At several nearby tables, the starter (or perhaps main dish) was one of the four large, exuberant-looking salads: Southwestern Caesar; pear with walnuts and bleu cheese; blood orange with cheddar; and a house salad with a Middle Eastern slant, including pine nuts.
Topping the entrée menu is Meyer Natural Beef flat-iron steak rubbed with Moroccan spices. It arrived rare as requested, the meat tender on its bed of Israeli cous-cous, punctuated with gently chewy black garbanzo beans (a locally rare pulse called channa dal in its homeland, India). Dried currants and a tangy pomegranate demi-glace turned the dish into a faintly exotic sweet-and-sour affair, although the sauce obscured whatever Moroccan seasoning had been rubbed on the steaks.
The braised short-rib, also from Meyer, is exemplary in its tenderness and meaty flavor, set off by the brightness of a Peruvian cherry salsa. Smoked tomatoes and spinach surround a hulking tamale. Typical of South Texas home-style tamales, the masa shell is dry and heavy. It’s filled with goat cheese; to my tastes, a more gooey, indulgent cheese, such as Oaxaca cheese, might give more pleasure going up against that masa.
We considered ordering mini rabbit corndogs as an appetizer, but under interrogation, the waitress confessed that the house-made sausages were the same in the entrée of rabbit sausage orecchiette with caramelized leeks, cremini mushrooms, piquillo peppers, and rabbit jus. We wanted to taste that rabbit jus, so we went for the pasta. It proved a hearty, interesting mix but was brought down with a thud by the blandness of the rabbit sausage slices, about as sprightly as store-bought kielbasa. (Rabbit tastes like chicken — so rabbit sausages taste like chicken sausages.) In a do-over, we’d try them as the appetizer corn dogs, where the crisp coating would liven them up.
Inspired by his stint at A.R. Valentien, chef Kevin wanted to work with rabbit but decided to gently introduce San Diego eaters to the meat — and found that even the sausages get reactions: “Is that Peter Cottontail?” In any event, the chef plans to substitute lamb chorizo for the rabbit sausage in this dish, an excellent idea, as it is a vibrant-enough meat to play against a thick pasta.
With a wood-burning oven probably inherited from old Vesuvio (what use is a pizza oven if your pizza is rolled too thick, your sauce too boring?), SOHO is a natural for making burgers and pizzas. Mark said he’s looking forward to going back for a lunchtime lamb burger (with feta, pickled red onion, chermoula aioli, and tapenade, on a Sadie Rose buttermilk bun with yucca fries on the side). Shrimp pizza caught my eye: In college, my favorite pizzeria turned out a version where the shrimp seemed to swell and crackle. Here, the shrimp pizza is small, delicate, a bit soft-crusted, with goat cheese, pine nuts, tomato, and chimichurri on a light, thin crust similar to the za’atar flatbread that opened the meal. It has fewer and smaller shrimp than that ancient college-town version, and they don’t swell and crackle, but it is quite good. It may even be better than the one I remember — after all, time is a one-way street with no U-turns.
A dessert of brioche bread pudding for two was heavy and homey, given unexpected crunch by nuts. We also tried a plateful of beignets (New Orleans–style doughnuts), but alas, they were heavy too, compared to the airy Café du Monde originals. Double alas: There’s no espresso, merely Starbucks dark-roast (blah). Triple alas: Our charming, feckless waitress got distracted and forgot to bring it until we were nearly done, although we’d requested it served along with desserts.
SOHO still has some kinks to work out (e.g., service, plus some fine-tuning of the menu), but it’s off to an impressive start, another terrific asset to North Park’s burgeoning dining scene. “Can you imagine a place like this opening here ten years ago?” Ben marveled. In those days, aside from Kensington Grill, there was no creative cooking east of Park Boulevard, and very few interesting neighborhood restaurants. Now there really is such a thing as “neighborhood food” here — not just grim deliveries from Vesuvio’s. Sometimes, it’s a good thing that time is one-way — at least when it comes to eating in San Diego.
Good Restaurant News
Most breaking restaurant news now goes into my new blog on the Reader website. Some bloggish samples of fun eating at fair prices:
Through the end of summer, on the first Saturday of every month, Saffron offers authentic Thai street foods on the patio 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., including Thai crepes filled with shrimp or chicken and Thai-style oyster pancakes.
King’s Seafood Co. restaurants now let you BYO wine with no corkage charges. So pull out that Bâtard-Montrachet you’ve been saving before it goes brown: May 1–July 4, they’re featuring whole steamed Maine lobster with drawn butter (or, for a few dollars more, in a whole New England–style clambake with clams, mussels, etc.) at reasonable prices, based on size (starting at $23.50 for a one-pounder, on up to $43.75 for three pounds, which is about the limit for maximum tenderness). It’s not the lowest price in town — I’ve tried places that offer weekly specials of loss-leader lobsters for less, until they run out of them fairly early in the evening — but dare I say that when it comes to lobster, you pretty much get what you pay for?
- 3 stars
- (Very Good to Excellent)
3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park, 619-764-5475, sohorestaurantandlounge.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday, noon–closing (about 9:00 p.m. weeknights, later weekends or when full).
PRICES: Lunch sandwiches and pizzas $7.50–$13; dinner salads, soup, appetizers $5.50–$11.50; entrées $15–19; wood-fired burgers and pizzas $11–13.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Eclectic, creative mixture of Southern, South American, Mexican, and Southern European flavors. Short, smart list of affordable wines, plus craft beers.
PICK HITS: Surf and Turf (bone-marrow patty, shrimp, octopus); wood-fired piquillo peppers with goat cheese; wood-fired Carlsbad mussels; Moroccan-spiced flat-iron steak; braised short-ribs with goat-cheese tamale; pizzas. Good bets: mini rabbit corndogs; lamb burger; salads.
NEED TO KNOW: Street parking. Plenty for lacto-vegetarians. Happy hour (4:00–6:00 p.m.), $2.50 discount on appetizers. Good potential grazing dinners from wide array of imaginative starters and salads.