Funky, Sure, but We Like It Too
It's always good when a dining establishment exceeds your expectations. When I phoned the Sobo Café ( 6 W. Cross St.,  752 -1518) in Federal Hill at 3:15 on a recent Monday afternoon, I said to the woman who answered the phone, "Your Web site says to call and ask about the menu, because it changes daily." There were several seconds of silence on the other end, then finally the woman spoke: "We have a Web site?" She couldn't offer any guidance on what the café might be serving that night, but she did read me a bit of the menu from the evening before.
We decided to go anyway, and I'm glad we did, our dreamily distracted server and the difficulty of reading the menu off a chalkboard over the bar notwithstanding. I liked the eclectic/retro food and the offbeat/casual setting, a big square room with lemon-yellow walls lined with original artwork and doors open to the night and the city. The mood was cheery, breezy (an effect the ceiling fans helped achieve), and relaxed.
If there are kitchen gods or goddesses watching over the Sobo Café, they would have to be the deities of garlic and pepper. The Caesar salad ($4), sized for sharing by at least two people, is so pungent that even if you're not the one eating it, you'll reek anyway. (Think of it as secondhand garlic.) If you do order a Caesar, everyone at the table should consume at least a few leaves, or a couple of the immense croutons, just to level the olfactory playing field.
Chili ($3 cup, $4 bowl) is available con carne, but you won't miss the cow if you opt for the veggie version. The spirited meat-free rendition comes packed with zucchini, tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, corn, kidney beans, and chipotle chiles. Garnished with tortilla chips and grated cheddar, it's a hearty starter.
We couldn't resist--well, C.C. couldn't--something called Winnie's Disgustingly Good Scalloped Taters ($4 as a side, $8 as an entrée). Thinly sliced, layered in a bowl with a bit of onion and a cheesy cream sauce and baked, they are indeed disgustingly good--perfectly seasoned, with bits of crusty cheese clinging to the potatoes and the bowl.
It's not easy to choose from the main courses here. For starters, there are the names, which range from amusing to off-putting. Bigger Than Yo' Face Baked Ziti. Ride 'em Cowboy! Pie. Big-Assed Pan-Seared Pork Chop. We never got to check out the ass on that chop, but a fellow diner did try the ziti ($11), and it was indeed twice the size of his face. The cowboy pie ($11), a variation on shepherd's pie--beef stew topped with mashed potatoes and top-browned in the oven--looks big enough to feed two or three faces too.
C.C. caught the Sobo spirit and ordered World's Famous Meat Muffins With Spuds ($10). The muffins are really a sort of chunky meat loaf, beefed up with carrot, onion, tomato, red pepper, celery, and garlic, then crammed into muffin tins for baking. You get two in a serving. The spuds are red-skin potatoes, topped with a light onion gravy. The dish included a side of nicely sautéed green beans, yellow squash, red pepper, onions, and mushrooms. A bountiful serving, for the price. (She took one of the muffins home for lunch the next day and pronounced it delicious cold.)
Perhaps due to the unappetizing names of the meat dishes ("meat muffin" made me think cow patty), the vegetarian options caught my eye, particularly the Moroccan peppered split peas with spicy tomato-eggplant sauce and couscous ($11) and pumpkin pansotti with Thai green-curry cream and sesame-roasted cremini mushrooms ($12). (Pansotti are pasta half-moons that are fried or boiled.) I chose the former and was not disappointed. The couscous was cold but nicely flecked with parsley, peas, carrot, and red onion. It had little flavor itself, but it paired nicely with the slightly spicy, slightly sweet tomato sauce containing onion, red pepper, and eggplant. If the mini-pyramid of mashed yellow split peas was indeed peppered Moroccan-style, though, Moroccan cuisine must be mildly flavored; both the legumes and the couscous called for more seasoning. That said, it was a pretty plate and left me feeling full.
Desserts were limited to a sole selection: chocolate walnut pie ($4). Our server told us other desserts had been baked the day before but explained apologetically, "They just sell out really fast." Well, I guess so, if our pie was typical. The crisp crust was topped with a deeply chocolate filling somewhere between creamy and fudgelike. A top layer of walnuts added crunch to the delicious confection.
Nothing on the night's menu topped $12, and that included a horseradish-crusted salmon and a strip steak with gorgonzola pepper butter. Sobo Café is funky, sure, but I noticed we weren't the only customers of a certain age. Trust us to know something about good food at good prices.
Open daily noon-5 p.m. and 6-10 p.m.