This restaurant is closed.
SOHO, which opened on Saint Patrick’s Day, instantly offered one of the most interesting, eccentric menus in San Diego, combining tastes from the South, the deeper South (Mexico and South America), Southern Europe, and a touch of North Africa. Named for my old Manhattan neighborhood (then a slum, now chic and boutique-y), once I saw the menu on the web, I was there in a New York minute, accompanied by my friends the Lynnester, Mark, and Ben-the-Stew (who was on the Tokyo track and so didn’t get marooned under the volcano).
SOHO was founded by two young dudes who’ve worked together at several of our best restaurants. Carlos De Narvaez, at age 26, had managed to save up enough tips earned as a server (and miraculously invested wisely in the stock market) to finance the restaurant — a longtime dream. Chef Kevin Cedillo, 32, has worked at A.R. Valentien, 910, Laurel, and Whisknladle, among other fine restaurants. “I’m basically self-taught, didn’t go to culinary school, so I’ve tried to learn something everywhere I’ve worked. I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years now,” he says.
The multicultural menu springs from his home state of Texas, along with a reflexive Southern politesse (“Yes, ma’am”). He grew up on a ranch in the Dallas area in a Mexican-American family that’s been in Texas for generations (with a touch of German, typical of south Texas). “My grandma [who cooked all the meals for the ranch] is this amazing chef who was making these great exotic recipes, going out to pick cactus, wild onions, wild spinach. From a young age, I had an understanding of how to live off the earth. I always wanted to be a chef; I used to watch PBS cooking shows when I was a kid — French chefs, Cajun chefs…The food in south Texas is a combination of Hispanic and Southern and a little Cajun, and I have a lot of love for all these foods. I picked up some of the other stuff as I went along. I wanted to cook food that I understand from my own experience. Who I am is why I cook the way I do.”
SOHO replaces that burned-out volcano, Vesuvio, an old red-sauce-and-pizza joint. Near the front is a short bar with two flat-screen TVs, muted, and not tuned to sports when we were there. The rest of the room is filled with comfortable booths and unclothed tables, though silverware comes wrapped in chic black napkins.
For table bread, we received a plateful of delicious, wood-fired flatbread, thin and pliable, topped with za’atar — a Middle Eastern thyme-based herb blend and kosher salt — a favorable omen for the pizza.
The dish that drew me here in such haste (lest it go off-menu) is called Surf and Turf — an appetizer of bone-marrow patty topped with shrimp, garnished with grilled octopus and red chimichurri (the Argentine version of salsa fresca). When simply braised, bone marrow is slickety smooth and richly unctuous. To be corralled into a more solid patty, it’s mixed here with house-made cornmeal masa, maintaining its basic flavor, if not its ethereal texture. It’s topped with a large, tender shrimp and surrounded by small pieces of chewy-tender octopus. Argentine chimichurri is usually green, a thick parsley vinaigrette. The red version here is tomato-based, tart and bright. As I guessed, this version of the dish is about to go off-menu; the chef feels that bone marrow deserves to star in its own dish, not serve as support. (I agree!) The surf and turf will be revised soon, the marrow returning later in a purer guise.
Even better are tender, wood-fired Carlsbad mussels, fabulously fresh (local grown), in a broth of white wine, tomato, caramelized leeks, and Spanish chorizo (a tighter-grained, leaner sausage than the Mexican version). Ben wished he could pour all the sauce from it into a glass and add vodka: “That’d make the ultimate Bloody Mary!”
Piquillo peppers are a Spanish breed of medium-size, semi-mild chilies, by custom lightly smoked over wood. Fresh, or more usually canned, they’re a favorite in Spanish tapas bars, especially in a classic pairing with anchovies. Here, the piquillos, two to a plate, are stuffed with melted goat cheese and roasted garlic, a nice combination, arriving half concealed under a dispensable lean-to of toast points.
Over the years, I’ve developed a taste for Southern grits, which are basically American polenta with an earthier texture from the base of dried hominy — large, lime-slaked white-corn kernels — rather than regular dried corn. In the menu’s Dixie representative, country shrimp and grits, the shrimp is putatively blackened (not enough to be bothersome), and the soft grits are mixed with chopped Louisiana tasso ham for a burst of taste and texture but otherwise swamped in gravy. They’re grits for people who don’t think they like grits. It’s a tasty but heavy starter.
(We also ordered a plateful of aged Cheddar hush puppies for the table but never got them. Even after several reminders, the waitress didn’t deliver them and never explained why not.)
A creative mind is at work in this kitchen, turning out temptations based on a relatively modest pantry of ingredients put to varied and ingenious uses — a smart example of how to start an ambitious neighborhood restaurant on a limited budget. I wished I could clone myself and my friends so we could try the panko-breaded shrimp cake with cactus and avocado mousse, or the harissa-tossed fried cactus with cilantro crème fraîche, not to mention rabbit mini–corn dogs. Not so much the black-eyed pea cake with salsa verde and truffle crème fraîche. (Sorry, to me black-eyed peas are for New Year’s Day, found in Hoppin’ John or Texas Caviar; and that does it for the year, truffles or no truffles.) Chicken mole poblano, which takes the chef a half-day to make from scratch, is offered as an appetizer, mainly to introduce mole virgins to the dish. It’s a filling dish (the sauce is based on chocolate), but hey, if you’ve never had it, may as well start here.