Dining review: so.ca offers a surprise at every turn in journey of Latin American, Caribbean cuisine

 

The Crab Stuffed Avocado is hands-down the best seller at so.ca, according to chef Todd Ohle, and understandably so. Chewy-tender kernels of choclo corn and wisps of jalapeño give the dish a subtle Peruvian accent without upstaging the jumbo lump crab and ripe avocado.

so.ca, from the owners of bu.ku, is in Raleigh’s Cameron Village and explores cuisine charting a course from Mexico to Jamaica to Chile, with nearly three dozen ports of call in between.

By Greg Cox

Originally published 9/21/2017

RALEIGH Way back in 2010, a restaurant with the peculiar name of bu.ku brought a new concept to the area: global street food in an upscale, casual setting. (Seven years is, after all, practically a geologic epoch in downtown Raleigh, whose culinary landscape has utterly changed in that time span.)

The restaurant’s name, an international phonetic play on the French “beaucoup,” is a clever reference to the menu’s celebration of the world’s many cuisines.

Many, that is, but by no means all. For all its variety, bu.ku’s menu skews decidedly to the Eastern Hemisphere, particularly Asia.

Turns out owners Sean Degnan and Tony Hopkins weren’t finished with their global exploration. In March, they set sail for the New World, teaming up with veteran chef Todd Ohle to open so.ca in March in Cameron Village. The new restaurant focuses on the cuisines of Latin America and the Caribbean – or, as so.ca’s name cryptically suggests, South of the Tropic of Cancer.

The menu is a veritable treasure map of the region, charting a course from Mexico to Jamaica to Chile, with nearly three dozen ports of call in between. Executive chef Andrew Smith navigates this ambitious course skillfully – a fact that will come as no surprise to fans of bu.ku, where he had previously worked his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine.

Following the successful bu.ku formula, street food-inspired small plates account for well over half of the listings at so.ca. Chana nuts, a Trinidadian snack of fried chickpeas seasoned with allspice and black garlic, are a fine point of departure for the meal – and a first-rate nibbling companion for glass of white wine sangria or expertly crafted cocktail.

A preserved tomato stands out on the carefully plated Crab Stuffed Avocado dish at so.ca in Raleigh.

The crab-stuffed avocado is hands-down the best seller, according to Ohle, and understandably so. Chewy-tender kernels of choclo corn and wisps of jalapeño give the dish a subtle Peruvian accent without upstaging the jumbo lump crab and ripe avocado.

The Red Snapper Tiradito is made up of leche de tigre, plantain, choclo, star anise, sweet potato puree and fresh lime at so.ca in Raleigh.

Peruvian ceviche makes a dazzling showing in the form of a red snapper tiradito featuring buttery petals of raw fish marinated in a citrusy leche de tigre. Served on a slate slab and garnished with piped buttons of sweet potato puree and ribbons of fried plantain, the dish is typical of the aesthetically pleasing presentations you can expect at so.ca.

The Empanadas de Huitlacoche are blistery crescents of pastry filled with
charred sweet corn, black beans and corn fungus (a Mexican delicacy) at so.ca in Raleigh.

Trek up to Mexico for empanadas de huitlacoche, blistery crescents of pastry filled with charred sweet corn, black beans and corn fungus (a Mexican delicacy; don’t knock until you’ve tried it). Or hop over to Jamaica for lamb patties or a curry-tinged sweet potato bisque garnished with jumbo lump crab and cilantro oil.

Colombian Remolachas Rellenas made up of braised beets stuffed with a colorful hash of chopped hardboiled local egg, capers and cilantro stand out like jewels on the slate plates they are served upon at so.ca.

Or stay in South America, where you can traverse the continent from Colombian remolachas rellenas (braised beets stuffed with a colorful hash of chopped hard-boiled local egg, capers and cilantro) to anticuchos (churrascaria-style grilled beef hearts, sliced thin and so tender you might think you were eating filet if you didn’t know better).

If you haven’t done so by the time you get to the main course, you’ll want to check out the wine list, an excellent global selection with separate “so.ca” sections devoted to South American reds and whites. What better companion, say, for Chilean plateada – charred prime rib-eye cap served with smoked potatoes on a plate drizzled with Videri chocolate mole – than one of that country’s big, juicy cabernets?

Jamaican-inspired Jerk Duck pairs crisp-skinned breast and jerked leg confit with coconut rice and peas, pickled cabbage and a sour mango aioli.

Entrees are divided into two categories: Platos de la Gente, which stick relatively close to tradition, and Platos Fuertes, contemporary interpretations, such as the Jamaican-inspired jerk duck presentation that pairs crisp-skinned breast and jerked leg confit with coconut rice and peas, pickled cabbage and a sour mango aioli. Or a deconstructed paella that, when your well-trained server sets it down in front of you, will leave you wondering where the rice is. It’s buried under a mound of beautifully cooked fish and shellfish, that’s where, and it’s the real bomba rice deal, nearly all of it the prized crispy grains.

The Puerto Rican Mofongo features mashed, lard-fried plantains topped with carefully stacked squares of fried pork belly and a magenta tangle of mojo-pickled onions, finished with a tableside pour of tamarind broth at so.ca.

Under the Platos de la Gente you’ll find a fried whole red snapper a la Veracruzana that will spoil you for the pale imitations that usually pass for this classic dish. There’s also the fanciest (and by far tastiest) take on the humble Puerto Rican mofongo I’ve ever seen, featuring mashed, lard-fried plantains topped with carefully stacked squares of fried pork belly and a magenta tangle of mojo-pickled onions, finished with a table-side pour of tamarind broth. Presumably these “Gente” are some pretty high-falutin’ folks.

The elegant horchata-and-alfajores play on milk and cookies is made up of chocolate orange ganache, dulce de leche, toasted coconut and horchata at so.ca in Raleigh.

Wherever your meal’s itinerary takes you, it absolutely must end with dessert. Pastry chef Brittany Grantham, formerly at the acclaimed (and lamentably now closed) An in Cary, bewitches the eye as well as the sweet tooth with temptations ranging from an elegant horchata-and-alfajores play on milk and cookies to a still life on a plate called Verano: silky cylinders of passion fruit curd bestrewn with shards of white chocolate and meringue, prickly pear purée, crumbled cookies and flower petals.

Taking its cue from the menu, so.ca’s dining room is a sleek cosmopolitan space in muted shades of ivory, sage green and dove gray punctuated by small splashes of greenery. The only notable carryovers from previous tenant Faire are the comfortable mid-century modern chairs and tables; the water wall that had been the focal point in the dining room at that restaurant has been replaced by an attractive wall display of air plants – a theme echoed by small, potted, succulent plants on each table.

As the meal wears on, you begin to notice things you hadn’t seen when you first walked in: framed black and white photos of Latin street scenes, a collection of earthenware pottery over the backlit bar. Like the food, you might say, a surprise at every turn.

ggcox55@gmail.com or themenunc.com

so.ca

2130 Clark Ave., Raleigh

919-322-0440

socaraleigh.com

Cuisine: Latin American, Caribbean

Prices: $$$-$$$$

Atmosphere: cosmopolitan

Noise level: moderate

Service: welcoming and well-trained

Recommended: follow your whim, but don’t skip dessert

Open: Dinner nightly, brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Reservations: suggested

Other: full bar; accommodates children; good selection of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes; patio; parking in Cameron Village lot; complimentary valet parking available.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.