"Choose one from Column A and two from Column B." If that sounds familiar to you it probably means you spent some time in a Mid-century American-Chinese restaurant, and moo goo gai pan may hold a special place in your heart. But just as Chinese restaurants in America have gone far beyond those old clichés, modular ordering has gone far beyond the Chinese restaurant. Soda & Swine (2943 Adams Ave.) in University Heights is an excellent example of what can go right and wrong with that approach.
Soda & Swine is all about the meatballs: beef, smoked pork, chicken, chorizo and, curiously, quinoa. Pick a "style"—slider, sub sandwich, on top of spaghetti or in a skillet of three balls—and add a choice of sauces and cheese. Alternatively pick one of the restaurant's "favorites" and a "style." The success of the dish is largely in your choices.
The tastiest sounding of the meatball options was the smoked pork. Tasting deeply of both pork and smoke, the problem is that it was so strongly flavored it dominated everything it touched. Either it doubled down on a big flavor like the chipotle BBQ sauce, overwhelmed more delicate options like the mushroom cream sauce or went to war with a cheese like the feta.
Conversely, the chicken meatballs—for which I had low expectations—were wonderful. They were surprisingly savory for chicken balls yet paired well with all of the sauces and cheeses. It's hard to be a meatball when you're not meat, though, as the quinoa discovered. The "meatball" name suggested texture the quinoa simply could not deliver. But accepted on its own terms the quinoa ball was tasty and worked well with different sauces and cheese.
My favorite meatball dish was the chicken, quinoa and beef skillet with the marinara sauce and mozzarella. At one level it was a classic Italian combination: meatballs, marinara and cheese. Of course it worked, but ordering it in a skillet of different kinds of balls lent the old trick some new flair. Each ball said different things and each said them well.
But why call smoked pork with Siracha aioli a "banh mi?" Just because of the pickled vegetables? It didn't taste like a banh mi, didn't look like one and the smoked pork meatballs beat everything else into submission.
Scotch eggs are deep-fried sausage-wrapped hard-boiled eggs. Soda & Swine swaps mild pork sausage for chorizo and pairs it with a mustard aioli. I could eat those all day. The Scotch eggs are the best dishes in the place.
Indeed, the sides shine. The pickled vegetables of the giardiniera cut through the weight and fat of the meatballs and cheese. The fish sauce makes the fried Brussels sprouts. And the garlic, lemon and Parmesan are perfect accompaniments to the broccolini.
Ultimately, though, Soda & Swine is about the meatballs. When paired wisely they're wonderful. When paired improvidently they're less so. The freedom leads to something as good and surprising as the quinoa ball with marinara and mozzarella—or something that ought to work, like smoked pork with chipotle BBQ that plainly doesn't. Your choice.