Dec. 1 2010 09:35 AM

Café 21 has old-world flavor, new-world flair

Cafe 21's cozy dining room
Photo by Jenny Montgomery
I knew I was going to like Café 21 when we walked in to find the annual WTF-fest that is the Eurovision “music” competition playing on the TV above the bar. If you're like me, and you love the confusing wonder that is terrible Euro-pop music, you'll understand my maniacal delight. I was there to devour the “neighborhood fare with flair” that I'd heard so much about, but I knew instantly this was a special corner of the San Diego restaurant scene.

Café 21 has been family-owned and operated since it opened in 2007. Husband-and-wife team Alex and Leyla Javadov hustle around the restaurant, spreading their passion for cooking and sharing tasty food rooted in their native Azerbaijan. The rustic care taken with each dish is evident.

There are few Russian or former-Soviet-nation-based restaurants in San Diego, and calling Café 21 an “Azerbaijani restaurant” might be a stretch, as its menu is varied and cosmopolitan. But the Javadovs' talent with food is due to the balance between old- and new-world flavors. Their extensive selection of teas and unexpected menu items let patrons know this is an eatery with depth. The flavors of the Javadovs' native country are at once exotic and familiar.

The restaurant is located along Adams Avenue, in an unwelcoming parking lot it shares with an eyesore of a liquor store. However, once you're ensconced on the cozy patio or the small-yet-colorful dining room, the unattractive environs hardly matter.

If you're lucky, your server will be the super-friendly Jason, who will treat you like you're already best pals (seriously, I now know about Jason's tooth enamel, as well as his stance on artificial sweeteners).

As soon as you sit down, you're given a warm, house-made roll, notable not only for the speckled poppy-seed topping and gentle rye flavor, but also its soft and swirly layers, like a savory cinnamon roll.

The pickled wax beans were a fresh and unexpected way to start our meal—flavorful, mild and surprisingly munch-able. But, really, if you're going to order any appetizer, just get the pierogies. Fresh, authentic pierogies aren't the easiest treat to locate in southern California (my Pittsburgh-native mom still laments the lack of the dumplings on every corner), but when you can find them, there's no excuse not to order them. Café 21 doesn't make you choose between delectable filling options. You'll get two with fruit filling (such as peach or pear), two with tart cab bage and two with familiar potato. They are all, however, swimming in nature's perfect nutty cologne: browned butter.

A standout entrée is the stuffed pasta, filled with tender shredded lamb, topped with sweet caramelized onions and smothered in a creamy cilantro sauce. The pasta was perfect in its imperfection—not quite salty enough in one bite, less-than-tender in another, but overall eye-rollingly scrumptious because you knew it had been rolled out just for your meal.

Don't miss the delicious stuffed Azeri grape leaves, ancient in their roots but fresh in their execution, with a hearty tomato sauce and an unexpected-but-enjoyable balsamic reduction drizzled around the plate.

Dessert is pretty much whatever they've made that night, and fortunately for me and sweet-toothed Mr. City Eat, dessert that night was Honey Cake. The cake is a crumbly and moist graham-cracker confection with spicy notes of cinnamon along with decadent layers of a cream-cheese-and-sour-cream frosting. Like much of Café 21's menu, it was rustic and unrefined, yet over-the-top and like no other dessert I've had at any San Diego restaurant.

Luckily for everyone in San Diego, the Javadovs are opening a second and sure-to-bemore-visible Café 21 location in January right on Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp. Fingers crossed for a full-scale Eurovision celebration, but barring that, I'll be back for pierogies.

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