2469 Broadway, Golden Hill
The sign is in Cyrillic script, fresh-painted on the wall: “pectopaH.”
That has to be “restaurant” in Russian. I recognize the classical Greek alphabet. Some time ago, Carla and I had a moment when we tried to learn it, and alI I remember is that Ps were Rs, and Cs were Ss. So, I guess the sign’s saying, “Hey, got a restaurant here.”
Yeah, here’s another sign, right near the first: “Tasty peasant food cooked slowly & devoured greedily.”
And, at the front, another: “Kafe Sobaka.” I’m guessing again here, because this one’s written in Russian-style letters, too.
This is on Broadway, Golden Hill, just before 25th. Can see people inside at candle-lit tables. Looks cozy. Maybe they have a happy hour?
A guy in a wheelchair talks with a gal at a lecturn. “Happy hour finished ten minutes ago,” says the gal when I ask. “But please come in.”
She has an eastern European accent — how can I refuse?
She leads the way into a place that looks new and old at the same time. Bunches of herbs hang drying from the ceiling on strings, in front of an iron-grille gate that leads back to a beautiful little bar area. Ancient wooden shelf at the back is loaded with wine bottles and flasks filled with golden- and ruby-colored transparent liquids.
“Those are vodkas,” says the gal, Marina. “We’re infusing them with different fruits and flowers.”
I see labels. “Apple,” “marigold,” “pomegranate,” “chocolate orange,” surrounded by red and white bunches of “grapes” made luminous with LED bulbs.
I sit at a high table made of blond wood. Birch, I’m betting. A little nervous at what this is gonna cost me.
“Don’t worry,” says Marina. “We have four prices for every dish. Communist, Socialist, Imperialist, and Anarchist. Every Communist-size dish costs $2.87. Something to drink?”
“The most popular is Baltika. Russian. We have Baltika-0, no alcohol; Baltika-1, light, 4.4 percent alcohol; Baltika-2, a lager…”
She goes all the way up to Baltika-9, “a strong lager with 8 percent alcohol.”
“How much are they?” I ask.
“Six dollars each, any strength. It would be $3 in happy hour. Vodka, too. Sorry.”
I go for Baltika 9, natch.
She hauls out a deep-frosted glass-handled mug and starts pouring. Then she lights two candles mounted on old candlesticks.
“So you can read the menu,” she says.
“Kafe Sobaka, Restoran Pomegranate,” the menu reads, “a ménage à trois of Georgian, Russian, and California Cuisine.”
It promises “seasonal produce, faraway spices…and foraged ingredients that we learned [about] at the knees of our babushkas.”
The nitty-gritty starts with “Zakuski,” appetizers.
The simplest dishes seem to have the longest monikers. Like, zharennaya tsvetnaya kapusta is fried cauliflower in spicy breadcrumbs. That’s $2.87 Communist size, $5 Socialist size, and $7 for greedy Imperialists. Meaning, mini-plate, half-plate, and full-plate.
Marina tells me that something called khinkali is pretty good. Dumplings stuffed with beef and lamb. The menu says: “A mountain dweller from the Caucasus will have this dish…. If your feet are tired, eat these dumplings and your daily troubles will be forgotten.”
This beer should help with that, too. Oh — the Baltika’s tasty. No Arrogant Bastard kick in the teeth, but a strong, malty feel to it, and, hey, 8 percent.
I nibble on the black bread and herbal butter Marina has brought and take in the atmosphere. Music, candles, lamps with woven-basket shades, a giant wooden bear smoking a pipe…
Time for decisions. For a starter, I order communist-size borscht, the classic Russian soup made with beetroot and potatoes and other veggies.
What I get is small, but plenty for an appetizer. I ask for the khinkali, those beef-and-lamb dumplings. Socialist, $6.75. Three of them. They’re nice, with yogurt and parsley.
Then the beautiful Marina is back, not believing that I’d stop there. I don’t. I go for the fried cauliflower (Communist size). Good, savory flavor, but it’s only three sprigs, so next I order derevenskaya skovorodka ($7). It’s potatoes, onions, and mushrooms fried in duck fat. “This sets the stage for gulping beer,” the menu writer — the owner, I’m sure — says. “For this dish I could easily kill my older brother.”
Delish, it is. I spend some time trying to nail the duck fat, but it must be hidden in the complexities of garlic, onion, herbs.
And now I notice I’ve halfway downed my pivo — beer. Wow, that 8 percent’s working.
Just need a little something to top things off.
“Why don’t you try my favorite, the kuchmachi?” Marina says, only she pronounces it kuchimachi.
It’s chicken liver fried with garlic, onions, cilantro, and other herbs. Costs $7.50 for the Socialist, $9.75 Imperialist. I go Socialist. And, it’s the best dish of the evening. The livers aren’t too livery, and the onions and cilantro give them extra flavor. Dang, but it’s good with the dark bread and the pivo.
Marina tells me she’s from Kazakhstan. She’s a champion figure-skater. Was in the Asian Olympics. She’s famous in Kazakhstan and just retired at the ripe old age of 25.
“Well, I’ve been skating since I was four,” she says. She’s here studying English and business and reminds me that Kazakhstan’s current oil rush makes North Dakota’s boom look like peanuts. A business degree sounds like a wise move.
I’m about to leave when the guy in the wheelchair stops by. Mark Djugashvili. He’s the owner. Used to be a book designer with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the publishers, till they left San Diego. “I had to do something,” he says. “So I got a hot-dog cart.”
That was at Fourth and B. Since then, he’s started eight restaurants. “There are ten Georgians living in San Diego,” he says. “What we love most is camaraderie. And wine. The French sip their wine. We gulp ours. We’ve been making it for 7000 years.”
Mark says that Georgia — in the South Caucasus — is where man first cultivated grapevines.
I ask him what “Kafe Sobaka” means.