652 Polk Street, SF, CA 94102| 415.345.8100 | website
I met my friend Chris for a brunch at this very popular restaurant near the Civic Center which is currently only open for breakfast and lunch (more on this later) and serves soulful French/Creole food. There is almost always a line, but we were lucky as it wasn’t very long. I barely had time to read over the blackboard specials, let alone decide between the Hangtown Fry or Shrimp ‘n Grits before our name was called…
I started off with the Sweet Watermelon House Tea ($2.25) which includes refills and is quite sweet but refreshing and flavorful. Each tiny table has a glass covered white tablecloth and offers a stash of silverware and important condiments, a convenient timesaver if you ask me.
You can see the back of Brenda Vuenviaje, chef-owner behind the carafes and icy jug of watermelon tea. According to their website, the chef is a New Orleans native and was born into a creative Filipino-Creole household that nurtured her love of food and the arts. She also worked at Oritalia, an asian-italian fusion restaurant in Union Square, as well as at Sumi in the Castro, which used to serve franco-japonaise cuisine the last time I ate there.
The restaurant is very cozy, but that’s nothing compared to the tiny galley kitchen that you have to run through in order to visit the loo. It’s so narrow that everyone bellows COMING THROUGH!!! so that the chefs can step aside to make room for you to pass. Now, I must tell you that since my last visit, I read here that Brenda’s has expanded to include the space next door and is going to start serving dinner next month in time for Mardi Gras. This is exciting news indeed, and now I can only hope that they will serve the beignets at dinner as well.
We split the Crawfish Beignets ($7), a trio of these were of truly gigantic proportions… each was the size of a large orange and coated with a liberal dose of a spice mixture and scattered with bits of bright green scallions.
This was really delicious, the interior bread was soft and tender and filled with chunks of sweet crawfish bathed in a rich creamy sauce. My lips tingled from the spicy coating and my tastebuds were dazzled. But really, do these have to be this large? After a plate of these, I will need to lay down and sleep for a bit before thinking of continuing on…
You see, for my main course I ordered the Shrimp & Grits ($12.00) which was a generous mound of tender sautéed shrimp drizzled with spicy tomato-bacon gravy served over buttery rich and creamy cheddar swirled grits. And I could barely make a dent… disgraceful because it was so very good.
Coincidentally, the chronicle published this very recipe in today’s food section, which you can get here. The instructions are laborious enough that I’d rather come back and have them masterfully made by Brenda. In the article they mention that she uses yellow corn grits, which she says are more flavorful and the texture has a little more tooth. Look at all the gooey melted cheese, there was a thick layer of it over the entire surface of the grits, which were soft and creamy and altogether decadent.
My friend Chris had the Fried Catfish Poboy ($9.75), which was slathered with chipotle rémoulade and served on a toasted french roll, along with coleslaw and pickled watermelon rinds. Tender flaky fish coated with a chewy crispy crust, rich creamy spicy sauce and buttery toasted roll. That was truly a delightful sandwich, yet another reason for a return visit… the shrimp version is on the 7×7 list of 100 things to try before you die after all!
After such rich and decadent fare, it felt good to walk over to the underground transit where we passed through Civic Center and saw the giant buddha with three heads and six arms, which was dismantled and shipped back to China earlier in the month. Too bad, it had a certain Ray Harryhausen look about it, which made me wish it would to come to life and lift us far up into the air…
This is the kind of restaurant I wish was down the block from my house… I can’t wait to go back and see what Brenda’s serving for dinner.