Nice and Easy
Off the Beaten Path Federal Hill Noshery Still a Casual Neighborhood Gem
SoBo Café sits one long block west of the Cross Street Market, on a block without much foot traffic--which basically means it's possible, even if you live or play in the neighborhood, never to lay eyes upon it. Nevertheless, SoBo Café has managed over eight years or so to have carved out a strategic niche for itself and to have attracted what looks to be a loyal clientele, even with all the dining choices in Federal Hill. The changing menu, the smoke-free environment, and the inescapable cheerfulness of the square, sunlit dining room make SoBo an offbeat choice for weekday evenings when no one feels like cooking but no one feels like dressing up or investing much time or money in an evening meal, either.
Back when SoBo had just opened in 1998, the City Paper review spoke of walking in and liking the place immediately. This still happens. Staff members yell out cheerful hellos to incoming patrons and invite them to choose one of the dozen or so clothed tables that have been scattered comfortably around the bright orange-and-royal-blue dining room.
The brief menu is hand-scrawled, photocopied, and inserted for patrons into plastic page holders. On a recent visit, the choices numbered about a dozen entrées, most all them tempting and priced from the low to the high teens. Starters are scant. On this night they included a mac 'n' cheese ($5), a spinach pie ($4), and a gazpacho ($3/$4). It'd be easy to pass them up entirely, head directly for an entrée, and get out of SoBo Café for $20 and change.
Folks like their macaroni and cheese a certain way, and it's a sure bet that some folks will like SoBo's version more than others. The crusty topping of the squared-off serving pleases almost everyone, but the absence of sharp flavors, creaminess, and detectable spicing encourages some tableside suggestions--a dash of cayenne, a true béchamel sauce, a more arousing cheese.
The gazpacho offered the familiar pleasure of a well-blended chilled soup but wanted some special twist of garnish or herbing--diced cucumber, a few sprigs of cilantro--to make it memorable and truly refreshing. It tasted like something most diners could have easily made themselves. The house salad ($5), though, is a smart choice, full of chilled crunchy greens, fresh tomatoes, and a take-notice Gorgonzola dressing. It's big enough to share among three or four people.
Listed entrées betray the kitchen's ambition and playfulness, and a commitment to comfort food--shredded jamon tacos with refried barrachos ($15), Sloppy Joes ($13), lemon-crusted red pepper marinated hake ($17), coriander braised chicken breast with Thai curry glass noodles ($16). The chicken pot pie ($13), the poster entrée for comfort food, turned out to be superb, with a buttery, flaky golden crust and a filling of persuasively fresh vegetables like carrots, peas, and corn. Its best quality was its judicious mixture of white- and dark-meat chicken, the latter of which imparted full flavor to every steamy bite.
Steak was on special on this Monday evening, its price knocked down from an already reasonable $20 to a crazy $12. Christened a "Mobtown strip," this well-marbled cut was expertly seared and favored with an application of an apple wood-smoked bacon and Gorgonzola cream sauce. Accompanied by sautéed seasonal vegetables and creamy smashed potatoes, this was a near-flawless offering.
Two other entrées were full of good ideas but one too many of them apiece. A kaffir leaf marinated wahoo fillet ($17) deployed a delectable Thai cucumber salad and a spiky carrot-and-chile slaw--all good--but the coconut, sweet pea, and red quinoa salad visually clashed in the presentation and nearly overwhelmed the delicate fillet, which was, unfortunately, overcooked and dry. A terrific pork loin ($15), brined with lager and thyme and topped with a tantalizing bourbon barbecue sauce, had to fend off the watery advances from a purple cabbage and ginger coleslaw. In both cases, the entrée needed some more room to breathe.
SoBo Café is the kind of place where neighbors take their meals at the bar, which, like the dining room, serves only beer and wine. The wine list is full of thoughtful bargains, and the beer choices include a few crafts from the Brewer's Art. So agreeable is SoBo Café, and so enterprising, that diners here are content to roll with the occasional disappointments.