Monday, October 24, 2011

Cafe Athena, Pacific Beach, San Diego CA

So my sister came down last week, and I decided to try and hit her up for a free meal. This is infinitely more difficult than it sounds as my sister has something of delicate stomach. Gone were my usual go to options: Italian, Mexican, and Thai. I was down to the a hamburger with its magical quality to be both forgiving on the stomach but pleasing to the palate when I remembered a little place that my fiancé and I had found just after moving to our new place. After all what can be more delicious, as well as easy on the stomach, than Greek food.

Cafe Athena is a quiet little place in a pleasant strip mall off of a major street in Pacific Beach. On the outside it appears as a quaint little collection of buildings, but inside is a light airy white washed room with bits of Greek decor here and there, enough to enliven the atmosphere but not enough to distract from the food. We arrived a little after noon, and were seated quickly. Our waiter was both patient and quick to answer questions, the majority of them about how to pronounce the items on the menu.

Thankfully I didn't even have to and after pointing to a couple of names on the menu the waiter left and we fell into an easy conversation until the first dish arrived. My fiancé got her Avgolemono, which is an egg lemon soup with rice Orzo and chicken broth. I took a sip of it and I thought I would love to have this if I had come down with a cold. It reminded me of chicken soup with a strong but not overpowering lemon flavoring to it. After polishing that off we got the rest of the dishes pretty much all at once.

Now ahead of time I apologize if this seems like a lot of description but I believe the combination of flavors and textures are what really sold me on this place, and I think it will help you understand just how complicated great Greek food can be. All right as an appetizer my sister surprisingly chose to get dolmathakia (Grape leaves stuffed with a blend of seasoned ground beef, rice and herbs. braised and served with Tzatziki sauce). After all the stories from my Lebanese friends about how their grandmother made the best grape leaves in existence I expected the Greek version to pale in comparison to theirs, but I was surprised by just how great it tasted. I didn't quite take to the Tzatziki sauce so I quickly found myself gobbling up the dolmathakia dry, before getting to the rest of the meal.

In addition to that my sister got a combination plate, the Macedonian Sampler. In it was Spanakptia (a blend of spinach, onion, feta cheese, eggs and basil between flaky filo), Bourekia (lean ground leg of lamb, pine nuts and onions in a filo roll), beef kebab and chicken Souvlaki (basically chicken and beef on skewers with the bits of zucchini, red bell pepper and onion), Briami (roasted vegetables with tomatoes, zucchini, potato usually roasted in olive oil) and rice pilaf. Again it came with Tzatziki sauce, but maybe this was a different batch because I definitely enjoyed it more. I, of course, took a bite of everything and found all of it cooked perfectly and incredibly tasty. The highlight of the plate was the Spanakptia, as I'm a sucker for anything with spinach and flaky filo, and the low point was the beef kebab. It just didn't taste all that great compared to the rest of what was there.

In between stealing most of my sister's meal I had ordered Papoutsakia (Italian eggplant filled with seasoned ground leg of lamb, onion and pine nuts. Topped with tomato sauce, fresh basil and Feta cheese. Wrapped in Pita bread). At first glance it looked a bit like ground hamburger tossed into a pita bun, but the taste was nothing short of heaven. The ground leg of lamb offset the bits of eggplant, the one thing I wished it had more of, perfectly. The pita was warm but not hot, and the feta cheese added just the right amount of bite to the plate. It was another dish that I would force myself to eat slowly so I could savor each bite.

I also took a bite of my fiancé’s dish. She ordered the Chicken Aioli (Diced chicken breast tossed with fresh pesto sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Wrapped in Pita bread with spring mix. Served with garlic Aioli sauce.). I'm really not a big fan of sun dried tomatoes, but I love garlic, and the aioli sauce was incredibly garlicy, which I loved. The first time we'd gone there I'd commented that the chicken was cooked perfectly, but this time around it hovered a few degrees closer to overcooked. Still it all came together nicely, and I let her finish it off, showing just how much she liked it as she usually keeps the leftovers for work the next day.

Overall everything was delicious, and not too expensive. The staff is super friendly, and the atmosphere peaceful and relaxing. One of the best lunches I've had in a long time. If you like Greek food or even just good food, you need to check this place out.

