There it was, a generous mound of stark-white yogurt sauce, dolloped on the side of a long plate already stacked with fries and steaming-hot pork shish kebab — shallow olive-oil pools for eyes, a single pimento-ed olive for the round little nose, a curved bit of red bell pepper for the mouth. It was the first tzatziki-based smiley face I'd ever seen. And it was cute, but it didn't make me feel any better.
Six of us came to Mondial Café, which has been open since December on the southernmost end of East Passyunk Avenue, on the promise of Albanian food — situated right on the Adriatic Sea, the country's essentially the net in a three-sided pingpong match between Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe, absorbing all manner of traditions. But our experience, while clearly the result of severe understaffing, was not something you could rightly call a restaurant meal.
Mondial offers full breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, but it seems to be operating mostly as a coffee shop — the scattering of tables inside and out are populated by a customer base of native speakers, nearly all of them male, sipping shots that gracious owner Ervis Elezaj pulls from a centralized espresso machine. Elezaj is a friendly guy, quick with a smile — but unfortunately that's the only thing he's got the capacity to be quick with. I lost count of the number of times the dude, while running both front of the house and back, sprinted up the stairs to the tiny kitchen and then back down while speaking in machine-gun Albanian to a series of lackadaisical men who provided him with no help whatsoever (though one did drop off a complimentary round of wine because we were sitting there so long).
It took more than two hours for us to get all our plates, which came out at a plodding, one-at-a-time, apropos-of-nothing pace. Luckily there was some tasty stuff mixed in, partially making up for the vexing nature of it all. (One bizarre unannounced substitution — the "Albanian meatballs" said to be part of the $10 meze-spread appetizer turned out to be breakfast sausage — ?! — you'd likely find at the Melrose Diner down the street.)
The kitchen was out of farmer-cheese-stuffed eggplant rolls, but we got our dairy fix with a shareable bowl of the fresh queso studded with olives and sided up with sliced baguette. A square of spinach pie was soggy and bland; the Mondial "Special Salad" was not special, mostly salty. We had much better luck with the mains — that smiley-faced pork kebab platter, its tender, grill-marked meat seasoned simply with salt and pepper, was satisfying in its unadorned state; prepped similarly, the hands-friendly ribs-and-fries entrée is also something I'd order again. The rub: There was 90 minutes separating the arrival of these two plates.
"Save the best for the last, right?" Elezaj said sheepishly as he dropped off the final dish to crawl across the finish line, roasted lamb over rice. Well prepared, definitely, but at this point we'd abandoned anything even remotely resembling a compare-and-contrast model. Mondial needs some reliable cooks who'll allow Elezaj to do one job instead of six.
Mondial Café | 1941 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-507-9211. Open Mon.-Thu., 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Appetizers, $5-$10; salads, $6.50-$8.50; entrees, $12.50-$15; desserts, $4-$5.95. BYOB.