Top Tastes

In the Napa town of St. Helena: The Restaurant at Meadowood bar bites (see eat at

In the Napa town of St. Helena: The Restaurant at Meadowood bar bites (see How to Eat for $30 at Top-Rated Restaurants)

My Top Food Articles: November 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New SF Openings

First Look: ALEMBIC’s new kitchen opens – what to eat on the new menu

7 things to order at Traci Des Jardins’ new Arguello in the Presidio

3 things to order at the new Klyde Cafe near Union Square (including one of the best new burgers in town)

What to order all day long at the new Brenda’s Meat & Three (yes, a sister restaurant to the long-wonderful Brenda’s French Soul Food)

Sweet Tooth: Lush Gelato opens on Polk Street

The Whole Beast Menu at The Hall: beef spider cuts & duck hearts

Tikka Masala reopens as Tikka Masala & Pizza in the Upper Haight


Cedar-smoked trout - on  Alembic's excellent new menu post-new kitchen buildout

Cedar-smoked trout – on Alembic’s excellent new menu post-new kitchen buildout

Underrated & Established Spots

3 things to know about Yuzuki Japanese Eatery & its new chef (hint: it transports me back to Japan)

How to eat for $30 or less at 8 top-rated Bay Area restaurants

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

East Bay

3 new East Bay brunches

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

Wine Country

12 Essential Sonoma Restaurants

How to eat for $30 or less at 8 top-rated Bay Area restaurants

10 coziest Bay Area restaurants

Authentic, lush Japanese desserts at Yuzuki in the Mission

Authentic, lush Japanese desserts at Yuzuki in the Mission


Top Tastes

Tunisian pastries at Bistro L'Aviateur

Tunisian pastries at Bistro L’Aviateur

My Top Food Articles: October 1-15

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my many articles a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to some coverage highlights here – you can follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily, or on my own @ThePerfectSpot via Twitter or Facebook.

New Bay Area Openings

First Look: THE HALL with 6 food and drink vendors in one food hall Mid-Market

All-day dream cafe, LES CLOS, opens from Saison sommelier Mark Bright, serving impeccable French food & wines

MARLOWE reopens in the former Coco500 space, now with cocktails

BISTRO L’AVIATEUR opens in the Mission with French-Tunsion charm

MONK’s KETTLE REOPENS with sidewalk seating and new draft system



Divine garlic Parmesan knots with fermented tomato butter at new BR+Table cocktail paired chef's table at Burritt Room + Tavern

Divine garlic Parmesan knots with fermented tomato butter at new BR+Table cocktail paired chef’s table at Burritt Room + Tavern

Underrated & Established Spots

CHARLIE PALMER’s BURRITT ROOM + TAVERN: New Chef’s Table with cocktail pairings

OAKLAND’s HOMESTEAD, one year in

10 Great DISHES NOW at Top-Rated ZAGAT Restaurants

BOXING ROOM’s new Sunday jazz brunch

SECRETLY AWESOME: Dive bar lunch at BOX KITCHEN in a SoMa alley

PATHOS, Berkeley’s Greek dining, wine and cocktail destination

Best Thing We Ate: Avocado dish at AVELINE

10 HOTTEST NEW SF Restaurants Now


Top Tastes

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison - interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

Dining at 2 Michelin-starred Saison – interview with Chef Josh Skenes below

My Top Food Articles: June 15-30

Photos and articles by Virginia Miller

From my 15 articles/posts a week as Zagat Editor, I summarize and link to just some coverage highlights here – you can sign up for Zagat’s weekly newsletter for highlights here and follow along on Twitter @ZagatSF, where I post daily.

As I have been for over a decade, I’m on the ground daily looking for early standouts at each new opening, while sharing underrated places and dishes you’ve seen me write about here at The Perfect Spot for years, and, of course, plenty of drink coverage (cocktails, wine, spirits, beer).

My biggest feature article of the last two weeks hit yesterday, in line with Best Thing We Ate lists in each Zagat city around the US – here is my list of the top 12 Best Thing We Ate dishes in the Bay Area this year so far.


