From the moment you sit down, certain restaurants instantly make you feel at ease. It's a quality we crave when we go out to eat, and it's easy to find at SoBo Cafe in Federal Hill.
The atmosphere at this South Baltimore mainstay is raucous and alive — SoBo Cafe buzzes with the energy of parents and their kids, old friends playing catch-up and new couples sizing each other up. It's a welcome change from the sterile coolness of more upscale restaurants, where all too often, self-importance undercuts camaraderie.
The SoBo Cafe has been churning out upscale home cooking since 1998. For just as long, the owner (and now head chef) Brent Ludtke has been satisfying neighborhood residents with his pleasant fare and annoying them with his occasional habit of not showing up to open the restaurant.
Over the years, SoBo Cafe has not been without its financial troubles. Most recently, the restaurant had a "Save the SoBo Cafe" drive last July to raise money for bills that were piling up because of a downturn in business. But the cafe has persevered and is still open in a neighborhood full of bars and restaurants that come and go.
The colorful art on the walls is a great conversation starter, and the lone but friendly waitress makes you feel at home with attentive service. But SoBo Cafe's "anything goes" mentality isn't always a good thing when it comes to food. The confusingly cramped menu is an early warning: The combination of small, Xeroxed scrawl and the restaurant's dim lighting can be a chore to decipher.
The menu is handwritten because the SoBo Cafe employs a revolving list of globally inspired dishes to accompany its everyday signature selections. The admirable beer and wine list is also handwritten and a little jumbled.
The Spinach Pie ($6) shows that comfort food is what SoBo Cafe does best. Flaky and moist, it was a great way to start a dinner. The balance of spinach and creamy cheese would have made Greektown proud. The Pork Spring Rolls (two for $5), however, are a good example of the SoBo Cafe's overreaching. The spring roll itself was deliciously crisp and porky, but the sweet duck sauce underneath was grainy and overwhelming. Without the sauce, the spring roll was a good appetizer. This dish's unevenness was a glimpse of what was to come.
The World Famous Meat Muffins ($16), each about the size of a baseball, come perched atop a mound of cheddar mashed sweet potatoes, slathered in spicy gravy. The delicious little loaves were juicy and well-cooked, with a cherry tomato hidden just underneath the top of the muffin for added flavor and moisture. The piece of bacon on the bottom of the muffin was a fatty and unnecessary addition. The mashed potatoes were a little dry, but improved when mixed with the juicy meat and gravy. The side of mixed vegetables remains one of the better interpretations in the city: An array of mushrooms, corn, red pepper and broccoli accentuate the meatloaf and give the plate some much-needed color.
Most disappointing were the Jerked Pork Loin Tacos ($17). Dry and seasoned with too much clove, these three tacos were unsalvageable, even with the fiery pineapple salsa that comes as a side. The cheese and red onion garnishes were barely present, and parsley on a taco is rarely a good idea. The side of beans and rice gave us something to drag the pork through for moisture.
The Heavy Seas Holy Sheet Uber Abbey Ale ($5) I drank went well with the meat muffins and spinach pie. The magnificently named Casillero Del Diablo ("cellar of the devil") Carmenere ($7) my companion enjoyed was tasty and helped combat the dryness of her dish.
The night we were there, the SoBo Cafe was not serving desserts. Ludtke typically makes a rotating list of desserts at the end of the week, to have them fresh for the weekend, he said.
The SoBo Cafe's strength is not in its ability to span the world culinarily but to nourish its regulars with home-style comfort food. It's a great night out for two people who want to soak up the neighborhood's flair and have an inviting time. If you go on a Wednesday, it will also be a cheap date — all of SoBo's entrees are $14. Just make sure you stick to the down-home favorites Sobo Cafe does best.
Where: 6-8 W. Cross St., Baltimore
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Entrees: $13-$20 (all entrees $14 on Wednesday)
Food: ✭ ✭
Service: ✭ ✭ ✭
Atmosphere: ✭ ✭ ✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ¿¿¿¿ Good: ¿¿¿ Fair or Uneven: ¿¿ Poor: ¿]