Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
What used to be Toma Sol Cafe, which everyone assumed was strictly a coffeehouse, is now a beer and wine bar that serves clean, affordable meals from a kitchen free of deep fryers.
To my surprise, the change occurred with little hoopla about five years ago when it was purchased by Steve Burke, a former general manager of Chili’s who also owned a restaurant in Santee which specialized in New Mexico-type fare. Shortly after taking over the big-windowed space and adding “tavern” to the name, he installed a tap system for craft beer, gave the interior a thorough remodel, and bingo — a solid patronage was established.
Just look at the wall plastered with nearly 500 photographs of Club 12 members. They’re the customers who purchased and drank in succession the beers from each of the 12 taps within a 12-day period. For anyone following in their sudsy steps, the rewards are a T-shirt, your photo on the wall, and the privilege of paying only $4 for whatever beer resides in tap 12.
Complete the process 12 times, and you receive a mug engraved with your name, plus an extra 4 ounces of beer whenever you purchase from any tap.
“The program encourages our customers to try new beers and get out of their comfort zones,” Burke said, referring to a rotating lineup that focuses on special allocations and one-offs from local breweries. In other words, what’s here today can be forever gone tomorrow.
Burke recently introduced Sunday brunch (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), which is what drew me to the restaurant with a friend who had never heard of the place. The last time I visited was in 2012 under the former ownership, when lattes and paninis ruled the day. A decorative sun is about the only element that still remains, as Toma Sol translates to “take the sun.”
The interior now features earthier tones, a spacious bar, wood tables and a small trove of popular games, thus striking a neighborhood feel that appeals to multiple types of customers.
We ordered dishes from both the brunch and regular menus. Nothing left us disappointed.
From the brunch list, we savored “morning enchiladas” filled with potatoes, bacon, cheddar, mozzarella and scrambled eggs. Draped in flavorful, dark-red sauce made in-house and crowned with thick wedges of avocado, it was a novel departure from the zillions of breakfast burritos I shamelessly consume.
The “stuffed waffle” isn’t really stuffed with anything. Instead, it’s a complete breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, crumbled sausage and cheddar piled onto a Belgian waffle, which tastefully catches some of the ingredients in its deep, square crevices.
The fun part of the experience is dressing up your waffle with embellishments from an accompanying tray stocked with fruit-flavored cereal, chocolate chips, ground cinnamon, non-dairy whipped cream, chocolate sauce and maple syrup. Kids love it, and so did I.
Even if Burke hadn’t mentioned the absence of deep fryers in his kitchen, the trio of spicy chicken sliders revealed as much — not to mention the unavailability of french fries, tater tots, jalapeno poppers and the like.
Pretty much all other eateries would have used trendy, Southern-fried-style chicken in the sliders — not something I protest. But I also don’t mind when tongue-coddling grease is taken out of the equation in lieu of a nice, grilled finish and piquant seasonings. The chicken inside these mini Hawaiian-style buns offered snappy Southwestern flavors and joined forces with guacamole, cotija cheese and chipotle cream sauce.
Locally based Sadie Rose Baking Company supplies all of the bread, including the fabulous biscuit-like crusts used for a variety of flatbreads. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best wholesalers in the region that holds the coveted secret for making leavened goods that literally melt in your mouth.
We chose the “no meat, no cry” flatbread, which wowed us with chunks of marinated oven-baked tofu resting in a warm mantle of pesto, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and cilantro-lime sauce. If you’re looking for a vegetarian “pie” that outshines the usual mushroom and Margherita versions — and also offers one of the airiest crusts in town — this is it.
All dishes are made to order, including fresh salads and bowls that capture everything from Granny Smith apples and brown rice to black beans and Gorgonzola and goat cheeses. The majority of dishes are priced comfortably below $12.
In addition to weekday happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Fridays), Toma Sol presents wine tastings once a month as well as trivia nights on Tuesdays at 7 p.m.
Regardless when you drop in to this bright modern-day tavern, the community spirit is alive and well and entices you to stay awhile.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.