, and there were several kids (though none as young as Michaela) the night we visited, so you shouldn't have any problem bringing your kids here (as long as they don't want to get up and wander around, there just isn't enough space for that). The room is quite loud, so even the yelps of an excited baby blend into the background noise.
All in all we had a good dinner, but we all felt it was too expensive for what it was and we are unlikely to go back.
635 East 14th St. (near Dutton)