Chef JOSH SKENES on SAISON’s New $498 Test Kitchen Dinners and Winemaker Dinner Series

New Bay Area Openings

What to eat at MARLA BAKERY’s restaurant, just open in Outer Richmond

First Look at BELCAMPO MEATS new San Francisco restaurant and sustainable, ethical butcher shop



URBAN PUTT GETS BOOZE – and what to eat one month in at the quirky mini-golf restaurant/bar

Day Trip: Port Costa

If Savannah (or other quirky, historic Southern town) met a California Gold Country Western town, it might feel a lot like PORT COSTA, home to one of the country’s best dive bars and a cosmopolitan restaurant and cocktail bar

East Bay

Early Tastes at PERDITION SMOKEHOUSE in BERKELEY from Mikkeller Bar SF & The Trappist Founder

What to eat & drink at downtown OAKLAND‘s new CAPTAIN & CORSET

Secretly Awesome: TRABOCCO’s pizza and pasta in an ALAMEDA strip mall

Rockridge’s (Oakland) OSMANTHUS renews your fried brussels sprouts crush

Underrated & Established Spots

8 reasons to revisit LOCAL KITCHEN & WINE MERCHANT in SoMa

The 8 BEST HOT DOGS in San Francisco

Unsung Heroes: SF’s best Afghani food for over 20 years at HELMAND PALACE




South Bay/Peninsula

LEXINGTON HOUSE, a destination restaurant and cocktail haven in LOS GATOS

Elegant weekend escape to CARMEL (where your boutique hotel houses a Michelin-starred restaurant)

Silky crudo, standout salads and Carlos Yturria’s cocktails at LURE + TILL in PALO ALTO

Events/Dinner Series

ICHI, Commonwealth and more join STONES THROW CHARITY DINNERS throughout the summer


The Latest

At Hillside Supper Club: Mount Lassen trout over Israeli couscous, marinated beets, horseradish yogurt

Three for Spring:
Jambalaya, Trout, Roasted Crab

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

Boxing Room jambalaya

Typically eating at two more or places a day, I dine at far more places than I can write about. Often, there are high points but not enough to warrant a full review or in the case of a casual hole-in-the-wall, there might be a noteworthy dish but not a list of reasons to visit. From time to time, it helps to highlight dishes from recent excursions. Here I cover noteworthy dishes from one restaurant just reaching its second birthday (Boxing Room), the other two just open within the last couple month.

BOXING ROOM, Hayes Valley (399 Grove St. at Gough, 415-430-6590)

Cornbread-stuffed quail

Being on board with Boxing Room’s authentic New Orleans cuisine since day one, it’s their jambalaya that has me rhapsodizing akin to glorious meals in the one-and-only Big Easy. The biggest compliment I could give is that it’s distantly reminiscent of Coop’s Place, the best jambalaya I’ve ever had in a classic New Orleans’ dive bar. In reality, it is a pretty different dish. But unlike most mediocre jambalaya we’re typically subjected to (often more like a basic rice dish), Chef Justin Simoneaux’s jambalaya ($11/$21 with duck confit) is appropriately moist, dark with shredded duck meat and sausage, bright with tomatoes. Officially my favorite jambalaya outside of New Orleans, I’m grateful to get my fix at Boxing Room. Bonus dish: Tender cornbread-stuffed quail ($23) over dirty rice and pumpkin puree… I’m craving this divine cornbread stuffing for Thanksgiving.

HILLSIDE SUPPER CLUB, Outer Mission (300 Precita Ave. at Folsom, 415-285-6005)

Hamachi crudo

Beloved pop-up Hillside Supper Club, formed by two college classmates and young chefs Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton, is now a brick-and-mortar restaurant on the corner of Precita Park (the street where I first lived in SF 12 years ago). Hillside is still sorting out its identity as a restaurant: the space is drafty and cold, there are pacing issues with dishes, and food runs about 50/50 with only half the dishes leaving an impression.

Hillside's dining room

But a friendly, neighborhood welcome is intact from the host and stronger dishes intimate possibility. While a hamachi crudo ($10) is fresh, with lively accents of blood orange, hearts of palm and Fresno chilies, it’s drowning in yuzu sauce, and a dessert of English chocolate pudding ($8), though brilliantly weaving Baileys Irish Cream with subtle smoke in a smoked whipped cream, was quite dry. The shining dish was Mount Lassen trout ($22), with crispy skin, the fish is tender and flavor-packed. Over Israeli couscous, marinated beets and smears of horseradish yogurt, it hits hoped-for flavor, texture, and technique.

MISSION STREET OYSTER BAR, Mission (2282 Mission St. between 18th & 19th, 415-621-6987)

Dramatic seafood gazpacho

Bright and cheery in aquamarine and blues, Mission Street Oyster Bar is a welcoming neighborhood seafood joint that feels like the old Mission I knew over a decade ago: decidedly not hipster, it’s fresh and friendly, if a bit unremarkable.

