Babushkas are with you at every table
2469 Broadway, San Diego
If Kafe Sobaka were in Georgia
So good to be back. I first came here two years ago. Then popped in earlier this winter when I discovered their happy hour. Devoured a totally delicious $3 eggplant roll. Promised more in this column, to seriously investigate the HH deal.
The "Old Dog Café" (Kafe Sobaka) in Goldn Hill promises a “ménage à trois” between Georgian, Russian, and California cuisine. The crew hasn’t changed a lot in two years. Marko the owner’s still here. Marina the beautiful Russian server is still here. And the choice of Communist, Socialist, Imperialist, or Anarchist-sized dishes is still here, although for most menu items they seem to narrow the choice to between Socialist (small) and Imperialist (large) servings.
But the nine different strengths of Russian beer are still here. And so is this narrow but super-cute street-side patio. And happy hour’s just when Huey's setting down at the bottom of Broadway. So, with the sun warming your cheek and $3 dishes, what’s not to be happy about?
Bread selection comes even with $3 happy hour appetizers
Regular menu dishes can get expensive. Like, the main chicken dish is $16. Specials like the shish kebab (shashlik) run from $16 (for chicken) to $17 (for pork) to $22 for lamb. Ask for rabbit stew and you’re looking at $26.
This witching hour of sunset is beautiful in more ways than one. Mainly, the narrow sidewalk deck is so cool. People gather here and drink Russian beer or Georgian grappa, watch the planes coasting in to Lindbergh and the setting reflecting off the bay down at the bottom of Broadway.
Tonight, 5:30, I’m drinking a big mug of pivo — beer. It’s called “Velvet” and it’s dark. Reminds you of Negra Modelo. But the bottle lets you know otherwise. “Product of Russia,” the label reads, “100% Soviet brewing traditions.” Not that strong, though. It is 4.6 percent alcohol, about Budweiser strength.
Russian Velvet, dark beer about the same strength as Budweiser
I’m next to an elderly guy who’s sipping a Baltika beer and chowing in to an herb-topped chicken dish. “I just ask for ‘chicken,’” he says. “They know. With these spices, it’s the best chicken I’ve ever had. And I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“It is chakhokhbili,” says Marina, the server, who’s arrived on the sidewalk against the fence. (The patio is too narrow for tables and customers and servers at the same time.) “Our chicken dish. It has Georgian herbs, lemon, tomato, garlic. This gentleman orders it every time.”
Guess this is the $16 plate. But me, of course, I’m thinking happy hour. Should I repeat last time? Because that eggplant dish, badrijani nigvzit, “grandmother’s tongue”...oh, man. It’s a lush wrap of shiny black eggplant skin snaking around a lime-green pâté mixture of cilantro, crushed walnuts, onions, garlic, with more chopped walnuts on top. And, did I mention, $3?
Oh, and I had the borscht, too. It came red as a...uh, beetroot, with a floating blob of sour cream and a green forest of dill scattered on top. “This was the Ukrainian national dish,” says Marko when he rolls by. “This borscht has beetroot, beetroot tops, carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, and Serbian and Bulgarian tomato paste, and sun-dried tomatoes.”
Turns out there’s a story to the tomatoes, too. “Historically, the sweetest sun-dried tomatoes have always come from the Peshawar Valley,” Marko says. Yes, he means Pakistan. Khyber Pass. “Women collect them around trees and cover them with blankets, to keep the cold out at night. And they flap the blankets up and down during the day when it gets hot. And gradually the tomatoes lose liquid, and the flavor gains intensity. Sweet? They’re like fruit. The Peshawar Valley has always been heaven for grapes, apricots, plums, tomatoes, whatever. Persians, Ottomans, everyone lusted after them.”
I’m guessing these pieces of tomato ain’t from the Peshawar Valley, but this is still a tasty soup. Especially with the dark sour winter rye Lithuanian bread, plus the herbal butter you get, even for happy-hour dishes. This bowl is three buckeroos, and small, but the regular borscht price isn’t bad: $6.75, or $9 for a large bowl.
Uh-oh. Marina’s standing here again, and she’s very pregnant. Gives her a kind of authority. Mustn’t keep her waiting. So, first things first: another $5 pivo. This time I go for the Baltika Grade 9, which is a little stronger. And along with that I order one of those $3 pirozhki, the pies with potato and cheese, and a little bowl of pelmeni, ($3) beef-and-pork dumplings.
“The story of pelmeni is incredible, too,” says Marko. It seems these are called “ear bread,” maybe because they look all folded up like an ear. But seems the pelmeni is related to the Chinese wonton, the Japanese gyoza, the Polish pierogi, the Ukrainian vareniki, and on and on. I swear. Guess we should credit Genghis Khan and the horseback empire created across Asia to Europe. The history of the world ain’t written only in blood. It’s also written in food.
My pelmeni are combined pork and beef, five of them, like bloated Hershey’s Kisses, swimming in a garlicky liquid base with a dollop of sour cream on top. Totally, garlically delish.
The one thing that’s kinda blah is the pirozhok. It’s the nice little folded-over pie. The pastry is stuffed with potatoes and cheese, but, well, not a whole lot of taste going on.
But by now, my Grade 9 Baltika’s making the sunset look ever rosier. Man, I’d love to stay just to try their homemade pomegranate vodka sorbet, but that’s off happy hour. Costs $6.50. It’d be almost worth it, though, just to hear Marko’s backstory for it.
Happy Hour Prices: All beers $5; all appetizers $3; include pkhali (Georgian salad, with spinach, cabbage, or beets; eggplant roll stuffed with walnut cilantro pâté; lobio (red bean, walnut, cilantro pâté); pelmeni (chicken, beef, or beef and pork dumplings); vareniki (dumplings stuffed with potato/cheese or potato/mushroom); pirozhki (little pies stuffed with beef, mushroom, or potato and cheese); borscht (beet soup with meat or veggies)
Happy Hour: 4:00–6:00 p.m., daily
Nearest bus stops: outside (northbound); 25th and Broadway (southbound)