Cafe Athena
1846 Garnet Ave.
San Diego, CA 92109

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cafe 21, University Heights, San Diego, CA

I eat breakfast, really. I know everything I’ve posted so far has rotated around fine dinner dining or light but tasty lunch items, but I adhere to the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It just happens that I, like most people, have to fit it in those scant moments between waking up and running out the door to work. Yes, I always have it, and most of the time it is healthy and somewhat tasty meal for me, but it isn’t until the weekend that I get to luxuriate in the meal.

This weekend I managed to drag my girlfriend out of bed and head off to a little place in University Heights by the name of Café 21. Not much of a moniker, and looking at it not much of a location. It’s parked in a strip mall and sits next door to a liquor store. No, not the ideal location at first glance, but come in and sit down and you will be amazed by just how nice an atmosphere can be created with some pretty decorations and a friendly server.

Despite a slight chill in the air we sat outside, and instantly the smiling faces of the staff and the other diners put us at ease. Our server Derek (I apologize if I’ve spelled your name wrong), actually seemed happy to see us. Not pretend happy like a lot of servers put on, or efficient happy, but happy happy, like a man who honestly enjoys what he does. My girlfriend ordered a coffee and I got a large orange juice while I perused the menu. It looked smaller than the first time I had been there. Gone were the Green Eggs and Ham, and I noticed the item I’d had last time, the Salmon Diamonds, had been downsized to a sandwich. My eyes were drawn to a series of breakfast cakes, not the sweet kind, but the savory. My eyes were lingering on one with shrimp when I heard Derek say “lobster.” I instantly sat up and paid attention as he told me the special of the month was a Lobster Cake with a brown butter citrus sauce. I resisted the urge to tell him he had me at lobster. I ordered, and my girlfriend surprised me by getting the Monte Cristo.

We waited a short while passing the breeze and taking in the local color. Despite a view dominated by cars and pavement the outdoors area of Café 21 is really quite comfortable, almost homey. There is relatively little noise from the road, a pleasant but not overpowering breeze finds its way through the front dining area, and the music… well that is a matter of opinion. If you find yourself sitting in the front patio area you might hear the not so gentle sounds of techno wafting through the air. It doesn’t dominate the conversation, but it is definitely not something you can tune out. I found it quite pleasant, a needed change from the muzak that you find in the bigger chain restaurants. My girlfriend, well, she was not so much a fan of it. Still it did little to deter our enjoyment of the food.

Which thankfully arrived in a relatively short amount of time. I looked down and was pleased to note there appeared to be just the right amount of food on my plate. I must admit to a moment of trepidation as I saw a distant diner receive their Lobster Cake combined with a shudder that I had been lured into ordering another great tasting meal in a very small portion. Still in my moment of weakness I had asked Derek for a side of grilled prosciutto, which after some consideration was not a bad addition to the meal. My first bite was heaven. The whole thing was like a superbly modified Eggs Benedict balanced on a perfectly made cake with bits of visibly recognizable lobster. That along was the butter citrus sauce culminated into a perfect pairing of complimentary flavors and consistencies. I knew I’d found the right dish when I found myself consciously eating my food slowly, savoring each bite.

I glanced over at my girlfriend’s plate and received a smile that told me it was alright to try some of her Monte Cristo. Now, I should say that I prefer my Monte Cristo’s fried, sometimes even deep fried, and was a bit hesitant to take a bite when I saw what looked like it had just been grilled, but upon taking a mouthful I knew I’d finally found a great grilled Monte Cristo. The center was warm, but not hot, the bread had a nice crust to it, and again I had to stop myself from snatching my girlfriends plate off the table and making a run for it. Still I ended up eating half of her Monte Cristo in addition to my lobster cake, and mopped up the rest with a few pieces of grilled prosciutto.

I would not hesitate to say that Café 21 is one of the best places to pick up a delicious breakfast on a quiet Sunday morning. The staff is friendly, the food is great, and the environment is serene. You won’t notice the electronic soundtrack in the background, you’ll be too busy ooing and aweing over the food in front of you.

Café 21

2763 Adams Ave

San Diego, CA 92116