Café 21: Infusing San Diego Cuisine with Care and Creativity

By John Bechtel | March 01, 2015
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leyla javadov cafe 21

Leyla Javadov, a youthful-looking woman with an unassuming and engaging smile, is the co-owner and chef of Café 21, a new hot spot that opened in April 2014 in the Gaslamp District of San Diego.

As you enter Café 21 a profusion of green plants seems to sprout from the brick walls, alternating with glass shelves containing hand-labeled bottles of crafted vodka, gin, rum and bourbon concoctions. A row of glass wine jugs infused with lavender, sage and a dozen other herbs evoke your curiosity as you wait to be seated.

Raised in the Ukraine, Leyla learned cooking basics from her Azerbaijani grandmother. The intriguing nature of her San Diego menus reveals that avid experimentation and research are hardwired into her DNA. As a child she was not permitted to use the more expensive food items purchased at the village market for fear she might ruin them with some of her experiments. Today, as a seasoned and singularly original chef, Leyla's cuisine, unconstrained by geography, is limited only by her imagination and will to culinary adventure.

Her husband, Alex, who manages the front of the restaurant, drove a taxi and attended university when they first came to San Diego. When Alex shared some of Leyla's homemade baklava with a friend in the restaurant business, it was an instant hit that quickly developed into a catering business, followed by a tiny restaurant with only eight tables.

beet tartar

Since those humble beginnings, they have outgrown their Adams Avenue location and opened a second location in the Gaslamp District.

Both locations are thriving destination restaurants that feature carefully handcrafted and locally sourced foods as well as a revival of zymology, the science of pickling and infusing the common with the bizarre to produce drinks like the Jalapeño Pear Marg: jalapeño-infused tequila mixed with pear, lime and agave. You can choose from five infused mojitos or six custom-created sangrias; or you can throw caution and tradition to the winds and pair their Cucumber Basil Smash or Berry Whiskey Crush with a lamb shank (braised in apricot, roasted squash, tomato and onion sauce for hours), served with lentils and sautéed spinach.

Café 21 is a family-owned business where the staff functions and feels like family. They partner with other local family-owned businesses and farms, obtaining the freshest ingredients from sustainability-sensitive purveyors such as Tom King Farms, Suzie's Farm and Specialty Produce, delivered to their front door daily.

At Café 21 the flavors and fragrances are often literally plucked from the surrounding green walls to create original and aromatic presentations. Chef Leyla knows how to tease, surprise and delight the most jaded of taste buds. This spring, Leyla recommends her Creamy Potato and Cauliflower Stuffed Flatbread served with sour cream and a Greek salad. For gourmets who suffer from déjà vu, she suggests the brightly colored and decadent Beet Tartar. If you want to try this at home, you will notice this versatile recipe can serve a few or many guests, and that many of the components can be prepared in advance.

Café 21
(619) 795-0721
802 Fifth Avenue San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 640-2121
2736 Adams Avenue San Diego, CA 92116

Article from Edible San Diego at
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