At the recent March of Dimes Signature Chefs event, the show-stealers were Chefs Shane Bruns and Brian West of Las Ramblas at the Hotel Contessa, Chef Enrique Perez of the Anaqua Grill at the Plaza San Antonio, and Mark Arriola of SoGo. Arriola served a Pacific Rim-inspired “taco” of braised pork belly in a modified steamed bun, inspring a trip to his Far North café.
Arriola comes by his Pacific Rim creds legitimately; he cooked in Hawaii in the course of a career that includes classical French training and stints all over Colorado and Texas, most recently at the Westin La Cantera.
The menu at the bright and cheery shop on Stone Oak Parkway reads well enough for a place that is essentially devoted to soups, salads, and sandwiches. A chef’s case offers takeaway items, and it was here, in the online listing, that I found the most evidence of his adventurous past: Okinawan sweet-potato palau, Southwestern quinoa salad, Hawaiian “Kalua” pork … sadly none of these happened to be available on my first visit, so I went home with an “anti-pasta” salad instead. It was spunky — even pugnacious — the best such salad I’ve had in San Antonio. But it wasn’t what I was looking for.
When I dined in on my next trip, I skipped over similarly run-of-the-mill-sounding sandwiches and tried the Thai steak salad and a lamb and goat cheese pita. Sigh. Then the day’s special soup, a smooth and spicy sweet-potato and ginger combo, arrived in a genuine ceramic bowl. My salad and sandwich also exceeded expectations — the salad almost to a fault. It came with a spicy lemongrass vinaigrette in which ginger played a major role. The combination was so tongue-tingling, even the rice noodles couldn’t easily tame it. Gotta say it was good — just more challenging than anticipated. Especially since challenge hadn’t been anticipated at all.
The sliced rare lamb in the folded pita with goat cheese, cucumber raita, and more was practically tame by comparison, and I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of the copious sprouts. Yet nothing was left at the end of the day but a lingering, curry-like flavor.
I picked up a Saweet cupcake, a cookie of the white-chocolate persuasion, and a Nanaimo bar from the bakery case. The cupcakes are featured prominently at SoGo, but mine wasn’t exciting, counting almost exclusively on lots of frosting for its appeal. The cookie also disappointed at $1.79. But the Nanaimo bars, a Canadian creation with a nutty crumb base, a layer of custard, and a very good dark-chocolate cap, were classic yet executed with flair.
Which is where SoGo seems to excel: slightly subversive standards done better than first-timers might expect. Sure, I’d love to see more Asian-inspired “tacos,” but if I lived nearby I suspect I’d be dropping in frequently to check the chef’s case. I can always play Pacific Rim at home. I just need to learn how to do those steamed buns … — Ron Bechtol