By Frank Sabatini Jr.
French onion soup, typically a precursor to beef bourguignon or coq au vin, was our gateway to the cuisine of several countries far removed from the hexagon nation. Not since visiting Hanna’s Gourmet in Normal Heights have I witnessed a menu so globally ambitious and well executed than what exists at Red Card Café.
The restaurant is nestled within a row of home-design businesses along the northern end of Morena Boulevard, in a modest, industrial structure previously occupied by Kitchen 4140. Owner and Parisian native, Caroline Sternberg, gave it a chic redo that resulted in clean lines and a gray-and-red color scheme that feels exceptionally calming. She also re-stylized the bar, which is now rigged with 14 beer taps.
The overall design is a nod to world soccer, with the “red card” used customarily by referees for declaring player penalties. Here, a mini version of the card is slotted into your check holder as a fun embellishment. There are also a few flat screens used for streaming seasonal soccer matches as they occur.
“Soccer ties into international street food,” Sternberg explained of her menu, which was created by Chef Drew Lopez, a culinary graduate of the Art Institute of Colorado.
Lopez makes everything from scratch, and brings to the café a broad spectrum of food knowledge after working in a number of San Diego restaurants that included S&M Sausage & Meat, Green Acre, and the former Lei Lounge.
“I was ready for this opportunity,” he said, while pointing out a few spins he gives to certain dishes.
For his French onion soup, capped with coveted, gooey Gruyere cheese, he de-glazes the onions after they’re cooked with sherry vinegar. The unexpected tartness tasted akin to fresh citrus, diminishing to a degree the sweetness of the onions.
The pork shoulder comprising his Cuban sandwich is brined in lemonade for two days, yet without robbing the meat of its desirable, succulent flavor. The acidity factor was inconspicuous, just enough to balance the generously buttered baguette roll, which also captured Gruyere, house-made pickles and creamy Dijon mustard.
Argentina is represented by empanadas filled stoutly with braised beef hiding customary green olives. Their house-made dough casings were glossy, light and skillfully crimped. Served alongside was a robust dipping sauce of guajillo chilies, tomatillos and smoked paprika. A few dabs were fine. Beyond that, the admixture committed something of a penalty kick in playing with these half-moon beauties.
We then diverted to China with an order of char siu pork buns accented with cabbage slaw and ginger aioli. Their texture and flavor scored better than any I’ve had all year — airy and spongy on the outside, sweet and tangy inside — and without the inundation of five spice I often encounter by other American chefs that attempt them.
A return to Europe landed us in Italy with a most memorable bowl of house-made basil linguine tossed in almond pesto, basil oil and chili flakes. Lopez hits the dish with a little marinara sauce, which tempers the monotony of basil’s sweet, peppery essence. Thank you, chef, for catering to folks like me who love the herb, but don’t want it governing every strand of soft, precious noodle coiling my fork.
The menu reveals a good deal of wanderlust in other dishes we didn’t try, such as chicken mole tacos, Hawaiian poke in yuzu juice, Jamaican jerk chicken, North African lamb sausage (merguez), plus a few stateside dishes such as a bacon-wrapped hot dog, a bone-in pork chop with green apple sauce, and a roasted turkey sandwich with avocado, pickled red onions and alfalfa sprouts.
Lopez doubles as the café’s pastry chef. We tried the seasonal-berry tart sporting a velvety, lemon curd, plus lip-smacking chocolate mousse amplified by a strong measure of espresso. No need for a cup of jitter juice if you get it.
Condensed into one dinner sitting, Red Card Café affords visitors an extensive journey filled with some of the tastiest, most celebrated foods the world has to offer — and achievable without packing a suitcase. It is open seven nights a week and also serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and brunch from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.