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Cheap Eats; Creative panini, relaxed setting make for good Karma

Everything about Cafe Karma is designed to encourage visitors to have a seat and relax.

The lighting in the spot, formerly occupied by the Daily Grind, is a bit subdued. The tables, which include a few high ones to look over the crowd, are comfortable, and one features a chessboard set up for play. A bookcase offers volumes to peruse, and an area in the back holds a drum kit for the live music that's been scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and the open mic nights.

When Evonne and her children, Alex, 6, and Thea, 2, met me there on a recent Saturday just before noon, we were focused on sampling the food.

Evonne had stopped into Cafe Karma a few weeks ago to grab a sandwich, one of the daily specials, and was still raving about it. She probably could have had the cooks reconstruct it for her, because customers are encouraged to design their own drinks and sandwiches, with the phrase, "If you want it, we can make it!" printed on the menu. But we decided to choose from the menu.

Evonne and I started with 16-ounce glasses of iced tea ($1.50), and they were exceptionally flavorful. We also sampled two smoothies ($2.99 for a 16-ounce glass), which were offered in many flavors of fruit, pina colada, coconut and lime. My strawberry smoothie, topped with a swirl of whipped cream, was rich with fruit and bursting with flavor. Evonne and the kids shared a lime smoothie, made, at the barista's suggestion, with a splash of kiwi for sweetness.

The menu offers salads -- chef for $4.99, Greek for $5.49 and julienne for $6.49 -- but we were attracted to the "signature panini" listings.

These can be made on Italian bread, marble rye or focaccia. Panini with meat are $6.49 and without meat are $5.49. The suggestions range from a delightful-sounding vegetarian one made with portobello mushroom, roasted red peppers, onions and Italian dressing to a Dagwood, made with ham, turkey, corned beef, lettuce, tomato, coleslaw, onion, cheddar cheese, horseradish and mayo.

After a few minutes of staring at the menu, we made our selection, ordered at the counter, and sat down to play a simplified version of chess with Alex, in which he combined elements of Battleship, Chinese checkers and whack-a-mole into an ever-changing game.

Although the place was busy, our food came out quickly. The children each ordered hot dogs ($2.99), served plain on fresh rolls with a handful of ruffled potato chips. Both dug in and although Thea ate things in order -- first the chips, then the entire hot dog, then nearly the entire roll -- both finished nearly every bite.

Evonne's Caprese panini was made with Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, spinach, red onions and pesto (she could have also chosen pesto aioli, which blends olive oil and egg yolk into the basil). She enjoyed the mixture of flavors, particularly the balance of onion and pesto, which each had the potential to overpower the milder cheese and tomato.

My Cubano panini was made with smoked ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and house Dijon mayo. It was tasty and, like the Caprese, nicely grilled, with deep panini press marks and tasty toasted edges. The pork on the Cubano was diced and scattered, so that taste was a bit hit-or-miss, but otherwise all was well.

After lunch, we went out the back door, where there is additional parking, and looked straight down into the locks of the canal. Don't miss that stop when you visit!

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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CAFE KARMA    

3 pennies (out of four)    

"Quality cafe food."    

WHERE: Lockview Plaza, 21 Main St., Lockport (439-0929)    

HOURS: 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.    

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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