802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown 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.
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.