At first, Dino’s feels like we are on familiar ground. Jacket potatoes with tuna mayo or cheese and beans, omelettes and all-day big breakfasts: it’s a typical menu from any one of the bright, busy little caffs which speckle Canton’s Cowbridge Road East.
But look closer. Falafel. Hummus. Shawarma. Lamb kabseh: a smattering of Levantine favourites. Burgers, handmade here rather than frozen pucks bought in by the boxload, include ones called ‘Syrian’ and ‘Turkish’ rather than the usual welter of ersatz Americana.
Those falafel come hot and crisp with a garlicky, citrussy hummus and soft, unleavened khobez. It doesn’t take long to work out there’s some noticeably good cooking coming out of that kitchen. Chef accepts my compliment with a smile and point at ‘the boss’ to show where the inspiration comes from. It suddenly makes sense: he’s Syrian.
Grills are served rice or chips- or half and half if you must. The chicken shish is expertly done, more vigorously spiced than many you’ll find locally, and beautifully tender. It’s a combination of spicing, char and tenderness which is enough to make you a breast believer. It’s all soundtracked by Arabic music and the reassuring whirr of the juicer as my drink- a good, pulpy apple- is made to order.
You should already know how good the lamb chops are – good enough to make my ‘Unsung Heroes: Alternative Cardiff’ list and cooked with skill and understanding. Another lamb dish- kabseh– is the result of patience. It takes half a day to prepare, I’m told, this tumble of whisperingly tender lamb on top of rice with toasted flaked almonds and perfumed with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric and more- a secret blend ‘a little of this, a little of that’. It’s gorgeous stuff.
Nothing is wasted- you get a bowl of the rich, dark lamb cooking liquor, a gutsy treat as you slurp it down. And slurp you will. Or gulp if you must. Overall this is a close cousin of the mandi I’ve told you about before at Hadramowt and Al-Madina Mandi and The South Kitchen. And to labour the point- to find this alongside scrambled eggs on toast and sausage and chips is the best kind of surprise.
I have walked past Dino’s hundred of times: six days a week for years. So I’m embarrassed it took me this long to find out what happens here. But I’m glad I know now, because I love finds like this. This is why I write about food in Cardiff: because it’s fun to find genuinely good cooking in unexpected places and tell you about it. There’s an honest, welcome simplicity here. Perhaps it’s wrong to be surprised that a Cowbridge Road café can feed you like this: and perhaps the lesson here is to be open to that huge number of interesting places that don’t live their lives on Twitter. Because, ultimately, everyone needs a Dino’s in their back pocket.
Dino’s Cafe 327 Cowbridge Rd East CF5 1JD
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A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.