Chef Oz doesn’t attempt fried empanadas: all his food is health-conscious, he says.
2123 Adams Avenue, San Diego
They had me at empanadas. When I learned that Cueva Bistro was serving these sturdy Argentine/Chilean snacks — packets of thin-rolled, oven-crisped dough containing beef, chicken, and all manner of other goodies — it went to the top of my “must eat here” list. Empanadas saw me through my low-budget travels through Chile and Patagonia many years ago, and are an enduring favorite among the gauchos of the pampas, the miners of the Atacama Desert, and the urbanites of Buenos Aires and Santiago.
Cueva isn’t exactly a tapas bar, nor a wine bar, but a room to enjoy varied tastes (preferably shared) while sipping a terrific selection of wines and serious beers. The room is small and pleasant, with a vaguely Latin decor (e.g., an acoustic guitar hanging in the bar among the bottles). Seating is on banquettes, with cushions that cling to knit pants, or padded wooden chairs, which are also clingy, but better than no pads. Lighting is bright enough to read the menu and wine list. Joy to the world — a wine bar that’s comfortable, even for those of us who didn’t get our drinking licenses last week!
The noise wasn’t bad, even at the height of hilarity from neighboring tables, in good part because the ambient music plays softly — at least it did on a Thursday — and the decor absorbs rather than amplifies the sound. Like the menu, it is hip and eclectic; I even caught a bit of ska, the mellower precursor of reggae. (Music on the website is more aggressive; sobbing gypsy violins segue into growling funk, so maybe it’s different on weekends.) And the neighborhood is beautiful. The bistro is next door to Farmhouse and across the street from a park.
For the evening’s adventure, I invited “JJ,” the financial counselor from my bank, to go out and eat, to relax after a terrifying afternoon of signing forms that will shift my paltry assets into riskier but better-paying investments. Thing is, when JJ first heard I was a restaurant critic, he bubbled over with a boyish enthusiasm I’d never have expected from a “suit.” I invited the Lynnester to join us, to give JJ a better view of how my ilk does its work and to add another mouth to feed. By the time we reached Cueva, JJ’s tie was off, his white shirtsleeves rolled up. Whatever his financial advice, asking him to dinner was a solid investment, as he proved to have a well-tuned palate and culinary intelligence.
We started with chips, guacamole, and Mexican-born chef/co-owner Oz’s house-made salsa (which he bottles and sells by the pint). The chips arrive warm from the oven. A smallish saucer of guacamole reveals a mild blend heavily laden with snipped cilantro. The dark-red savory salsa tastes of smoked tomatoes with a bit of pica from hot peppers. We liked it.
Oz’s specialty appetizer offers fresh-baked pita — his partner Jo makes all the baked goods — with raw veggies, hummus, and more guacamole. Not sure how I feel about this fearsomely healthy array, but I do wish I’d ordered the whole-wheat pita for $1 extra, for greater depth of flavor. JJ loved the smooth, easygoing hummus; I found it a little bland.
When he’s not cooking, Oz comes out of the kitchen to hang with diners and answer questions. He recommended his new cocoa flatbread with golden raisins, walnuts, dried cranberries, and asiago cheese, and it proved a trip — one worth taking. The thin dough and exuberant toppings are far from ordinary. “Everybody’s doing flatbreads now,” I said, “and they’re mostly boring. Here’s a chef who’s creative, who’s courageous.”
The chef also recommended a salad of hearts of romaine with avocado, parmesan, and tortilla chips with a cilantro vinaigrette, a sort of re-Mexicanized Caesar salad. I’ll take avocado any which way it comes, but our salad had the wrong dressing. Instead of cilantro vinaigrette, it came with the too-sweet apricot vinaigrette that’s supposed to go with the mixed greens and blue-cheese salad (where I don’t think I’d like it either). “I don’t like sweet dressings with green salads,” said JJ later. “Give me classic vinaigrette or Italian — the real stuff, not the bottled ‘lite’ version where there’s no olive oil flavor.”