While it hurts to pay $28.95 for one dish at a casual joint, it’s for a whole roasted crab – a solid price for a whole local Dungeness doused in garlic cloves and herbs. Though I prefer roasted crabs at local family-style Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, this is a hearty meal, accompanied by a generous, cold seafood gazpacho ($16.95) loaded with crab legs, shrimp and avocado, looking like a giant Bloody Mary with a celery stalk standing tall in the glass, it tastes a bit muddled, lacking focus.

Chowder & garlic bread

Purer tastes come in the simple: oily garlic bread ($4.95) and a cup of creamy Boston clam chowder ($3.95, bowl $5.95). Mission Street Oyster Bar’s sunny setting and service comfort, making me grateful these kinds of humble restaurants are still opening in the Mission.

Whole roasted crab

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Top Tastes

Tender ribs crusted in 17 spices

SOUTHPAW Brings It Home

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th and 18th, 415-934-9300)

Fried oysters & beer

Road tripping through the South for music and BBQ remains one of my most memorable trips ever: driving through four states, studying sauces and smokers, singing along to Loretta and Conway, George and Tammy, Dolly and Porter, Johnny and June, as the countryside passes by. As I’ve bemoaned before, finding authentic ‘que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Southpaw BBQ opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing their own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces, dry ribs and brisket, deflated BBQ hopes. Fast forward a year.

Smoked pulled goat & fry bread

With new Chef Max Hussey on board, I’m back, working my way through much of the food, cocktails and beer. As a Massachusetts dishwasher/prep cook, Hussey boldly slipped a resume to Emeril Lagasse at a book signing, moving to New Orleans a month later to eventually become Executive Sous Chef of Emeril’s Delmonico. Melding Southern with San Francisco, he’s cooked at 25 Lusk and Epic Roasthouse.

No regrets drinking Mishi's Regret

Under his watch, BBQ staples (pulled pork, brisket, ribs) have all improved. While ribs look dry crusted in 17 spices, they’re tender, aromatic, addictive. Appropriately fatty beef brisket is smoked for 14 hours. If you must do chicken at a BBQ joint, you could do worse than whiskey-brined. Catfish is still strong, lightly pan-fried and available on a sandwich ($9), which begged for a little more remoulade on melting-soft brioche. Newly-added quail explodes with boudin sausage. Each meat and catfish comes as a platter ($14-19) with hushpuppies and choice of two sides. Choosing sides ($5 each or 4 for $14) is a challenge. Cheddar grit cake hides a juicy hamhock, mac ‘n cheese comes alive with red pepper, sweet potatoes are whipped soft with bourbon, sweet chili-braised Southern greens and a new creamed “lollipop” chard kale make eating greens nearly dreamy.

Brewing beers at Southpaw

Creativity shines in starters like smoked pulled goat ($12) with salsa verde and house pickles scooped up by Southern fry bread, or roasted duck breast and goat cheese rosti ($12). Abandon all, however, for Natchez ($12), named after the Mississippi town, sounding a lot like “nachos”. Think warm potato chips falling apart under pulled pork and black eyed peas, drenched in pimento bechamel and hot sauce. Divine bar food.

Hussey also perfects fried oysters. These delicately fried bivavles exude briny freshness unusual for fried oysters. Currently, they’re loaded with bacon and onions on a sandwich ($11). While BBQ sauces like sweet potato remain a bit watery, lacking in flavor punch for me, Memphis smoked sauce is briskly gratifying. But all praise goes to better-than-ever Alabama white sauce: mayo-based, packing pepper and vinegar bite, it makes just about everything sing. I’d rather fill up on savory options than desserts ($8), but banana pudding with house ‘nilla wafers evokes childhood comfort.

A brand new (dreamy) side: bourbon whipped sweet potatoes

Divine bar food: Natchez

Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw’s small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers.

Catfish sandwich

House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week coming up February 8-17th, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego’s famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu ($6-9 a glass).

Pecan Rye Old Fashioned

In addition to beer, founder/manager Edward Calhoun’s American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father’s North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi’s Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari’s character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla/root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine.

Banana pudding

Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts (Seascape, Leviathon I, Corsair Triple Smoke) or Bay Area Whiskey (Cyrus Noble, St. George’s Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Moylan’s Rye), or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West (Son of Bourye, Campfire, Double Rye).

