a stunningly eclectic cafe in San Diego

I love restaurants with a great story behind it, and Cafe 21 has one of those stories which would make you want to go there right this minute. But before I get into that particular story, I want to say that even without it, you would want to go just purely because the food is pretty fantastic.

We are there for brunch over the weekend and the restaurant is packed. The buzz is incredible with a line gathered outside in the heat patiently waiting for a chance to eat something off this eclectic menu. The decor has hints of the owners’ homeland — Azerbaijan — but just enough to pay homage without being overwhelming. After all, the menu isn’t Azerbaijany, but rather, with influences to honor the heritage.

Husband and wife Alex and Leyla moved from Baku, Azerbaijan to San Diego and after their son was born, Leyla found herself at home baking for friends and neighbors to pass some of the time alone. Alex meanwhile was pursuing a BS in Hospitality Management and after graduating from SDSU,  worked at Barona Casino as the Food and Beverage Manager .

To cut a long story short, Leyla baked some baklava for friends who owned a Persian restaurant downtown — they LOVED IT — and she ended up providing them with it to sell in their restaurant. The extra money was great and it allowed them to fulfill their dream in 2007 when they opened Cafe 2121 at 2121 Adams Ave. Later that year, after relocating a few blocks up, the extra 21 was dropped to its current Cafe 21 moniker.

The experience here starts with a Signature Bloody Mary ($9) complete with olives, peppers, grilled prosciutto and spices — well at least for me it does! I can’t pass over a Bloody Mary no matter what. I usually request it extra spicy and on this day, I forgot, but luck would have it that the one here is already spiced up and perfectly seasoned. The grilled prosciutto made it a meal on its own, but I had to leave some room to sample a bite of everything we were ordering.

If you’re wanting a lighter libation, there are six different types of sangrias made in-house to choose from. We chose the Sangria Sampler ($21) Fruit Punch, Strawberry Basil, Traditional, Strawberry Pineapple, Lemon Rosemary, Peach Mint (goblet $9/$21 pitcher) to get a full range of what they were serving up. My favorites were Fruit Punch, Strawberry Pineapple and Peach Mint. Everything had that incredibly vibrant taste of muddled herb or fruit so it can be dangerously deceiving because it is so easy to drink.

There were a good number of sweet treats on the menu and Tiramisu Pancakes ($13) was one of them. My initial thought when they arrived was “holy… these look REALLY sweet”, but surprisingly, the mascarpone cream sauce, cocoa powder and maple espresso sauce came together really nicely without being oppressively sweet. The texture of the pancakes was what blew me away, so fluffy and light as air. Simply sublime!

If I liked the tiramisu ones, the Rhubarb Pancakes ($9) made me eat bite after bite — a seriously outstanding feat for those who know me well. I just don’t have a sweet palate. I ended up eating about four big mouthfuls much to the chagrin of myself and everyone else. I think the strawberries, together with the strawberry and rhubarb compote made it just heavenly. I love rhubarb and the pancakes were airy and very addicting.

Vegetarians have a lot of sweet choices, but if you’re wanting a savory one, the Spinach Crepe ($10) is definitely worth getting. Organic spoon spinach, basil pesto, mozzarella, and feta cheese stuffed inside a thin crepe makes it not only healthy, but tasty enough that non-vegetarians will love it too.

One of the house specialties is Short Rib Omelet ($14). This skillet omelette has fluffy egg (frittata style) dotted with bell peppers, grilled onions, blue cheese, mozzarella and topped off with tender, braised short ribs. The potato cake served alongside is to-die-for and if you don’t end up ordering something which comes with it, you can order it as a side. It is well worth it!!

One of my favorites was Shrimp Corn House Cakes ($13) with shrimp sweet corn potato cakes topped with two poached eggs and house made cilantro cream sauce. It was like a take on eggs Benedict, but such a delicious one. The sweet corn cakes were salty sweet and with the perfectly poached eggs oozing into the corn cakes I have only three words to describe it — mmm mmm mmm.

Finally, there is also a brunch menu only offered on weekends. We ordered the Turkish Lavash Rolls ($14), housemade flat bread rolled up and stuffed with tomato, onion, spinach, bell peppers, and mozzarella, then baked and topped with cheddar with your choice of chicken, turkey, salmon or veggies. Garnished with pesto and ajika (or adjika is a red pepper paste), this is one of those dishes relective of their Azerbaijany roots.

Service was outstanding. Our server was knowledgeable and very attentive making sure our meal was perfect. I am contemplating returning for dinner in the near future. They have a completely different menu at dinner which looks creative and unique, just like its breakfast/lunch menu. Cafe 21 is one of those little gems you must check out when you are down in San Diego next. Don’t let the wait scare you off, it is definitely worth waiting for!

Cafe 21
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-795-0721

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

2736 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-640-2121

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

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