My lamb tapa
  • My lamb tapa
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Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

The bar

The bar

Sunset. Goin' with the flow like a pooh stick in a slow crick, sauntering with the crowd down Fifth Avenue. It's the height of happy hour. Conventioneers have been let out and are looking for sunset specials. Lot of Wild West places seem to be doing well. But I'd say the busiest right now has to be Cafe 21, at the corner of Fifth and F, in the slot where Croce's was. Its signs also say "Nature's Kitchen." Whatever, it looks like it's all about health and organic and locovore and highlighting recipes from Azerbaijan. Including preserved-fruit infused drinks.

Uh, Azerbaijan? Quick google. The Wild West of Eurasia. Birthplace of the world's oil industry. Harken Marco Polo in 1271: "Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil, in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab."

Nowadays that scab salve is making the Azeris super-rich.

Preserved fruit-infused drinx

Preserved fruit-infused drinx

Unlike me. Tonight I'm super-skint. Just need a snack to keep me going. Some happy hour somewhere must have a deal I can handle.

So I'm standing by the sidewalk menu wondering what da heck they do eat around the Caspian Sea. Black caviar, for sure. Sturgeon, sardines, dried fruits? Probably also lamb.

Lamb's one of my addictions, so I'm always on the lookout. And Gina, the welcoming gal inside the front door, says oh yes, they do lamb here, big-time. They even have lamb on their "Happier Hour" menu (HH's on from three to six every day). And this HH menu has 21 items. Each costs $5, no mas.

That is so cool. I head up to the bar.

Place feels like you'd imagine Azerbaijan. Old school European, with Asian touches like a big twirly Islamic-looking chandelier, jars of pickles and fruit preserves lining the brick walls.

Preserves and pickles line wall

Preserves and pickles line wall

So on the Happier Hour menu: everything from chicken curry cake to eggplant fries to lemon beef and vegetable skewer to a chicken lemon rosemary skewer with hot Anika Turkish-style sauce to a four-cheese fondue with pear and crostini.

Lord. If I wasn't so broke I'd have one of each. As it is, I stick with the program. Order the #2, the homemade potato pancake with braised lamb, caramelized onion, and heirloom tomato, probably organic from Suzie's Farm in the I.B. sloughs. Suzie's one of the sources they mention.

Result is beautiful, rich and surprisingly filling. And five bucks. 'Course this being Convention Central, looks like, everybody around me's splashing out, sampling those fruit preserve cocktails, and having at the main menu, choosing items like the apricot braised lamb shank. Twenty-six bucks.

Sigh. Another time, maybe.

Check out Leorah Gavidor's excellent interview with the owners,

"The Pickles Are On the Wall."

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