Gracious founder/manager Elizabeth Wells, an Alabama native, sets Southpaw’s down home tone. She moves about the restaurant, attending to needs of each table. Staff follows her lead, ready with a smile, a platter of ‘que and a glass of bourbon. Down home, indeed.

Southpaw's inviting dining room & brewery

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The Latest

St. George Terroir Fizz at Dixie

Searching for Southern Comfort

Deviled eggs and chicharrones

A fledgling new restaurant is a work in progress, an evolution. Often visiting restaurants in opening week, I’ll return 3-4 weeks later, noticing a marked improvement in rhythm and flow, if not a dramatic change in food – often first food impressions prove to be consistent. Returning 2, 3, 4 months into a restaurant’s life, if things are heading the right direction, a distinct voice emerges, reflected in service and menus. Other times, on still searches for a point of view, for a compelling enough reason to return. Opening in May with big vision and standouts on the plate, I struggle to find cohesion at the new Dixie over three months of visits.

DIXIE, Presidio (One Letterman Dr., Chestnut at Lyon, 415-829-3363)

Watermelon fresh: Dixie Triple S

With Southern roots as a Florida native, chef Joseph Humphrey’s cooking is just the sort of thing I get excited about: California-fresh with a New Southern ethos, not dissimilar to some of the Southern-influenced “mashups” I find at the likes of Maverick, the new St. Vincent, or in the best food cities in the South. No surprise: Humphrey cooked at Michelin-starred Meadowood and Murray Circle, and in New Orleans with none other than Dickie Brennan & Co. South meets West in Dixie, which he was involved in from the ground up.

In the former Pres a Vi, Dixie hints at Southern plantation feel on the roomy veranda – ideal for their just-launched brunch – clearly the best area in the roomy restaurant. Though dreamily set in the Presidio surrounded by trees, the Palace of Fine Arts standing majestically across the lawn, inside even a remodel hasn’t quite covered up the space’s corporate feel. Rich woods and musical instrument art installations warm it up but neutral tones and a subdued air communicate “bland”.

Fried quail on waffles with cabbage slaw

Nearly condescending, cold service on my first visit had me actually dreading a return. There are thousands of meals one can leave feeling good about – dread should never be on the menu – especially at this price. In another visit, I dined in the back space where at 7:30pm on a Saturday night more than half the tables were filled with thankfully well-behaved children. Here service improved: sweet if unsure.

Red miso black cod in silky bourbon-green apple foam

Food is the highlight at Dixie and Humphrey’s skill shines in chicken-fried quail on garlic waffles ($15), a twist on my soul food favorite with cabbage and kale slaw and a subtle kick from Thai chilies in the syrup. Another excellent dish is chicken and dumplings ($24). “Dumplings” are melting-soft ricotta gnudi surrounding tender cuts of chicken draped with baby carrots. This reinterpretation does what it should: make you rethink, but still thoroughly enjoy, a classic.

A loose musical decor theme

Red miso black cod ($23), silky in apple and bourbon-tinged foam, was so good it was the one dish I re-ordered. Accompanied by lobster mushrooms, only a mound of farro was flavorless and forlorn. I couldn’t help but long for Hog & Rocks’ perfect pimento jar when eating pimento cheese curds ($8) or 4505 Meats/Ryan Farr’s unparalleled, dissolve-in-your-mouth chicharrones when chomping on the harder, overly-salty version ($6) with nori salt here. Abalone and pickled jalapeno peek out of creamy corn soup ($14), while horseradish deviled eggs ($7) are smartly topped with fried chicken liver. Despite the promise of shaved tasso ham (I adore tasso), a Dixie chopped salad ($12) is almost banal, the ham more like two big slices of deli meat draped across an otherwise unadorned salad (merely lettuce in creamy shallot dressing with a smattering of radishes), rather than sliced up and in the mix.

Smoked corn soup w/ abalone, pickled jalapeno, gumbo filé

Wine or a pour of whiskey were the more gratifying drink choices. On the cocktail front, a pricey Terroir Fizz ($14) utilizes amazing, local St. George Terroir gin with lemon, lime, Cointreau, lemon verbena and egg white for froth. Though I commend the move away from sweet, it was so sour (and I’ve been to known suck on lemons, that’s how much I crave sour), balance was lost in what could have been a beautiful aperitif – a bigger blow when this town is packed with excellent cocktails in the $8-12 range. Dixie Triple S ($12) fared better in balance of sweet/smoky/spicy (the triple “S”) with Espolon silver tequila, lime, watermelon-jalapeno puree, and a hickory smoked salt rim. 2 Bens is a playful tribute to “what dad and granddad drank” – a pint of Guinness and shot of Jack Daniels – but I cannot fathom paying $16 for a pour of such basic brands.

