Southern Food Rushes West
Comfort food makes its way to San Francisco, with plenty of chicken and waffles, pimento cheese and sweet tea appearing on Bay Area menus.
A trend that arguably began to spread in San Francisco when New Orleans native Brenda Buenviaje opened Brenda’s French Soul Food in 2007, Southern food can now be found in almost every neighborhood in the city, as well as across the bay in Oakland. It’s not that comfort food was lacking in the Bay Area — Zuni Cafe’s roasted chicken has been a staple dish in town since the late 1980s, and Elite Cafe began serving Creole-inspired New Orleans cuisine in 1981 — but newcomers and those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were looking for more ways to get a taste of home in the mid-200os. As other restaurants serving watery grits and gumbo with the rice mixed in began popping up, the line at Brenda’s remained out the door. Fast forward 10 years, and expats and natives now have plenty of gourmet options to choose from when it comes to Southern food. Fried chicken served with waffles or biscuits is a popular menu item in a city that celebrates brunch, and cocktails with a base of sweet tea are easy to achieve with so many flavored vodkas on the market.
Buenviaje says she thinks other chefs from the South decided to give their indigenous food a shot when they saw how popular her restaurant became. (She now has three spots in the city: Brenda’s French Soul Food and Libby Jane Cafe on Polk Street and Brenda’s Meat & Three on Divisadero.) Keeping prices low and food focused more on soul than French, along with acquiring authentic ingredients like crawfish, andouille and poboy bread, helped Buenviaje survive the recession and achieve staying power in a city where new restaurants open and close every day.
“I think San Franciscans are ready for something different,” she says. “Now that there are more Southern restaurants here, I don’t feel like it’s a trend as much as something here to stay.”
Below is a sampling of the latest eateries doing their take on Southern food and taking it to new levels by mingling the flavors we know and love with those of California in a fusion that may be far from home but isn’t always far off the mark. If you’re a tourist, lighten your load while tasting by using Vertoe’s luggage storage in San Francisco.
Located in Russian Hill, this restaurant with a menu designed by Chef Scott Youkilis, owner of Hog & Rocks, offers American bar food with unique twists. Southern influences are sprinkled throughout. Start your weekend with a brunch of Bourbon French Toast served with seasonal fruit. Snack on Fried Chicken Bites, a Hot Pretzel with pimento cheese dip or Dirty Martini Deviled Eggs. For a heartier meal, try the Bacon Mac ‘N Cheese with white cheddar cream sauce and sip on a Recess, Evan Williams Bourbon, pineapple syrup, lemon juice and Peychaud’s Bitters.
With a beer garden, bowling alley and bocce court — a Bay Area trend the South can’t take credit for — this 50,000-square-foot Oakland entertainment venue offers California cuisine with Southern flair. The Fried Pickles, served with a garlic and chili aioli, are made in-house and pair perfectly with JL Sweet Tea Lemonade with Seagram’s Sweet Tea vodka, triple sec and lemonade.
Market Street’s Bluestem Brasserie focuses on fresh, simply composed dishes. Southern influences are evident in the lunch specials, with Monday featuring Southern Fried Chicken served with peas and carrots, whipped potatoes and jalapeno cheddar cornbread and Friday bringing the Shrimp and Oyster Po’ Boy with onions, pickles, butter lettuce and a Cajun remoulade on a French roll. Always on the menu is the Brasserie Burger with house-ground grassfed beef, pimento cheese, Applewood bacon, special sauce and pickled red onion. Or stop in for a weekend brunch and choose between the Chicken & Bacon Waffles or Gulf Shrimp & Grits with Anson Mills cheddar grits and a fried egg.
Executive Chef Kyle Itani of this beloved Uptown Oakland restaurant — it was just named one of 11 Reasons to Eat and Drink in Oakland Right Now by Bon Appetit — delivers Southern flavor with his Buttermilk Fried Chicken, available by the bucket all day every day. Pop in and wash it down with Maple Old Fashioned and some Donuts ‘n’ Cream for dessert or take your Bucket O’ Chicken to go and devour it at home.
Hungry for an old-fashioned, Southern-style breakfast? Located in the heart of Napa, 1313 Main offers Chicken and Waffles with two pieces of Sonoma chicken, a buttermilk waffle and maple-chili butter. For some extra sweetness, try pairing it with a Valrhona hot chocolate, prepared tableside and spiked with bourbon or brandy.
The Restaurant at Wente
Hidden in Livermore Valley, Wente Vineyards features a restaurant focused on creating cuisine that uses sustainable and organically-grown, local ingredients. For brunch, the Gulf Shrimp and Grits come with white corn frits, chorizo gravy, garden greens and two poached eggs or Buttermilk Biscuits and Gravy with sage pork sausage gravy.
Located inside the Warwick Hotel in Union Square, Aveline’s Executive Chef Kaley Laird presents a sophisticated menu with a few Southern-inspired items like Chicken with Waffle Bites, featuring spicy chicken wings and served with bacon jam, sriracha maple syrup and chile cream, and Country Style Griddle Cakes with fresh berries, strawberry syrup and vanilla butter for breakfast. Rhubarb Molasses — pie dough, pickled rhubarb, chai ice cream and lemon curd — and peanut butter dusted beignets are available for dessert.
Precita Park Cafe
An extension of the park located across the street on the edge of the Mission District, this cafe’s welcoming environment pairs perfectly with Southern comfort food. Weekend brunches emphasize the flavors of home-cooked meals like Biscuits and Gravy, made with Mornay and Fennel Sausage, Aunt Fanny’s Biscuit Sandwich with bacon, scrambled eggs and cheddar and the Biscuit Basket with two house-made biscuits, honey, butter and jam. Wash it all down with a New Orleans-inspired cafe au lait.
Hog & Rocks
San Francisco’s first ham and oyster bar, located in the heart of the Mission district, offers a menu created by 2013 Rising Star Chef Robin Song. Southern-influenced gastro pub fare on the menu ranges from a Fried Egg Sandwich made with ham, wagon wheel cheese, arugula, pickled onion and hash browns to traditional Chicken & Biscuits served with fried chicken, gravy, pickled peppers and sunny side eggs for brunch. Evening delicacies include Pimento Cheese with a homemade pretzel, Deviled Eggs with country ham and a fried oyster and Trotter Tots (with pigs feet) served with buttermilk ranch, pickled sugar snap. Hog & Rocks also offers a unique Barrel to Bottle program, where guests can purchase a bottle of single-barrel American whiskey and tag it with their name to store behind the bar.
Photo credits: Featured photo inside Hopscotch by Aubrie Pick, fried chicken sandwich courtesy of Bluestem, chicken and waffles courtesy of 1313 Main and Trotter Tots from Hog & Rocks by Nader Khouri.