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DINING OUT

Cafe menu offers a bit of everything

Prospect Cafe
137 Prospect Road, Waltham
Telephone: 781-736-0101
Open seven days from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Accessible to the handicapped
Visa, Master Card, and American Express accepted

What you notice first at Prospect Cafe in Waltham isn't the wafting pizza aromas, the kitschy furniture, or the yammering of the chefs in the kitchen.

It's the massive menu, spread across six orange boards along the wall. Here, you quickly realize you have stumbled upon what could be Waltham's jewel sandwich shop. Sure, you have the obligatory Hawaiian pizzas and meatball subs. But browse a little longer and your eyes will feast upon rare delights (for a pizza joint) like grilled peach salad ($6.24) and smoked salmon, goat cheese, and capers on a French Roll ($5.71).

At this point, you become overwhelmed with the choices. Menu items have indecipherable number-and-letter combinations, such as the 8K hearts of palm salad and HS5 prosciutto, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, and olive-oil hot grilled sandwich. And then there's oddball pricing ($5.71?).

I had passed the Prospect Cafe several times since it opened about a year and a half ago, but the fluorescent lights, nearby auto shop, and college-aged customers never drew me in. But recently I found myself Googling the menu and was shocked to find the eatery boasting ingredients like artichoke hearts, avocado, and brie. I had to check it out.

Just to be clear, you're not going to Prospect Cafe for a first date or for the swank ambience of some Moody Street restaurants. This is where you take hungry friends who want South End meals at Leominster prices. The eatery is lined with flat blue carpet -- the kind you find in libraries -- and a box of ziti sits on otherwise bare shelves.

You can hear everything that goes on in the kitchen, including the time the young woman working the register was scolded for taking our split pizza order -- ''Never do that again!" -- but cooked the half Buffalo chicken, half portobello mushroom pizza nonetheless.

Begin the meal with a salad. Don't argue. I usually write off Caesar and Greek salads as automatic letdowns at pizza and sub shops. But Prospect Cafe won't disappoint, even if they sneakily swap ingredients on you.

The Fig Salad (at $6.24) featured chewy sweet dried figs over a spring mix of greens, Parmesan, walnuts, and prosciutto. It was tough to cut with a plastic fork (that's all we were offered), but at that price, it was delicious nonetheless.

The arugula and shrimp salad ($5.71) hooked us with its combination of ripe avocados, crunchy red onions, arugula, small shrimp, and oranges. The menu offered grapefruits, but oranges arrived on our plate instead. We didn't complain. The slices were sweet and fresh and paired well with the shrimp dressed in a sweet balsamic vinaigrette recommended by the woman at the register.

The hot grilled eggplant sandwich ($6.19) topped with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomato paste, and mesclun mix was surprisingly bland. The fried eggplant was a bit mushy and the condiments came up short. With so many tasty options, don't bother with this one.

The double stuffed Red Sox sandwich was a big hit even though we never ordered it. When my boyfriend requested the Bentley College sandwich with chicken salad and bacon, he also asked if the television could be switched to the Red Sox game. Apparently, that turned into an order for a tasty Red Sox sandwich ($6.50), with smoked turkey, ham, Swiss, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on homemade rye bread, and, unfortunately, no Red Sox game.

The roasted beets sandwich ($6.50)was my favorite before I even tried it. Beets are one of those slimy vegetables that you either love or hate. For beet enthusiasts like myself, there simply aren't enough beet options to go around. So when I spotted the sandwich with my beloved beets, caramelized onions, roasted Roma tomatoes, goat cheese, toasted walnuts, and spinach on focaccia bread, I fell hard for the Prospect Cafe.

The sandwich itself was dreamy, with tangy goat cheese and crunchy walnuts smothering the beets on thick, scrumptious bread. Usually happy to share with my fellow diners, I hogged the sandwich and wrestled it back from my boyfriend.

Our half Buffalo chicken, half portobello mushroom pizza didn't excite us as much as the sandwiches. The thin, wheaty crust was our favorite part.

The Buffalo chicken pizza was topped with lots of sweet, smoky barbecue sauce that reminded us of a favorite store brand. The portobello mushroom half also featured roasted red peppers and goat cheese.

By now, you are overloaded with carbs and content to go home. But don't -- until you've tried the homemade baklava ($2.86) -- a large flakey triangle of perfection. It's sticky, sweet, and dense with distinct flavors of honey and nuts.

At Prospect Cafe, the service is quick and friendly, but a bit gruff. When complimenting the chef on the expansive ingredients, he barked back, ''You gotta be different." Prospect Cafe's got that down for sure.

JENN ABELSON

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