Pimento cheese curds w/ toasts

Dixie’s musical, New Southern vision is among my dream restaurant concepts but in actuality feels incongruent and out-of-sync despite supreme moments of taste. After the bill arrives at well over $100 for two, walking out into misty Presidio air before a green expanse leading to the Bay, the first thought is where to go next to fill up.

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Top Tastes

Deliciously visual: dayboat scallops w/ compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, lipstick pimento sauce, ancho chile/pumpkin seed pesto

MAVERICK at 7: Better Than Ever

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

MAVERICK, Mission (3316 17th St. between Mission and Valencia, 415-863-3061)

Divine (upscale) fried chicken

Opened in 2005, by modern day restaurant standards, Maverick is a longtimer. I’d posit at its 7th anniversary (July 13), it’s better than ever with new executive chef Emmanuel Eng brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (GM, Wine Director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog & Rocks, Maverick’s food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years, though the space is tiny and low-key.

Maverick’s interior

The menu delights (and evolves slightly each visit) with whispers of Southern influence (and beyond) married to forward-thinking culinary vision. Evoking “New Southern” cuisine, the likes of which I’ve seen in cities such as Charleston and Atlanta in recent years or as I dine at SF newcomers like Dixie and St. Vincent, traditional Southern ingredients and dishes are a springboard for cutting-edge interpretation.

Maverick has not slumbered into laziness with age but seems, especially with talented, young Chef Eng on board, to continue challenging itself. An artist and Portland native, in moving to SF, Eng boldly walked into Indigo in 2000, offering to work for free to learn the ropes. He eventually became line cook at Aqua, Quince and Foreign Cinema, then sous chef at Boulevard and Sons & Daughters. His experience at some of SF’s top restaurants shows in his bold-yet-refined cooking.

Lobster bread pudding topped with smoked cod

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: their signature fried chicken ($24) is as fantastic as ever. Juicy inside, crispy outside and not at all greasy, the batter is touched with cinnamon, cayenne, and white pepper. Recently served with blackened patty-pan squash, succotash, pickled watermelon rind, and cornbread croutons, it’s the ham hock and mustard gravy tying it all together, eliciting sighs of delight. It’s hard not to want to return to this one over and over again – and many diners do.

Tasso-cured duck “proscuiutto” w/ heirloom melon and cucumbers, lime, anise hyssop

But you’d be remiss not branching out. There’s nothing Southern about a squash blossom stuffed with brandade ($10), rosso bruno tomatoes, Calabrian chilis, and basil, but it’s delicious. Italian spirit is also present in burrata cheese, made nearby on 16th St. ($12), but rather than being just another burrata starter, Eng layers flavors with ashed rind from corn husks, baby leeks, arugula pisto, pickled fiddlehead ferns and zucchini. Just before the foie gras ban (which I am not happy about), a duck butcher plate ($16) impressed with foie, tasso-cured duck breast (there’s your Southern touch: fantastic tasso ham), strawberry mostarda, white peach, lime, and duck rilette croquette. Summery as it was rich, it’s the mostarda I craved more of.

Light alcohol aperitifs: ginger lemon fizz

Another inspired Southern reinterpretation is porcini mushroom and Anson Mills grits ($12.50). It’s not remotely a traditional grits dish, in fact, there’s just a smattering of creamy grits amidst tender porcinis, pearl onion, snap peas and a smoked soft-poached egg running over ingredients when punctured. For a vegetarian dish, it’s almost meaty and soulful. Massachusetts Dayboat sea scallops ($13) are seared just right, but it’s accents of compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, dotted with lipstick pimento sauce and ancho chile/pumpkin seed pesto making it memorable. Lobster bread pudding draped in smoked cod ($26) is a brilliant twist on traditional New Brunswick stew – in this case, a creamy mussel chowder touched with jerky-like strips of linguica, clams, corn, and sea beans (seaweed). Dessert is no afterthought. In fact, a chocolate Samoa truffle ($9) feels like vacation, a chocolate mound spiked with chocolate bark in a pool of caramelized coconut accented by crumbled shortbread.

