1055 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
House of Blues' stated mission is to celebrate African-American cultural contributions to America's music, art, and cooking. Founded with financial backing from Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, Aerosmith, and other celebs, HOB (as they abbreviate it) opened in a converted historic mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving 1992, with a meal for the homeless. (It continues that tradition today.) Since then, it's expanded nationwide into a chain of restaurant-nightclubs and larger performance venues.
The dining rooms are separate from the nightclubs, so you don't have to go to a performance to eat there. And in this season of strained wallets, you don't have to spend much to have a good meal and a great time.
At the San Diego HOB, decor is down-home and colorful. Every free inch of wall space is festooned with the fabulous folk art of the African diaspora -- New Orleans, Haiti, the rural South, etc. To my tastes, it's the best art museum in town. You can eat on the outdoor patio on Fifth Avenue, or inside in a simple dining room with wooden tables and chairs (with a little padding). No carpet, no tablecloths -- just that vibrant art to feast your eyes on (plus several large TV screens if that's your preference) and a blues soundtrack to go with it.
The menu, common to all of the chain's locations, is designed to appeal to every taste and budget -- Southern-inspired fare with an emphasis on Cajun/Creole dishes, mildly creative pub grub, and vaguely Mediterranean comfort food. Michael Catalano (formerly of Molly's) is executive chef of the San Diego kitchen, but chefs from all over collaborate on the recipes, with the strongest input from the Los Angeles outpost. As an aficionado of Louisiana cooking, I approached the restaurant with skepticism. Could a committee of corporate chefs devise an authentic version of such a distinctive cuisine? To answer that question, I started cautiously with the Gospel Brunch buffet (see below) and, when that passed muster, returned for dinner with the Lynnester, Samurai Jim, and my partner.
We began with the Cajun smoked turkey and shrimp filé gumbo (ordered from a menu section called "From the Stock Pot"). It was surprisingly acceptable, based on a well-made roux, with plenty of meats and veggies and just the right amount of rice afloat in a tasty broth. (It's a sin when restaurants dump too much rice into gumbo.) It was a little short on spice, so we asked for hot sauce. The waitress brought us a bottle of HOB's own Bayou Heat, which resembles Louisiana Red. Now, all along the southern Mississippi, good cooks have their own special gumbo recipes -- no two identical. In some circles, it's considered rude to ask people what they put in their gumbo, unless you're a close friend. HOB's rendition, on the other hand, is in no way personal or eccentric. It's still very nice -- Gumbo 101, with an easy passing grade.
Voodoo Shrimp is inspired by the New Orleans' misnamed "barbecue shrimp" (which is simmered, not barbecued). It offered tender shrimp in a smooth bittersweet sauce, the bitterness coming from a reduction of Dixie beer and piney sprigs of rosemary. The sweetness came from hunks of rosemary cornbread soaked in the sauce. Jim liked it so much, he threatened to eat it all.
A duo of grilled sausages included semi-spicy, full-flavored Louisiana andouille, and boudin, a milder Cajun sausage. The andouille was what it should be. The full-flavored boudin was neither the loose, plump, creamy white boudin from south of Lafayette, nor the funky, liverish brown boudin of the Cajun Prairie. In fact, I suspect it's not boudin at all, but another middling-spicy Cajun sausage called chaurice. Whatever its name, it's delicious. The sausages come plated over mild Creole mustard-cream sauce, surrounding a hill of stiff, lumpy, skin-on mashed potatoes, topped with diced roasted red peppers, chopped tomatoes, and canned black olives -- a flavorful, minimalist version of a pasta sauce.
We wanted to try one non-Southern appetizer, just to get a more complete picture of the cooking. We chose the wrong one: "Mediterranean" fried calamari. It was overcooked, oversalted, and undersauced (and the sauce wasn't very good either); anything else has to be better.
If you don't want a serious entrée, you can choose a main-course salad, sandwich, burger, or individual pizza. We did want serious entrées, and for those, we returned to the banks of the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya. The jambalaya was a tight mixture, with flavors well mingled (not the lazy cook's simplified version with Creole red sauce over boiled rice). It offered shrimp, chicken (including drumettes, which were better than the dryish breast pieces), andouille, tasso (spicy Cajun smoked ham made from pork loin), and whole roasted scallions. We stirred in a splash of Bayou Heat to help it along.
The rack of slow-smoked Tennessee-style baby-back ribs proved so tender and mild, you know it had to spend more time simmering than smoking, even though there's a smoker on the premises. The Jim Beam BBQ sauce is simple and molasses-sweet. The combo doesn't strike me as typical of Tennessee barbecue -- unless maybe they mean backyard barbecue from the white suburbs of Nashville. Certainly, it doesn't taste like spicy-tangy-sweet downtown Memphis Q, nor fiery-smoky rural African-American Q, like the long-gone Red Devil of Tullahoma, Tennessee. (Where the devil did he go?) But it's an amiable dish, especially with buttery mashed sweet potatoes alongside.
The huge slab of "Cajun" meatloaf is light textured and initially enticing, but its simple flavor soon wears out its welcome. It comes with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, and, that night, undercooked baby carrots (those bagged pared-down carrots from Florida, not real babies). The bronzed catfish fillet also makes a stab at Louisiana cuisine, with lightly battered fried-fish pieces, carefully cooked but somehow lacking. "They've got all the right Cajun spices," said Jim, "but no Cajun flavor." The fish's companion was a mound of fascinating fiery chipotle risotto, sticky reddish rice similar to the jambalaya but spicier and also richer. "It almost tastes like there's sour cream in there," said my partner. It wasn't a bad guess -- there is dairy in the mixture, butter and Parmesan cheese.