From Texas to Argentina

This restaurant is closed.


SOHO, which opened on Saint Patrick’s Day, instantly offered one of the most interesting, eccentric menus in San Diego, combining tastes from the South, the deeper South (Mexico and South America), Southern Europe, and a touch of North Africa. Named for my old Manhattan neighborhood (then a slum, now chic and boutique-y), once I saw the menu on the web, I was there in a New York minute, accompanied by my friends the Lynnester, Mark, and Ben-the-Stew (who was on the Tokyo track and so didn’t get marooned under the volcano).

SOHO was founded by two young dudes who’ve worked together at several of our best restaurants. Carlos De Narvaez, at age 26, had managed to save up enough tips earned as a server (and miraculously invested wisely in the stock market) to finance the restaurant — a longtime dream. Chef Kevin Cedillo, 32, has worked at A.R. Valentien, 910, Laurel, and Whisknladle, among other fine restaurants. “I’m basically self-taught, didn’t go to culinary school, so I’ve tried to learn something everywhere I’ve worked. I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years now,” he says.

The multicultural menu springs from his home state of Texas, along with a reflexive Southern politesse (“Yes, ma’am”). He grew up on a ranch in the Dallas area in a Mexican-American family that’s been in Texas for generations (with a touch of German, typical of south Texas). “My grandma [who cooked all the meals for the ranch] is this amazing chef who was making these great exotic recipes, going out to pick cactus, wild onions, wild spinach. From a young age, I had an understanding of how to live off the earth. I always wanted to be a chef; I used to watch PBS cooking shows when I was a kid — French chefs, Cajun chefs…The food in south Texas is a combination of Hispanic and Southern and a little Cajun, and I have a lot of love for all these foods. I picked up some of the other stuff as I went along. I wanted to cook food that I understand from my own experience. Who I am is why I cook the way I do.”

SOHO replaces that burned-out volcano, Vesuvio, an old red-sauce-and-pizza joint. Near the front is a short bar with two flat-screen TVs, muted, and not tuned to sports when we were there. The rest of the room is filled with comfortable booths and unclothed tables, though silverware comes wrapped in chic black napkins.

For table bread, we received a plateful of delicious, wood-fired flatbread, thin and pliable, topped with za’atar — a Middle Eastern thyme-based herb blend and kosher salt — a favorable omen for the pizza.

The dish that drew me here in such haste (lest it go off-menu) is called Surf and Turf — an appetizer of bone-marrow patty topped with shrimp, garnished with grilled octopus and red chimichurri (the Argentine version of salsa fresca). When simply braised, bone marrow is slickety smooth and richly unctuous. To be corralled into a more solid patty, it’s mixed here with house-made cornmeal masa, maintaining its basic flavor, if not its ethereal texture. It’s topped with a large, tender shrimp and surrounded by small pieces of chewy-tender octopus. Argentine chimichurri is usually green, a thick parsley vinaigrette. The red version here is tomato-based, tart and bright. As I guessed, this version of the dish is about to go off-menu; the chef feels that bone marrow deserves to star in its own dish, not serve as support. (I agree!) The surf and turf will be revised soon, the marrow returning later in a purer guise.

Even better are tender, wood-fired Carlsbad mussels, fabulously fresh (local grown), in a broth of white wine, tomato, caramelized leeks, and Spanish chorizo (a tighter-grained, leaner sausage than the Mexican version). Ben wished he could pour all the sauce from it into a glass and add vodka: “That’d make the ultimate Bloody Mary!”

Piquillo peppers are a Spanish breed of medium-size, semi-mild chilies, by custom lightly smoked over wood. Fresh, or more usually canned, they’re a favorite in Spanish tapas bars, especially in a classic pairing with anchovies. Here, the piquillos, two to a plate, are stuffed with melted goat cheese and roasted garlic, a nice combination, arriving half concealed under a dispensable lean-to of toast points.

Over the years, I’ve developed a taste for Southern grits, which are basically American polenta with an earthier texture from the base of dried hominy — large, lime-slaked white-corn kernels — rather than regular dried corn. In the menu’s Dixie representative, country shrimp and grits, the shrimp is putatively blackened (not enough to be bothersome), and the soft grits are mixed with chopped Louisiana tasso ham for a burst of taste and texture but otherwise swamped in gravy. They’re grits for people who don’t think they like grits. It’s a tasty but heavy starter.

(We also ordered a plateful of aged Cheddar hush puppies for the table but never got them. Even after several reminders, the waitress didn’t deliver them and never explained why not.)

A creative mind is at work in this kitchen, turning out temptations based on a relatively modest pantry of ingredients put to varied and ingenious uses — a smart example of how to start an ambitious neighborhood restaurant on a limited budget. I wished I could clone myself and my friends so we could try the panko-breaded shrimp cake with cactus and avocado mousse, or the harissa-tossed fried cactus with cilantro crème fraîche, not to mention rabbit mini–corn dogs. Not so much the black-eyed pea cake with salsa verde and truffle crème fraîche. (Sorry, to me black-eyed peas are for New Year’s Day, found in Hoppin’ John or Texas Caviar; and that does it for the year, truffles or no truffles.) Chicken mole poblano, which takes the chef a half-day to make from scratch, is offered as an appetizer, mainly to introduce mole virgins to the dish. It’s a filling dish (the sauce is based on chocolate), but hey, if you’ve never had it, may as well start here.

At several nearby tables, the starter (or perhaps main dish) was one of the four large, exuberant-looking salads: Southwestern Caesar; pear with walnuts and bleu cheese; blood orange with cheddar; and a house salad with a Middle Eastern slant, including pine nuts.

