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TJ’s Cafe lives up to expectations ... and then some

TJ’s Cafe lives up to expectations ... and then some

I’m glad TJ’s came to my attention so I could tell you how nice it is. When you’re thinking of Apple

ALBANY — TJ’s, an unpretentious, friendly little restaurant has escaped my notice until now. Happily, it has been firmly on the radar for lots of folks who are familiar with its casual charm and comfort food.

On a weeknight, the restaurant was almost full. The lighted board in the vestibule touted the specials: homemade chicken orzo soup, chicken Parm ($8.99), and 14-ounce prime rib ($15.99). We gave it a glance before heading left to the dining room. The door to the right leads to the bar. There were still two tables open, and we were seated right away.

The decor is uncomplicated: knotty pine paneling, hanging plants, carpeting in a muted color, and padded metal, bentwood-style chairs. Red vinyl tablecloths over white cotton add a dash of color. The A-frame building is sideways on the lot, giving the long side of the dining room the busy Central Avenue aspect. Ceiling fans turned lazily, pushing down warmed air.

The server took our drink order right away and reappeared almost instantly, which set the tone for the rest of the night. Without feeling rushed, our needs were attended to quickly and courteously.

TJ’s Cafe

WHERE: 1135 Central Ave., Albany, 438-7457,

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays.

HOW MUCH: $76.95 for two dinners, tax and tip

MORE INFO: Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover, Diners Club. Children’s menu available. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted Monday to Thursday, call ahead on Fridays and Saturdays.

Check out the menu on their website, which gets points for displaying the correct date at the top of the page and for the sexy photos of the chicken Parm and prime rib. In addition to the usual burgers, hot and cold sandwiches and salads, there's a focus on Italian-style food and homemade comfort food.

Entrees come with salad, and we each also ordered soup. Lisa’s French onion soup ($5.75) was not too salty, and the onions were exceptionally sweet and chunky, she said. I adored the chicken orzo ($3.99 for a cup) and, of all the food we had that night, it stood out for its genuine flavor and chunks of soft chicken. You must try their soup.

You must also sample the bread, from Prinzo’s Bakery in Albany, served with lots of foil packets of butter. I broke my diet rule of no unnecessary butter because, although the bread was good enough on its own, the buttered end piece was exquisite, so good I ate it slowly just to savor it.

It seemed like a good idea to sample a starter, and we were glad we did. The toasted ravioli ($8.49) comes with marinara or raspberry sauce, and we got both. I dipped a ravioli in marinara and took a bite.

“The sauce is spicy,” I told Lisa. “No,” she said, “the ravioli are.”

They were great with both sauces, and I liked the fluffy ricotta filling. By the way, the marinara was delicious.

Meanwhile, our salads arrived just as I like them, on chilly glass plates. TJ’s salads are made with Romaine you don’t need to cut up. Thank you. They also found some respectable red tomatoes, a treat this time of year. We really enjoyed the abundant croutons and the homemade dressing.

Our table was already crowded with dishes but there was more to come. Lisa ordered the Shrimp and Scallops Flamingo ($17.99), and chose linguini for her pasta. The jumbo shrimp and sea scallops came in a tomato cream sauce that was sweet and flamingo-colored, sort of, and delicious. Lisa couldn’t eat much at this point, but said the leftovers didn’t last long. It’s a specialty, and it is special indeed.

The most expensive menu item is surf and turf, with a choice of 10-ounce sirloin or 14-ounce prime rib and shrimp scampi or broiled scallops, for $23.99. It comes with potato or pasta and salad, and of course, bread. The chicken parm is regularly $14.99. It was Tuesday, chicken Parm night at TJ’s, and I saw delicious-looking platters at several neighboring tables.

My steak ($15.99), another TJ’s specialty, was the weak part of the meal. It was perfectly cooked and a little bit charred, just the way I like it, but this one had a bit too much gristle and not enough fat. Their 10-ounce sirloin is choice grade, and it was tasty otherwise. I enjoyed the baked potato even without the butter and sour cream.

At this point, I ordered mac and cheese to go ($6.99) for husband Eric because I could tell it was going to be good. Meanwhile, Lisa and I shared a colossal slice of red velvet cake ($6.99) enhanced with chocolate ganache in some of the layers and real white and milk chocolate drizzled over the cream cheese frosting. This cake did not need the accompanying mounds of vanilla-flavored whipped cream, but we didn’t complain.

The tab for dinner, with tax and tip and two glasses of wine, came to $76.95, not including the takeout. We each had tote bags of food to bring home, mine smelling of garlic bread.

Eric was happy indeed: The mac and cheese, made with rigatoni and creamy sauce with toasted buttered breadcrumbs, looked just like the gorgeous picture on the website and tasted even better. He reported that the bread was loaded with chopped garlic, “moist” with butter and among the best he’s ever had.

I’m glad TJ’s came to my attention so I could tell you how nice it is. When you’re thinking of Applebee’s or those similar places, do yourself a favor and go to TJ’s instead for homemade food.

Do you want homemade food and Prinzo’s Italian bread or food that comes in on a truck? I thought so.

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