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Christopher Gardner

Let the Sun Shine In: Tables and white canvas umbrellas sprawl on the Sports City Cafe balcony, creating an airy, expansive setting for downtown dining.

Sports City Cafe in downtown San Jose scores with new takes on American tradition

By Christina Waters

A HIP, CONTEMPO designer playground for adults, Sports City is a painless--and successful--concept. Games galore, big screens bristling with images of huge, sweaty guys in tight pants, hoops courts--this is an arena for players, not just spectators. With its lively bar and eye-candy decor, Sports City is the kind of patron-participation venue that could easily get away with just onion rings and a few good draft beers. Which is why it's actually a surprise--a nice one, too--that, under the management of Tim Louton, the downtown San Jose Sports City really works at providing classy atmosphere, smooth service and food that's a lot better than it has to be.

On warm days, the shady mezzanine balconies of the Pavilion allow Sports City tables and white canvas umbrellas to sprawl attractively. The filtered light working its way down through the postmodern roofline creates an airy, expansive setting for downtown lunches, business or otherwise. It's a whole other world from the throbbing nighttime scene with hordes of funseekers lining up, out the door.

Usually all business, my corporate lunch partner Hannah was happy to let her hair down over a long lunch, even going as far as a glass of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($4), instead of the ubiquitous ice tea. I countered with an order of Clos du Bois Chardonnay ($4.25), which sounded good on a sultry day, and we happily attacked an appetizer of salt and pepper calamari ($4.95). Served with a side of garlicky mayo, these tender little squid rings were addictive perfection. Crunchy and lightly battered, they tasted crisp and soft, salty and peppery. Good with chardonnay too, we observed, discussing the recent downturn in our stock portfolios.

The waitstaff at Sports City is a spiffy group of attractive people who seem put on this earth to make you happy. Or to die trying. Our main waiter--but many others stopped by our table to make sure that everything was to our satisfaction--not only knew the menu, he knew when not to continue reciting. He answered questions, or swiftly sought the answer for us.

From our calamari we turned to a "small" Caesar salad ($3.95)--so large it might have served as the centerpiece at a symphony benefit. Crisp romaine, cool and soothing, was wedded to a classic, though under-garlicked, Caesar dressing. We both pronounced the salad excellent, though the dry croutons could have used a whole lot more olive oil and garlic to give them some life.

Next came a giant platter with Hannah's entree--fresh catfish served with extraordinary sweet/tart coleslaw and deep-fried hush puppies sumptuously filled with a soft corn pudding and sweet onion interior ($9.95). My angel hair pasta arrived laden with fresh, ripe tomatoes, and liberally laced with mushrooms, garlic and fresh basil ($7.95). It was delicious--perhaps a bit too tomato-intensive, but given that this is the height of tomato season, it seems silly to complain.

But let's return to Hannah's plate for a moment. "This is probably the moistest fish I've ever eaten," she confessed, holding up a gleaming white shard of filet to illustrate. "No substance--but moist." Indeed, the catfish was incredibly moist, and sweet--superior quality. However, the batter--crisp, to be sure--had been applied in such a way as to overwhelm the delicate fish. The fish responded by almost disappearing under the fused armor-plating of batter. Revisiting the hush puppies, I sighed with nostalgia for my undergraduate summers sailing on the Chesapeake. Terrific hush puppies, no matter what my arteries were thinking.

Packing up most of the pasta to go, we made bright-eyed inquiries about the possibility of dessert. Just as our waiter was getting to the chocolate part of his performance, we stopped him and said two words: "bread pudding."

Ignoring the watery cappuccino that arrived hot enough to have melted any polar ice cap, I myself melted at the sight of the alabaster pudding, topped with whipped cream (not the made-from-scratch kind), a generous scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream and a sprig of mint ($2.95). Very comforting, we both agreed, our spoons gliding into the supple, apple-laced heart of this lovely, moist dessert. Surrounded by a warm caramel sauce, it offered itself--reassuring, warm, comforting, maternal. No one can feel like a motherless child around this soothing dish.


Sports City Cafe

Address: 150 S. First St., The Pavilion, San Jose
Phone: 408/291-CAFE
Hours: Mon.­Thu., 11:30am­10pm; Fri., 11:30am­midnight; Sat., 5pm­midnight; Sun., 9:30am­9pm.
Cuisine: Playful California and New American
Service: Extremely attentive
Price: Inexpensive to moderate


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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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