Topping the entrée menu is Meyer Natural Beef flat-iron steak rubbed with Moroccan spices. It arrived rare as requested, the meat tender on its bed of Israeli cous-cous, punctuated with gently chewy black garbanzo beans (a locally rare pulse called channa dal in its homeland, India). Dried currants and a tangy pomegranate demi-glace turned the dish into a faintly exotic sweet-and-sour affair, although the sauce obscured whatever Moroccan seasoning had been rubbed on the steaks.

The braised short-rib, also from Meyer, is exemplary in its tenderness and meaty flavor, set off by the brightness of a Peruvian cherry salsa. Smoked tomatoes and spinach surround a hulking tamale. Typical of South Texas home-style tamales, the masa shell is dry and heavy. It’s filled with goat cheese; to my tastes, a more gooey, indulgent cheese, such as Oaxaca cheese, might give more pleasure going up against that masa.

We considered ordering mini rabbit corndogs as an appetizer, but under interrogation, the waitress confessed that the house-made sausages were the same in the entrée of rabbit sausage orecchiette with caramelized leeks, cremini mushrooms, piquillo peppers, and rabbit jus. We wanted to taste that rabbit jus, so we went for the pasta. It proved a hearty, interesting mix but was brought down with a thud by the blandness of the rabbit sausage slices, about as sprightly as store-bought kielbasa. (Rabbit tastes like chicken — so rabbit sausages taste like chicken sausages.) In a do-over, we’d try them as the appetizer corn dogs, where the crisp coating would liven them up.

Inspired by his stint at A.R. Valentien, chef Kevin wanted to work with rabbit but decided to gently introduce San Diego eaters to the meat — and found that even the sausages get reactions: “Is that Peter Cottontail?” In any event, the chef plans to substitute lamb chorizo for the rabbit sausage in this dish, an excellent idea, as it is a vibrant-enough meat to play against a thick pasta.

With a wood-burning oven probably inherited from old Vesuvio (what use is a pizza oven if your pizza is rolled too thick, your sauce too boring?), SOHO is a natural for making burgers and pizzas. Mark said he’s looking forward to going back for a lunchtime lamb burger (with feta, pickled red onion, chermoula aioli, and tapenade, on a Sadie Rose buttermilk bun with yucca fries on the side). Shrimp pizza caught my eye: In college, my favorite pizzeria turned out a version where the shrimp seemed to swell and crackle. Here, the shrimp pizza is small, delicate, a bit soft-crusted, with goat cheese, pine nuts, tomato, and chimichurri on a light, thin crust similar to the za’atar flatbread that opened the meal. It has fewer and smaller shrimp than that ancient college-town version, and they don’t swell and crackle, but it is quite good. It may even be better than the one I remember — after all, time is a one-way street with no U-turns.

A dessert of brioche bread pudding for two was heavy and homey, given unexpected crunch by nuts. We also tried a plateful of beignets (New Orleans–style doughnuts), but alas, they were heavy too, compared to the airy Café du Monde originals. Double alas: There’s no espresso, merely Starbucks dark-roast (blah). Triple alas: Our charming, feckless waitress got distracted and forgot to bring it until we were nearly done, although we’d requested it served along with desserts.

SOHO still has some kinks to work out (e.g., service, plus some fine-tuning of the menu), but it’s off to an impressive start, another terrific asset to North Park’s burgeoning dining scene. “Can you imagine a place like this opening here ten years ago?” Ben marveled. In those days, aside from Kensington Grill, there was no creative cooking east of Park Boulevard, and very few interesting neighborhood restaurants. Now there really is such a thing as “neighborhood food” here — not just grim deliveries from Vesuvio’s. Sometimes, it’s a good thing that time is one-way — at least when it comes to eating in San Diego.

Good Restaurant News
Most breaking restaurant news now goes into my new blog on the Reader website. Some bloggish samples of fun eating at fair prices:

Through the end of summer, on the first Saturday of every month, Saffron offers authentic Thai street foods on the patio 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., including Thai crepes filled with shrimp or chicken and Thai-style oyster pancakes.

King’s Seafood Co. restaurants now let you BYO wine with no corkage charges. So pull out that Bâtard-Montrachet you’ve been saving before it goes brown: May 1–July 4, they’re featuring whole steamed Maine lobster with drawn butter (or, for a few dollars more, in a whole New England–style clambake with clams, mussels, etc.) at reasonable prices, based on size (starting at $23.50 for a one-pounder, on up to $43.75 for three pounds, which is about the limit for maximum tenderness). It’s not the lowest price in town — I’ve tried places that offer weekly specials of loss-leader lobsters for less, until they run out of them fairly early in the evening — but dare I say that when it comes to lobster, you pretty much get what you pay for?

SOHO

  • 3 stars
  • (Very Good to Excellent)

3025 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park, 619-764-5475, sohorestaurantandlounge.com

HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday, noon–closing (about 9:00 p.m. weeknights, later weekends or when full).

PRICES: Lunch sandwiches and pizzas $7.50–$13; dinner salads, soup, appetizers $5.50–$11.50; entrées $15–19; wood-fired burgers and pizzas $11–13.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Eclectic, creative mixture of Southern, South American, Mexican, and Southern European flavors. Short, smart list of affordable wines, plus craft beers.

PICK HITS: Surf and Turf (bone-marrow patty, shrimp, octopus); wood-fired piquillo peppers with goat cheese; wood-fired Carlsbad mussels; Moroccan-spiced flat-iron steak; braised short-ribs with goat-cheese tamale; pizzas. Good bets: mini rabbit corndogs; lamb burger; salads.

NEED TO KNOW: Street parking. Plenty for lacto-vegetarians. Happy hour (4:00–6:00 p.m.), $2.50 discount on appetizers. Good potential grazing dinners from wide array of imaginative starters and salads.

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