June 26 2015 06:23 PM

Sovereign Kitchen + Bar specializes in 'grab-and-go' menu items

banhmi_springrolls
Banh mi and pork spring rolls
Photo by Ron Donoho

For a decade, Rama has been an elegant Thai staple in downtown's dining scene. Owner Alex Thao has run other eateries in Hillcrest, but his Asian invasion now centers on Fourth and Fifth avenues near the base of the Gaslamp Quarter. Thao recently opened Saja Korean Kitchen and Lucky Liu's (Chinese) not far from each other on Fourth. 

On July 1 he's set to swing open the doors for Vietnamese-influenced, dinner-only service at Sovereign Kitchen + Bar (467 Fifth Ave.), formerly the site of Royal Thai. The main attraction will be chef Michael Bao Huynh, of Iron Chef fame.

For more than a month, though, Sovereign's next-door Food Shop storefront has been open for lunch, dinner and take-out. "Grab-and-go" menu items range from $6 (bahn mi sandwiches) to $13 (a noodle bowl with shrimp). Not to miss: the pork spring rolls, which are wrapped in puffy, fried, rice paper.  

Thao, whose parents are Thai and Chinese, is a fixture as a downtown restaurateur, and he laughs upon being asked when heís going to open a Japanese eatery.

"We've got almost all of Asia covered, right?" he says. "No, that wasn't the plan. But we looked at downtown, and there are so many steakhouses and Italian restaurants and sushi joints. But more people are making Asian food their comfort food, rather than burgers. All the kids eat California rolls and shrimp tempura and fried rice. Right? Noodles. We grew up in a generation where Asian food was introduced to us. Now we're trying to make it more refined. Hence putting this concept together with Michael."

Along with the TV chef work, Huynh keeps busy as Vietnam's food ambassador, and has had his hand in several other restaurants around the world. Thao has known the Iron Chef for 10 years, and says itís taken that long for the stars to align and for them to finally work on a project together. 

"On the restaurant side, it'll be a more elevated menu," says Thao. "Appetizers will be $9-$14; entrees will be $16-$30. There'll be seafood-oriented entrees, classic items and some modern Vietnamese options. Chefs are like artists and like to shock people. I had to control him a little... but we've come up with a menu that I think will be approachable for San Diegans."

After Sovereign opens for dinners (along with an elevated wine list and cocktail menu), the Food Shop—also Huynh's menu—will still be open for daytime pop-ins. The space is tiny, and there's no official signage right now; you have to look for the faded Island Hotel sign near the corner of Fifth and Island Avenue.   

I'm glad to have the lunchtime option. There are a half dozen traditional phos on the menu, along with vegetable and meat dishes from the wok. I wasn't a huge fan of the chicken bahn mi sandwich, with pickled veggies and cilantro. This is probably sacrilege, since Hunyh's sammies have received national acclaim. But the drunken noodles and garlic noodles bowls are hearty and delicious. 

Not on the menu but also a treat: The people watching. The Food Shop only has a couple tables out front, but you can order at the counter and grab a spot inside Sovereign's gated patio area. Next week, the spectacle that is Comic-Con will be pouring past.


Write to rond@sdcitybeat.com.

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