When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Location: 214 West Roosevelt Street
Open: About a month
Eats: Modern Japanese, ramen
Roosevelt Row has long been known for its collection of art galleries and quirky boutiques, but there hasn't really been a restaurant with food as delightful and exciting as the neighborhood deserves — at least, not until now.
In early October, a new Japanese restaurant, SoSoBa, set up shop near Second Avenue and Roosevelt Street. The casual lunch and dinner spot is actually a second location of a Flagstaff noodle shop, which has been brought to the Valley by owner Tyler Christensen and chef Joshua Riesner. The menu is unapologetically nontraditional, with dishes ranging from mac-and-cheese balls to a pork and kimchi toastada — mostly Japanese, but always with a twist, it's bold, fusion food that's neither confusing nor too contrived.
Step inside the restaurant, located just west of Lola Coffee on Roosevelt, and you'll find a surprisingly elegant space complete with bar seating along the front windows as well as in front of the kitchen bar, and a cozy dining room with tables and low-slung booths. Service during our lunch visit was casual but attentive, and a steady stream of customers came and went during our meal.
It's a good idea to start your meal at SoSoBa with a cocktail; whiskey drinkers in particular will appreciate that the restaurant offers two takes on a classic Old Fashioned. The baked apple version sounded most tempting to us, but the bar was, unfortunately, out of the necessary house-made baked apple bitters. We opted for the very good Smoked Orange Old Fashioned, featuring subtly smoky house-made orange bitters, instead.
Also on the restaurant's cocktail list: a very well-done mai tai, a bonal Negroni, a Last Word, and about a half-dozen original creations. Not looking for the hard stuff? The restaurant also serves beer, wine, and sake.
To complement the drinks, diners can choose from a list of five starters at least two of which are large enough to serve as light entrees. We ordered both the General Tso Cauliflower ($10) and Sweet Chile Calamari ($12), and were surprised to receive giant portions in both cases.
Prior to taking our first bite of SoSoBa's starter, we thought we'd all but OD'ed on cauliflower this summer, but the restaurant's flash-fried offering immediately made us swoon. Delicately crisp on the outside, each piece was soft and nutty at first bite and came tossed in a nicely spicy General Tso sauce. You may have an aversion to the sticky, too-sweet, protein-filled version of General Tso you've had elsewhere, but don't let those memories stop you from giving SoSoBa's variation a try.
Sweet Chile Calamari also satisfied with a light, crisp batter and well-balanced dressing. Our only complaint comes down to presentation: under the heaping pile of squid, the bed of seaweed salad was impossible to see, let alone eat.
But you can't judge a self-described noodle shop without trying the noodles, so we went in on an bowl of SoSoBa's tantanmen ($12). Though billed as the spiciest ramen on the restaurant's list, we found this bowl of pork sesame-chile broth to be relatively tame in the heat department. In fact, after plowing our way through the tangle of perfectly-cooked ramen noodles, we downed almost the entirety of the broth, which balanced rich sesame flavor with just enough spice to keep you coming back for more. Toppings — which included ground pork, sauteed greens, scallions, bamboo shoots, and a soft egg — were each too good to be left on the table.
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Sweet Chile Glazed Udon ($12) was also a success. With thick, doughy udon noodles buried under slices of pork belly, chicharron, and various vegetables, this dish wavers nicely between bites of salty, fatty pork and noodles dressed in sweet-spicy sauce.
With deep-fried pork skins and General Tso-style vegetables, it's easy to see SoSoBa isn't trying to stick to tradition. But the restaurant isn't taking liberties without good reason. Most of the restaurant's dishes have been tried and tested at the original Flagstaff location, meaning they're dialed in despite the restaurant's short run so far. And with a kitchen that's open until midnight during the week and until 2 a.m. on weekends, Roosevelt Row can consider its late-night dining options seriously upped.