Sangria encounters at a neighborhood gem

By Dr. Ink

We were overdue to descend on one of my favorite neighborhood hotspots for a sangria bath.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 3.30.49 PMPrevious visits to Café 21 in Normal Heights have always involved diving into full meals cooked by chef extraordinaire Layla Javadov, who owns the darling café with her husband, Alex. The couple is from Azerbaijan, and they also run a second location in the Gaslamp District as well as the cocktail-focused Zymology a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue.

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Pineapple-pomegranate and orange-pear sangrias (Photo by Dr. Ink)

For some time now, they’ve been concocting a variety of house-made sangrias accented with every fruit and spice imaginable. During happy hour, four flavors are available: two reds and two whites. A generous serving of the stuff, ladled into hefty wine goblets, costs only $4 a glass.

Chablis was the basis of the white sangria I ordered, made with muddled pineapple and spiked with a splash of vodka and a touch of agave. Fleshy pomegranate seeds bobbing within added prettiness, although the amalgamation of soft, fruity flavors put to shame many of the classic sangrias I’ve slurped at Spanish restaurants. This was teasingly sweet and more refined.

My drinking cohort ordered the orange-pear spiked also with vodka, but using a dark-red table wine. Here, the grapes from the vino were prominent, a wine lover’s sangria revealing only faint nuances of the orange and pear. Though not fruity enough to qualify for a punch bowl, it nonetheless went down in big, easy sips.

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Fontina cheese fondue with assorted dippers
(Photo by Dr. Ink)

Several draught beers are also discounted for happy hour, ranging from $3 to $4.50 a pint. On this particular day they included Mama’s Little Yella Pils, Six Killer Coffee Stout and Smoked Porter from Stone Brewing — a tempting lineup but one that we easily resisted in the face of titillating sangrias.

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It’s difficult to pass up gorging on Café 21’s food. Luckily a discounted tapas menu is in place that lends restraint. Each small plate is priced at $5, and there are many to choose from.

Fontina cheese fondue served with apples and veggies was outstanding. A hint of Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheeses added zip to the mixture. We also ordered a buttery potato pancake topped with shredded short rib meat that was braised in figs and Chai tea. Our final wash-down was flourless chocolate cake with berry compote, which rose above your everyday variety with balanced, layered flavors similar to the liquids in our glasses.

Hurray for Café 21. Even when prices drop during happy hour, the establishment upholds an eye for quality and detail on everything you put into your mouth.

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