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Midwest meets Middle East

American by way of Azerbaijan at Cafe 21

Curried scallops with mashed potatoes and leeks in a cast-iron skillet
Curried scallops with mashed potatoes and leeks in a cast-iron skillet
Place

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

If I were visiting from out of town for a week and staying in the Gaslamp, I might pass by Cafe 21 a few times before I gave it a chance because it doesn’t look splashy-flashy or have young, attractive hostesses pretending to flirt with me to get business. But after I tried it, I’d eat there every day.

Cafe 21 serves American food that is influenced by the owners’ background in Azerbaijan — a mix of Midwest and Middle East. A good example of this is the Curry Seared Scallops ($29), which comes with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, a yellow curry yogurt sauce, and fried leeks and is served in a hot cast-iron skillet. The curry has both spice and sweetness and blends well with the potatoes and the leeks while showing off the tenderness of the scallops.

Watermelon salad
Spaghetti squash and shrimp
The mixed fries include deep-fried avocado, eggplant, and mushroom.
Prawn Star Bloody Mary comes with a huge shrimp
California Greenin’ Bloody Mary

The menu is seasonal, so the Yellow Watermelon Salad ($12) I had on a previous visit is no longer available. The melon was served in slices with arugula, feta cheese, and a light vinaigrette.

My daughter tried the Spaghetti Squash and Shrimp ($26) which came with sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, baby spinach, and a creamy fontina cheese sauce. She wasn’t as impressed with it as I was with the curried scallops. She felt something was missing. She likes sharp cheese, so I think she was hoping for something with more bite. I happily took her leftovers and enjoyed them the next day.

Cafe 21 is a decent spot for dinner, but where it really shines is at happy hour (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) when it’s possible to buy up to 22 tapas at $6 apiece. The tapas are available in larger portions for appetizers or entrées.

The cabbage rolls are worth the entrée portion, whether with meat ($17) or vegan style ($15). I liked the idea of the mixed fries — basically deep-fried avocado, portobello mushroom, and eggplant — better than the execution. These are soft veggies that have a hard time getting as crisp as I’d like.

There are four types of Blood Marys available, ranging from $9 to $15. The Prawn Star, which comes with a ton of veggies and a huge prawn, gets the Facebook shares because it’s so photogenic (and nice and juicy). But the California Greenin’, which uses a tomatillo mix and comes with a grilled cheese sandwich, is the most satisfying. The sandwich makes it a meal in itself.

Cafe 21 is high-quality food with enough variety that almost anyone will be able to find something they like. It is also unusual for the Gaslamp in that it’s usually frequented more by locals than tourists. The natives must know something.

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Curried scallops with mashed potatoes and leeks in a cast-iron skillet
Curried scallops with mashed potatoes and leeks in a cast-iron skillet
Place

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, San Diego

If I were visiting from out of town for a week and staying in the Gaslamp, I might pass by Cafe 21 a few times before I gave it a chance because it doesn’t look splashy-flashy or have young, attractive hostesses pretending to flirt with me to get business. But after I tried it, I’d eat there every day.

Cafe 21 serves American food that is influenced by the owners’ background in Azerbaijan — a mix of Midwest and Middle East. A good example of this is the Curry Seared Scallops ($29), which comes with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, a yellow curry yogurt sauce, and fried leeks and is served in a hot cast-iron skillet. The curry has both spice and sweetness and blends well with the potatoes and the leeks while showing off the tenderness of the scallops.

Watermelon salad
Spaghetti squash and shrimp
The mixed fries include deep-fried avocado, eggplant, and mushroom.
Prawn Star Bloody Mary comes with a huge shrimp
California Greenin’ Bloody Mary

The menu is seasonal, so the Yellow Watermelon Salad ($12) I had on a previous visit is no longer available. The melon was served in slices with arugula, feta cheese, and a light vinaigrette.

My daughter tried the Spaghetti Squash and Shrimp ($26) which came with sautéed mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, baby spinach, and a creamy fontina cheese sauce. She wasn’t as impressed with it as I was with the curried scallops. She felt something was missing. She likes sharp cheese, so I think she was hoping for something with more bite. I happily took her leftovers and enjoyed them the next day.

Cafe 21 is a decent spot for dinner, but where it really shines is at happy hour (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) when it’s possible to buy up to 22 tapas at $6 apiece. The tapas are available in larger portions for appetizers or entrées.

The cabbage rolls are worth the entrée portion, whether with meat ($17) or vegan style ($15). I liked the idea of the mixed fries — basically deep-fried avocado, portobello mushroom, and eggplant — better than the execution. These are soft veggies that have a hard time getting as crisp as I’d like.

There are four types of Blood Marys available, ranging from $9 to $15. The Prawn Star, which comes with a ton of veggies and a huge prawn, gets the Facebook shares because it’s so photogenic (and nice and juicy). But the California Greenin’, which uses a tomatillo mix and comes with a grilled cheese sandwich, is the most satisfying. The sandwich makes it a meal in itself.

Cafe 21 is high-quality food with enough variety that almost anyone will be able to find something they like. It is also unusual for the Gaslamp in that it’s usually frequented more by locals than tourists. The natives must know something.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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