Grits reimagined w/ porcinis & smoked egg

Pierce’s wine pairings and frank, engaging welcome are another key part of what makes Maverick special. Yes, we share a  New Jersey past, while his love of wine has grown since his days at Sociale to opening Maverick with Youkilis. The thoughful wine list is inclusive of some of California’s more interesting small labels like Wind Gap or Le P’Tit Paysan. A 2009 Cru Pinot from Monterey is perfection with the grits, while anise hyssop dotting tasso-cured duck “prosciutto” pops paired with a floral, crisp 2011 Domaine de la Fouquette Grenache/Cinsault/Syrah/Rolle rose from Provence. Ask Pierce about his Junk Food Wine Pairing series – he’ll pair wines with the likes of Slim Jim’s and Doritos.

Dessert: chocolate Samoa truffle

I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, they attempt creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others but the attentive use of local imbibements like Sutton Cellars vermouth (for example, in Dark Sunset: Sutton Cellars dry vermouth, orange juice, cardamom, bitters, smoked paprika, Cava) is something I wish more wine and beer only restaurants would do. The most consistent drink is a ginger lemon fizz, utilizing Sutton’s dry vermouth, bright with ginger, Meyer lemon and dreamy honey foam.

At Maverick, attentive staff, intimate dining room and unique explorations of regional American food exhibit what makes Southern cooking often the best in America: heart.

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Top Tastes

The glories of barbcue sauce

Hunting for Authentic BBQ in the Bay Area

Growing up in East, West and Middle America, I unexpectedly have a profound affinity to the music and food of the South. Traveling numerous Southern states, my love accelerates. Florida conch and stone crab please, as do Tex Mex and Texas brisket. But when I dream of the South, I think Deep South. Start talking Low Country and Gullah cuisine, or Cajun and Creole cooking, and I become brutally homesick for a home I never had.

Eatin' Brisket

Then there was barbecue. And by barbecue, I mean pulled pork, just as those words are synonymous in the Deep South. Texas brisket? Naturally. Memphis ribs? Hell, yeah. But pulled pork, that tender, shredded, fatty mound of piggy goodness for me is the pinnacle of BBQ. Don’t even get me started on sauces. South Carolina mustard or thick, sweet Kansas City sauce? I’ll take all, thank you. A proper sauce turns impeccable meat into ecstasy.

One of the more memorable journeys the Renaissance Man and I ever took was a two week road trip through four Southern states for BBQ, music, food. Proudly a California girl the larger part of my life, in this glorious state of endless riches, I rarely find barbecue comparable to my Southern exploits… even from those who claim they are Southern natives. There are whispers of true BBQ here, but often something indefinable is lacking. The problem commonly lies in sauces, smoking techniques and woods used, or the meat’s tenderness (I’m sorry: it ain’t real BBQ if it’s not fatty). Even delicious ‘que is missing a certain raw, gut-level sense of place outside the South.

CatHead's picnic tables

Regardless, we have some worthy Bay Area spots to satisfy ‘que cravings. Over the years, Uncle Frank’s is the best BBQ I’ve had in California, which tragically closed last fall. His brisket was thick with fat, served in the back of a dodgy dive bar in suburban, staid Mountain View. In SF, Johnson’s Bar-B-Que cornered Arkansas-style pulled pork, though sadly, it closed as the owner recently passed away.

Of those still open, Bo’s Barbecue out in Lafayette specializes in solid brisket. On a Golden Gate Park golf course is an unexpected gem, Ironwood BBQ, strong on pulled pork. Years ago, Brother-in-Law’s BBQ on Divisadero morphed to Lilly’s and became Da Pitt. Though past its glory days, it’s still a worthy detour, emitting glorious smoke aromas down the street. What of ever popular Memphis Minnie’s? I must admit that despite a love for their rowdy Southern tunes and spirit, I can’t get behind the lackluster meats and watery sauces.

Dining at Cedar Hill

We go through waves of ‘que openings and we’re in the midst of another now. My recent number one was an upscale barbecue/Southern restaurant all the way up in Novato. Southern Pacific Smokehouse unexpectedly closed after merely months of opening, despite the tenderest pulled pork, smoky brisket, plus a killer cocktail and American whiskey menu (best cocktail bar yet in Marin). Their secret was a 2,000 pound Ole Hickory Smoker where meats were slow smoked over hickory wood, then placed in a steam box to temper smoke dominance and impart a tender finish.