There are four soup-stews on the menu, officially sized for one person. They’d be filling main dishes, but in a shared dinner, there is plenty for three or four to enjoy. We checked out the chicken gumbo, which should have quotes around its name. It’s nothing like a Louisiana gumbo: no mahogany roux (flour and oil patiently cooked together until red-brown) to thicken the broth and give it a smoky flavor, nor Cajun gumbo filé (powdered thyme and sassafras), nor any perceptible long-cooked okra to give the soup “draw,” its slightly glutinous quality. The veggie component does include celery, onion, and small squares of well-cooked green bell pepper, Louisiana’s holy trinity. The chef learned to cook the dish from his nanny (who was from Veracruz, where it isn’t called gumbo) and later amended it with Louisiana flavors picked up on his travels. So it’s really a Mexican gumbo, a delicious and substantial chicken-and-rice soup with a shot of hot spice. Other substantial soups include a bowl of chili, a potato soup, and especially dear to Oz’s heart (and some Yelpers’ palates), albondigas (meatball) soup.
The primary choice of main dishes consists of baked empanadas...not just the little snacky bites but big ones sized for a hungry gaucho’s lunch, served two to an order. (They aren’t quite as irresistible as those at Puerto La Boca in Little Italy, the best place locally to taste these treats, especially during happy hour. Berta’s in Old Town also shines with the Chilean versions, especially ethereal deep-fried cheese empanadas made with a buttery, croissant-like dough.) Oz doesn’t attempt fried empanadas: all his food is health-conscious, he says. No deep frying and only a thin layer of olive oil for sautées or to keep foods from sticking.
The chef confesses he’s never traveled to Argentina; his recipes come from Argentine chefs he’s friends with. Given Oz’s creativity and the evidence of his taste, it’s doubtful he followed the recipes faithfully, although baker Jo does a swell job on the wrappers. Argentina’s favorite empanada is filled with juicy chopped stewed beef usually mixed with a few diced potatoes, chopped hard-cooked eggs, and sometimes a few cured, pitted Kalamata-style olives and raisins — but that’s more the Chilean version than the Argentine. In both countries, the poverty version has sautéed ground beef rather than stewed. At Cueva, the filling is mainly just chopped beef and potatoes, maybe a little egg; pleasant but not that exciting, and the beef isn’t as juicy as it should be.
The chef also recommended the slightly spicy chicken empanadas, wherein dryish white-meat chicken chunks are smoothed with blue cheese inside a faintly curried dough. Fun, not great. Ultra-lean beef chorizo is blanded-out to the point of being unrecognizable and mixed with an explosion of mashed potatoes inside ancho chili dough, reminiscent of Dinty Moore canned hash. I’d have liked to try the guayaba (guava) stuffing with tamarind dip, but there was only so much we could eat.
The kitchen also offers main-course flatbreads of a tamer ilk than the cocoa-tinged appetizer, essentially ultra-thin pizzas with toppings involving portobello mushrooms, cheeses, greenery, and pepperoni.
Exploring the affordable wine list was a pleasure. Most choices run $8–$9 per glass, $30–$34 per bottle, and the half-price happy hour is long, stretching well into dinner. I was excited to try two different Torrontés (Argentine whites from the Mendoza region, just east of the Andes), which I’ve just started to explore. The Maipe was a classic dry, crisp version of the grape, but I wigged out on JJ’s choice: Bautista Simona Torrontés, with lots of fruit and acidity — still dry but well rounded, with a faint touch of sweetness. Lynne tried a Viognier La Linda (also from Mendoza). Very tasty, but, frankly, that Bautista Simona Torrontés was the champion of the evening. The reds offer equal chances for adventure, from Spain, Argentina, Portugal, and Chile.
“I really liked it, but I need to play devil’s advocate,” said JJ afterward. “Because I was eating with you, I paid much more attention to the food than I would normally. If I were there with a bunch of guys, I’d feel well fed and full, but I’d really rather eat a good carne asada burrito instead of an empanada.”
Aye, there’s the rub. The food is wonderfully creative and conveys the chef’s joy in cooking, but it’s not always as delicious as it promises. Had the empanadas been juicier and tastier, Cueva might easily have rated three stars. I love the chef’s daring, the sheer fun (and comfort!) of eating and drinking here. I’d happily hang out if I lived nearby. And the three of us totally indulged ourselves, including wine, for a hundred bucks total after tax, plus tip. Ever since our dinner, I’ve been recommending this bistro to friends.
