The Great Soup Experiment: Jalisco, Cafe 21, and Soup Du Jour

“You must cook slowly to bring out the flavor.”

Cafe 21’s lentil soup
  • Cafe 21’s lentil soup

‘This is going to hurt,” says Dr. Jamie. “Like, for a week.” He has been fighting to haul out a stubborn molar of mine.

That was yesterday. Today, in IB, on Palm Avenue, I still don’t dare clamp my jaws together. But dammit, I’m getting hungry.

Jalisco Café

1669 Palm Avenue, Imperial Beach

So I’m hoofing west, when I pass the venerable Jalisco Cafe. This place has been going since the 1940s. Famous for traditional dishes such as menudo, pozole.

Albondigas soup - as tender as it gets

Albondigas soup - as tender as it gets

Hey. This could be it! Soup to save the day. All the goodness mashed up to go down easy. Chowing, no chewing.

Thus begins the Great Soup Experiment.

Jalisco is dim, cozy, crowded this lunchtime. I head to the bar past its mural of a caballero grabbing a bull’s tail in the town square while chickens are flying everywhere.

I see they have five soups, all $8.99 small and $10.99 large, each coming with two flour or three corn tortillas. “We have the menudo, pozole, albondigas — meatballs — caldo (vegetable soup), and caldo de pollo, chicken soup,” says this gent, Alex. Alejandro.

Alejandra and Alejandro in front of their famous mural

Alejandra and Alejandro in front of their famous mural

Man. I also notice they have burgers going for $3.99. Be still my heart.

I share my problem with Alejandro and his wife, no kidding, Alejandra. They’re the owners. They recommend the albondigas. Alejandro swears the meatballs will be tender enough. And, long and short, they are. They are super flavorful and they break up in the liquid.

Too late, I smell their ollas coffee. “We make it with orange peel, cinnamon sticks, and piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar),” says Alejandro.

I love that stuff. Next time.

I come out nine bucks poorer, but realize I have a project! Find soups that make meals for tender-mouthed people fresh out of the dentist.

Borscht. Ton of beef hiding below

Borscht. Ton of beef hiding below

Next stop: Gaslamp. Had a good experience in this Azerbaijan place, Cafe 21, last time I was there. Happens, I stopped in for one of their soups.

Cafe 21

802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

OMG. It was so beautiful, I’ll do it again. Just their standard lentil soup ($8), but presented in what looks like a Moroccan plate with a depression in the middle and wide, hugely-decorated sides. Thick, nutritious, swirled with olive oil that looks like some Arabic love poem. You can get bread with it, but you hate to break it up. Prize for classiest-looking soup? No contest! Plus, filling.

But for soup and nothing but soup, I end up in a brand-new condo complex that looks out over Montgomery airfield.



You know they’re serious when you see their name: “Soup Du Jour.” I get here around dusk. Fire pit lights up — and heats up — the patio. But I’m thinking, how they can get away with just soups?

Soup Du Jour

8583 Aero Dr, Serra Mesa

“We do have other items,” says this gal Clare She points out chickpea cauliflower curry, with potato, coconut milk, for $10.50; or small plates like pulled beef sandwich with cucumber and pickled onions, for $6. Or roasted baby carrots for $5. “They’re really tender,” she says. Salads start at $10. The crab mango salad sounds delish at $13.50.

But soups are the star. Main choice tonight is — hey — albondigas, with beef and pork meatballs ($6 for cup, $10 for bowl, with one side), beef borscht ($6/$10), or vegan borscht ($5/$9), and (same prices) chicken tortilla soup, spare rib daikon soup (or the vegan form, shiitake daikon, $5/$9), hot and sour soup, $5/$9, (or with shrimp, $6/$10), and kharcho beef stew, $6-10, (vegan, $5/$9).

New eatery - slurpery? - in Serra Mesa

New eatery - slurpery? - in Serra Mesa

Kharcho (“Ha-cho”), turns out, is a Georgian soup with beef, rice, cherry plum purée, and chopped walnuts. Beyond me and my molar today, but for that, I will coming back. They also have soup and salad combos starting at $10.

Choosing time. Have to try their borscht (cup). As back-up I also get a shrimp hot and sour. Bowl.

Wise decision. Beef chunks hidden beneath the borscht beet chunks are fall-away tender, but not tender enough for my sore teeth. Funny thing is the sides — brown rice and roasted carrots — I can handle.

But the champion has to be the hot and sour soup. Strong tasting, with little tender shrimp, lots of veggies, filling and interesting.

Sour shrimp soup

Sour shrimp soup

“That’s the thing about soup,” says Helen Sun, who stops by. She runs the place with two cousins. “It takes time. You must cook slowly to bring out the flavors but don’t lose the nutrition. Soups are important as meals in themselves in Asia, where I’m from. My mom is from northern China. My dad’s from southern China, but he grew up in Scotland. He has always been a chef. I grew up with soups made from the ingredients of that day’s food.”

She says some soups are becoming trendy. “Bone broth takes 12-24 hours to extract the marrow and gelatin. They say it promotes the elasticity of your skin cells and joints. Our soups must be prepared on a low heat, to not overcook. We want to bring out the natural flavors. We don’t like to use salt.”

But doesn’t San Diego have too warm a climate for a soup restaurant to work?

“For us, soups are healthy, even in hot weather. Hot and spicy makes you perspire! Perspiration is our natural air-conditioner. We are trying to be original and tap into rich cultures for our sources. Also, we always have vegan options. We have only been open since October. People are just realizing, a soup can be a meal!”

  • The Place: Jalisco Cafe 2, 1669 Palm Avenue, Egger Highlands, Imperial Beach, 619-575-4955;
  • Hours: 7am-9:30pm, Monday-Thursday; 7am-10pm, Friday, Saturday; 7am-9pm, Sunday
  • Soup Prices: Menudo, pozole, albondigas (meatballs), caldo (vegetable soup), caldo de pollo (chicken soup), $8.99 small, $10.99, large
  • Buses: 933, 934
  • Nearest Bus Stops: (933 westbound): Palm and Thermal; (934 eastbound), Palm and Thermal
  • The Place: Cafe 21 (Gaslamp), 802 Fifth Avenue, 619-795-0721
  • Hours: 8am-10pm, Sunday-Thursday; till 11pm, Friday, Saturday
  • Soup Prices: $8
  • Buses: all downtown
  • Nearest Bus Stops: (#3), 5th and G (northbound); 4th and G (#3, southbound)
  • The Place: Soup Du Jour, 8583 Aero Drive, by Montgomery Field, Serra Mesa, 858-384-6328
  • Hours: 11am-8pm, Monday-Friday; 3-8pm, Saturday; Sunday, closed
  • Soup Prices: $6 cup, $10 bowl; vegan versions, $5/$9
  • Bus: 25
  • Nearest Bus Stop: Aero Drive and Broadstone Driveway

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