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CHEAP EATS

Shango

3260 Main St.

837-2326

4 pennies (out of four):

"Change is good"

I'll admit it. I was apprehensive about the change at first. My favorite Sunday brunch, my favorite chicken panini sandwich, my favorite friendly wait staff. What where they going to do to my beloved Coffee Bean Cafe, I asked myself when I heard back in January of their planned reconstruction and name change?

Not to worry. Everything I loved about Coffee Bean is back, and I'd venture to say, better.

The University Heights hangout was the ideal college coffee shop for close to a decade. Not many people knew about it so it felt like a personal secret, but it was always busy enough that you didn't worry about it closing. With a new name, Shango, and a newly revised menu that keeps much of its New Orleans cuisine in tact, I'm hooked all over again. It had me at Shango.

The new decor is stylish and dark, like a fine bistro in a hip city. A new (faux) brick wall is accented with cantilevered single bricks holding votive candles. Exotic plants fill in the spaces where a new layout of tables makes a more convenient flow of traffic. And the room's trademark alcove, previously home to an upright piano, is now a separately decorated private booth -- so beautiful we couldn't stop admiring it despite its lack of diners that night.

We started off with the signature gumbo with chicken and andouille sausage ($3.95 cup, $6.50 bowl). Mine was a special gumbo of the night and had a corn base; spicy, rich and hearty, just like I imagine it is Down South.

My friends enjoyed the aforementioned chicken panini ($7.25). On the most delicious panini roll -- crisp on the outside, tender and moist on the inside -- were baked chicken tenders, asiago and provolone cheeses, Italian spices, sliced tomatoes and some dashes of balsamic vinegar.

Seeing as it was my first time at an old standard, I decided to go out on a limb and not order the usual. My cornmeal-fried oyster salad ($8.95) was colossal and filled to the brim with the freshest of ingredients: baby spinach, goat cheese, roasted corn, truffle potato chips (wow!) and a warm andouille sausage dressing. The oysters were juicy, yet crispy and toasty.

These specialties only skim the surface of what Shango's best qualities are. (A full dinner menu is also available but fails to comply with our strict Cheap Eats dictum.)

The famous Sunday brunch is still, in my opinion, the reason to go. Poached eggs with Creole seafood cakes and smoked salmon ($9); pesto scrambled eggs with prosciutto ham, parmagiano reggiano cheese served over buttermilk biscuits ($9); and the ultimate, brie-stuffed French toast with banana rum sauce ($8).

The large U-shaped coffee bar is no longer (a new liquor license and an expanded seating arrangement took its place), but with change comes sacrifice.

But it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make, for an old friend.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Sunday brunch.

The new decor is stylish and dark, like a fine bistro in a hip city.