Happy-hour fondue. Best of all: the strawberries
  • Happy-hour fondue. Best of all: the strawberries
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"Messy Hair, Don’t Care.”

That’s what the back of this girl’s T-shirt reads. I can just see her and her boyfriend through the leaves of the grape bower. They’re chowing, chatting, cooing, billing.

The bird man: Chris runs the liquor store next door and breeds songbirds.

But actually it’s the little bird that has me mesmerized. He’s singing his li’l heart out with long pure notes and trills and tunes. How often do you hear a bird sing — and I mean sing — while you eat? It’s beautiful.

I have to thank Adams Avenue Bicycles for this experience. I was kinda lost on Adams Avenue. Dropped in, asked the guy working on a bike wheel if there was anywhere cheap to eat nearby. He told me a bunch of places, but the first one he mentioned was Café 21, because it was the closest.

Cafe 21

2736 Adams Avenue, University Heights

“Not the cheapest,” he says. “You’ll be out $10, $15 for an entrée.”

Whatever. When I spot it, I have to go look. Because even though it juts out over a stark black tarmac carpark, they’ve made something beautiful. Green curtains hang, separated by climbing vines. Trees and plants and drapes are luminous in the slanting afternoon sunlight.

It's in a parking lot next to a liquor store, but don't be fooled. Cafe 21 is a jewel.

Twenty quick paces and I’m up panting like an eager pup at the welcome desk. And, yes: Anna the welcomer utters the golden words I was hoping for: “Happy hour? Definitely. Three to six every day. We’re known for it.”

She shows me a way-big happy-hour menu page. Huh. “All tapas $5. Mimosas 50 percent off. Draft beer, 50 percent off.” On and on. Sangria, 50 percent off. Other drinks, like bloody marys and cocktails, 21 percent off.

The patio: vines, flowers, infusing teas, and birdsong.

So I follow Anna around the curtain and into this totally cool garden patio. The green curtains, a high trellis of luminous grape vines, parachute-style sun shelters, brown umbrellas, black booths, a long golden plank table shining in the angled sun, and that bower, just made for lovers.

I pull out a chair at the plank table, near a large glass jar of reddish tea. Its top two inches are a pile of herbs and seeds, infusing away. It gives off a tang of fruit and spices.

“Play That Funky Music, White Boy!” Wild Cherry, right? It’s playing over the system, but softly, and actually, the thing you notice above it all is the sound of that bird singing.

“It’s half wild finch, half canary,” says Anna. I can just spot a red, gold, green bird in a white cage outside the liquor shop next door. He’s puffing out his red breast and chortling away.

Meanwhile, $5 tapas? I start at the bottom of the list, because the more interesting ones are usually hidden down there. Except this one has a couple of dessert tapas at the bottom: seasonal bread pudding and flourless chocolate cake. But above those, we’re talking house turkey kufta (turkey sausage with a spicy aioli), organic chicken on a skewer, a chicken curry cake, a chicken crêpe with “seasonal jam” and mozzarella. Sounds delish. But so many do: albacore poke with ginger, sesame, avo; or a fondue with organic fruits and veggies plus bread. Or a short rib potato pancake. Or fried-chicken-skin salad with gorgonzola. Or, hey, a duck slider. (I’m imagining this duck landing on a frozen pond.) It has fontina cheese, frisée greens, “sangria cranberry chutney,” herb focaccia, arugula salad.

Do I order too much? Oh, yeah. Except, blame Anna. She warns me: “These tapas are not big.”

The potato pancake: blue-cheese crumbles, caramelized onions, scrumptious short-rib beef.

So I get that duck slider. Then, the potato pancake with braised short rib, caramelized onions, and “bleu” cheese. How can you pass that up? And, what the heck, I get the fondue just to fill out my gut’s empty corners. Fifteen bucks. Plus two more for a glass of tea. Cranberry? Pomegranate? I never do nail what it is, but it is interesting, and not too sweet.

Anna and Uriel, the other server, bring the food all at once. And, oh man, pancake looks wickedly lush and sinful. Beautifully battered potato carries the braised beef, a tangle of sweet onions, and a top of brown-stained blue-cheese crumbles. Just sniffing it can send you tripping. I lunge into it first, and it’s quite substantial. The caramelizing of the onions meets the savory of the meat and the blue cheese.

Duck slider

Then, on the same long beaten metal plate, the duck slider. Here’s the thing about that: you’ve got your cranberry chutney, then you’ve got your cheese, fontina. Plus your herby focaccia bread. And this is a first: the duck meat is actually savory, flavorful. For me, duck has always been a taste disappointment. Not tonight.

And the fondue’s cheese is a delish combo of parmesan, cream cheese, and fontina. I’m dipping bread, cucumber, carrot sticks, apple slices, and, best of all, strawberries into that great cheesy gunk.

I come out totally stuffed. Would have been happy with any two of my three. But what a deal. I see that regular menu items are kinda up there, cost-wise. So, this daily three-hour happy hour is gonna be a boon.

Turns out the couple who owns it, Alex and Leyla Javadov, are from Azerbaijan. That explains all the infusing and the exotic feel to the place. Azerbaijan’s between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It’s south of Russia, north of Iran, and, they say, feels the influence of both the Middle East and Russia when it comes to their food. Alex and Leyla mix their heritage with California’s: everything from flavors to atmosphere to their free-range, hormone-free meat.

And, mixing “Play That Funky Music” with the daily finch-canary concert works, too.

Cafe 21

2736 Adams Avenue, University Heights

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Hours: 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily (Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.)

What $17 buys

Happy hour prices: Each of these costs $5: house turkey kufta (turkey sausage, spicy aioli); chicken on a skewer; chicken curry cake; chicken crêpe with jam, mozzarella; albacore poke with ginger, sesame, avo; fondue, fruits, veggies, bread; short-rib potato pancake; fried-chicken-skin salad with gorgonzola; duck slider; bread pudding dessert tapa; flourless chocolate cake

Bus: 11

Nearest bus stops: Adams and Idaho (eastbound); Adams and Utah (westbound)

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