APPETITE Southern food has a profound hold on me. No, I’m not a Southerner — but few cuisines the world over elicit in me such yearning and comfort. Finding the real deal in the Bay Area is tricky, although a recent Southern trend has helped. Aside from my beloved Brenda’s and delightful Boxing Room, the following spots fulfill cravings.
HOPS AND HOMINY
Recently opened downtown, Hops and Hominy has the charm of being tucked away at the end of an alley off bustling Grant Ave. I must admit, when I saw packed crowds and a neon maraschino cherry (versus a quality brandied one) in my cocktail, I doubted H&H, opened by three Florida natives. But in this early stage, it shows promise.
Despite the cherry and too much ice, a Smoked Bacon Old Fashioned was more balanced than I expected. Using Bulleit bourbon infused with bacon, the drink is thankfully light on maple syrup. This is not exactly a cocktailian’s destination but you can get a decent beverage. Better to go with the beer menu: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Ommegang Hennepin Saison are examples of the greats they have on tap.
In terms of food, a couple dishes jump out. The most unusual for this setting is espresso-cured chocolate duck ($12). Rare duck is perched on a potato pancake with mascarpone drizzled on top. Chocolate and coffee notes are subtle, adding an unexpected seductiveness to the dish. While the potato pancake doesn’t exactly fit, it doesn’t detract either. Mac ‘n cheese is so common, but here, served piping hot in a skillet ($8), it’s oozing with cheddar goodness and typical house cured bacon. Crispy sage leaves elevate it.
Buttermilk battered chicken ($19) is not the best in town, but free-range chicken is tender and generously portioned. This dish is an ideal way to also try the mac and cheese, a companion along with Brussels sprouts. Deep water shrimp and cheesy Southern grits ($19) work but don’t recall the best of the South.
1 Tillman Pl., SF. (415) 373-6341, www.hopsandhominy.com
HOG AND ROCKS
Hog and Rocks has grown into one of our great casual gathering spots, with better-than-ever cocktails and food, and a winning American whiskey selection. I’ve been a huge fan of the ham platters (the hog) and oyster selection (the rocks) since they opened, particularly when H&R offer such incredible Southern hams as one from Tennessee’s G&W Hamery, lightly drizzled with sweet Fresno chili syrup.
The impetus for recent visits was a new Scott Beattie-designed cocktail menu and new bar manager Michael Lazar. There are longtime Beattie favorites on the menu, like the fall-influenced, whiskey-apple-ginger lushness of his John Chapman. (Oh, that Thai coconut foam!)
Two original drinks are Lazar’s bright Calabria ($11) — Old Grandad 114 bourbon, bergamot, honey, and Averna, bright with ginger beer — and Beattie’s Coastal Collins ($10.50) which stood out with St. George’s fabulous Terroir gin, lemon, soda, bay laurel and huckleberries. It’s a refreshing, herbaceous sipper. Ask Lazar to make you a Hanky Panky, a classic London Savoy cocktail. Lazar tweaks the measurements of gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet Branca for a more complex, sexy whole.
Foodwise, I’ve long found the pimento cheese in a jar ($7.50) the best in town — bordering on addictive. Recent enjoyments include hefty meatballs ($12.50) in whiskey barbecue sauce over cheddar cheese grits and white cabbage, and fat cheddar beer sausages ($13.50). Standout dish: a Berkshire pork cutlet ($16), prepared like German schnitzel (pounded flat, breaded), in a smoky maple syrup and hot pepper relish alongside Red Russian kale evoking collard greens. Here’s to chef Scott Youkilis’ upcoming BBQ venture across the street, Hi-Lo, due to open this Summer.
3431 19th St., SF. (415) 550-8627, www.hogandrocks.com
THE FRONT PORCH
The Front Porch’s garage sale, drafty charm still works. Over the years, it’s been a consistent source of quality, quirky Southern eats in cozy, worn red booths beneath pressed tin ceilings.
Crab fritters ($9) won me over immediately, packed with fresh, flaky crab meat, dipped in remoulade. Discounting Brenda’s incomparable take and 1300 on Fillmore’s refined twist, Front Porch serves the best shrimp n’ grits in town ($18.50). Bacon and less traditional wild mushrooms add heft to white wine-doused arbuckle grits. The Porch does right by fried chicken ($17 for 3 pieces, $34 for 9 pieces). Though it’s not the ultimate version, tender Rocky Jr. organic chicken satisfies alongside garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens.
You could do worse than finishing with an Abita root beer float — add in bourbon, if you like. Then head across to the street to new sister location, the comfy, divey Rock Bar for a nightcap.
65A 29th St., SF. (415) 695-7800, www.thefrontporchsf.com *
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