A.R. Valentien’s Artisan Table Dinner
My friend Dave treated me to a fabulous dinner a few days ago at A.R. Valentien. Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m., 10–16 people can enjoy a convivial meal at one long communal table, usually on the beautiful back terrace, though in nasty weather it moves inside to a handsome dining room.
It’s a bargain for so much pleasure and luxury. For $85 each, plus tax and tip, you get four exquisite courses: appetizer(s), main course(s), cheese and dessert, plus coffee, including excellent espresso, with refills if desired, by gosh! Wines that suit the foods are included in the price, as much as you want. Dave and I arrived early and, desiring something to take the edge off our appetites, discovered that you can also get alternative wines-by-the-glass. We both chose Viognier, which he liked much better than the evening’s “official” Chardonnay. (There was no charge for the extra wine on the bill.) The fare, which changes weekly, is based on whatever seasonal foods the chefs want to cook. All dishes are ample, served family-style on platters.
Chef Jeff Jackson’s food is the essence of Alice Waters–style California cuisine, featuring exquisitely sourced ingredients prepared simply, emphasizing their unmasked flavors. (At this point, he’s probably more like Alice than even Alice.)
A quick run-through of our meal, as a sample menu: first, small, mild Gold Creek oysters with lemon wedges and a light mignonette. The platter held two per person, but by chance I was seated between a young vegan and microbiologist Dave, who’s chary of raw seafood. Across the table was a charming British-born writer named Tracy, whose partner also eschewed raw bivalves, so Tracy and I dug in to our heart’s content. Then came my favorite dish: a velouté soup of young celery scattered with roasted hazelnuts and finished with a dollop of crème fraîche — it was romantic, three deep flavors falling in love.
One of the two main courses offered sliced, roasted, free-range California veal loin with rapini, sultanas, and green garlic. Free-range veal isn’t white but rosy and tastes like actual meat because the calves drink mom’s milk, not formula, frolic outside, and snack on grass. The other entrée offered Alaskan halibut with mussels, sautéed “Ron Burgundy” red potatoes, and spinach. Dave loved the halibut’s delicacy (lightly crusted in fine buttered breadcrumbs) but being no halibut-lover, I mainly nibbled on the accompanying local mussels.
Veggie platters included heirloom carrots (orange, white, pink, purple) with orange butter and braised cauliflower. The multicolored carrots were like a trip to an organic farm. (Our vegan neighbor got a butter-free version of all the veggies, served over quinoa.) We concluded with a strong California cheddar, preserved kumquats, and giant slabs of an elaborate coconut milk–lime cake, where, tired of eating, I nibbled at the glazed blueberries on top along with that rare and flawless espresso. The wines for the meal were both Sonoma Coast Keller Estates: first a Chardonnay and then a slim, elegant Pinot Noir.
If you’re looking for a major treat without a bank-breaking bill, this is it. Beautiful place, beautiful food. ■
★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)
2123 Adams (near Alabama Street, just east of Farmhouse), 619-269-6612; cuevabar.com
HOURS: Monday–Thursday, noon–10:00 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, noon–11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers and salads $3–$8; soups $7–$8; large, fresh-baked empanadas $9–$11 for two; flatbreads $10–$11; desserts $6–$7.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Eclectic, creative, health-conscious menu of tapas sized to share, including empanadas and other Latin-flavored bites. Adventurous, affordable wine list emphasizing Latin America and Spain; everything available by the glass, plus long list of international beers.
PICK HITS: Cocoa flatbread with nuts, fruits, cheese; chicken gumbo (Mexican-style); empanadas of beef, chicken, plus (my guess) guava. Chef favorite: albondigas soup.
NEED TO KNOW: Small space popular with neighborhood, best to reserve. Whole-wheat doughs for baked goods available for $1 extra. Casual, comfortable, civilized. Street parking. Low-fat, health-conscious cooking with plenty for lacto-vegetarians, few vegan choices but several dishes adaptable with “hold the cheese!”