The Beacon Hill neighborhood’s period of major development, from the last half of the 19th century to the 1930s, assures a congenial mix of historic residential structures, and its main north-south thoroughfare, Blanco Road, has somehow managed to retain an animated commercial life into the current century. A striking obelisk at Blanco and Fulton Avenue by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz has further enlivened and given focus to the street.
A “neighborhood bistro” trying to slip into this scene had better be ready to conform and contribute.
If you happen to arrive at newcomer SoHill Café on one of those Saturdays when vendors line the sidewalks, the sense of neighborhood is even more palpable — and that sense extends into the café’s interior. Flashes of purposeful design contrast with just-happened bits and pieces. The result is a setting that manages to banish any vibes remaining from its previous occupant — the late, lamented Casbeers Café — while not shocking anyone with freshly pressed newness.
The same can pretty much be said of the food: this is not a farm-to-table temple. Plating, under the watchful eye of Chef Justin Limburg, whose resumé includes a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in LA and Il Sogno here in San Antonio, is deliberate but not fussy. And the menu selection? Italian with a little something in every expected food group: pizza, pasta, salad… With a few tweaks just to let you know they care, but not so many as to be scary.
Owner and “visionary” Jean-Francois Poujol is pushing a little beyond his personal comfort zone, however. Poujol has been responsible for four, primarily French-accented Alamo City eateries in the last 12 years, the most recent being Tribeca in Olmos Park. The desire to do neighborhood-friendly Italian was why he brought on Limburg with his California and SA pizza experience. Together, they built the hybrid gas-wood oven that’s fully visible in the bright, open kitchen. It’s capable of reaching 1200 degrees, Limburg boasts.
At the moment, the would-be Ferrari is loafing along at well below autostrada speeds — say, around 700 degrees. This is not the blasting temperature that gives the pies at Dough their volcanically craggy urgency, but it’s still good enough to make for a respectably chewy and flavorful sourdough foundation. I suggest taking a test drive first on Wednesday, when all pizzas are $10.
A few toppings betray some Wolfgangy puckishness, with combinations such as fig and prosciutto with pistachios. But if it’s pepperoni that brings you to the table, there’s that too. I tried the only slightly tony wild mushroom model with taleggio, mozzarella and truffle oil. The aroma of the pungent oil preceded the pie to the table but was fortunately more subdued thereafter, and the funghi were on the tame side of selvaggio, but I was happy nonetheless. And if you’re dining solo and feel like a complementary salad, though there’s only a large Caesar on the menu, the kitchen will happily plate a small one for you.
Chef Limburg makes all his own pasta with the exception of the ruffled lasagna noodles that appear in the SoHill lasagna roll. I’m not convinced rolled lasagna is any better than a typically layered one, but why not? It presents well on the plate and comes across as more delicate than many around town. Yes, I can always use a few more grinds of black pepper. But light beats leaden lasagna any day.
Delicacy is also the impression of the three-meatball appetizer. A mix of beef and pork, the orbs are tender and moist, the accompanying marinara not so robust as to get in the way. The same meatball mix comes in a burger, along with tomato jam and smoked gouda. The SoHill burger boasts beef, cheddar, a loose garlic aioli and even a little arugula — don’t worry, though, it’s not too fancy. Cooked exactly as requested, the combo is fine but not exceptional. Ditto for the pale fries. Our Cheers-cheery waitress was sure the kitchen could do an upgrade to the spicy truffle fries that are a stand-alone appetizer. Another instance of accommodation.
If Chef Limburg’s seasoning is generally not in-your-face, he nevertheless seems a huge fan of garlic. My man. The garlic butter shrimp comes showered in the stuff — and the beautiful shrimp are the happier for it. His house-cut fettuccini are on the thick side, but the pleasantly burly pesto iteration is matched bite-for-bite by a bright and pungent, garlicky pesto. More mushrooms and a few pine nuts suggest luxury without getting off-puttingly cheffy.
Desserts are a work in progress, and the wine list may undergo some changes as well. But in the meantime, it strikes me as being a well-calibrated selection designed to offer the snob just enough to dwell on while remaining desirably approachable. Full bottles start at $18. Fits right in with the Beaconhoody ethic, in other words.
1719 Blanco Road, (210) 455-2177, sohillcafe.com
11-9 Tues.-Thurs., 11-10 Fri.-Sat.
Pizzas, lasagna and fettuccini, meatballs.
SoHill is the new kid in the Beacon Hill hood, and it shows every sign of fitting in. That’s thanks to its relaxed menu of only slightly tweaked Italian, its just-creative-enough pizzas (on a sourdough base), pastas (primarily house-made) and appetizers, and its exceptionally cheery and accommodating staff. The setting is just freshened enough (it was formerly Casbeers Café) to speak of new beginnings for a venerable space.
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