Here are five recent BBQ openings:

SNEAKY’S BBQ, 1760 Market Street (at Octavia), 415-431-4200
Sneaky’s BBQ is served out of Rebel Bar from Wed.-Sun. They step outside the traditional with items like Kurobuta pork belly, but more than any other newer ‘que joint, they get Carolina-style pulled pork right – among the best in town. Only down side is price with a single platter of meat and two sides being $17 or a two meat combo $26, compared to $12 and $18 for the same options at CatHead’s BBQ.

Sauces: Vinegar BBQ, spicy jalapeno/habanero, South Carolina mustard, Rooster (creamy version of spicy sauce)

CatHead's smoker

Stand-outs: Aforementioned pulled pork is tops here, as is South Carolina mustard sauce (perfection together). They bring it with Creekstone Farms brisket and baby-back ribs. Sneaky’s is to be commended for using all natural, hormone-free meats, smoked with locally cut almond wood. Sides ($4) include a classic coleslaw, and fresh, not soggy or overcooked, collard greens. Cheeky points for Rebel’s glorified gay biker bar setting with a motorcycle as the room’s centerpiece.

B Side BBQ

CATHEAD’S BBQ, SoMa (1665 Folsom St. at 12th, 415-861-4242)
Nate’s BBQ had quite a following – and coveted home delivery. It recently morphed to CatHead’s BBQ from Tennessee native Richard Park and Pamela Schafer, easily one of the city’s best BBQ options and thankfully still offering delivery. Smokers stand tall behind a long counter. Vegetarians get a nod with cornmeal-crusted BBQ tofu. Mains are wonderfully priced at $7 with a mini-CatHead biscuit and pickles, while a platter with two sides is $12. Of note: their large biscuit is described as the size of a cat’s head

Sauces: Mustard, ketchup based BBQ sauce, North Carolina finishing sauce, habanero, CatHead’s catsup, pepper vinegar
Stand-outs: They had me with Coca Cola-smoked brisket. A subtle sweetness permeates the uber-smoky beef. Ribs are also strong, the best of any place listed. The secret is extra fat, rendering the meat fall-apart tender. All sides ($4 each) are vegetarian, including mustard or spicy habanero slaw. Collard greens taste healthy, a fresh change of pace from traditional collards, though I miss the ham hocks.

B SIDE BBQ, Oakland (3303 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, 510-595-0227)

Old-timey photos line the walls at B Side

Tanya Holland of West Oakland’s beloved Brown Sugar Kitchen opened B Side Barbeque a few months ago, a hip, comfortable space lined with photos of African American cowboys, the air rich with smoked meats (look closely and you’ll see Tanya and her husband in one of the old-timey photos).

Sauces: Hot vinegar, Carolina mustard or traditional
Stand-outs: Pulled pork is tender and lush in Carolina mustard sauce, but they shine with smoked brown sugar-rubbed brisket ($9 half order; $16 full order). Fatty beef sings with sugary crust. Ribs are succulent. A side of fresh, spicy coleslaw ($4), light on the mayo, is a happy companion. Food is prepared with care, a step above many East Bay ‘que joints.

CEDAR HILL, Marina (3242 Scott St., 415-934-5403)

Wood for the smoker in the back at Cedar Hill

The Marina has itself a BBQ restaurant. Small, welcoming and lined with rustic artwork and paraphernalia from Texas to the Carolinas, Cedar Hill is a win for the neighborhood. The ‘que is not as soul-satisfying as in the South, but has plenty to offer with Southern dishes like Cajun shrimp on Anson Mills grits topped with Andouille sausage and piquillo peppers ($17), or sweet tea-fried chicken ($7.50-$19 for a quarter to whole chicken).

Regional Southern paraphernalia line the walls

Sauces: Texas red, KC mop sauce, South Carolina mustard, North Carolina vinegar
Stand-outs: Tender smoked pork ($4.50-16) wins out over Texas beef brisket ($4.50-16), while Memphis baby back ribs ($5-25) were a little dry. Worthy sides ($3.50-$11.50, portion to quart) include a fresh, bright coleslaw, or pit beans glorified with burnt tips. Ruth’s buttermilk pie ($5) with graham cracker crust is a creamy delight. Extra points: they serve bottles of North Carolina’s classic wild cherry soda, Cheerwine.

SOUTHPAW BBQ, Mission (2170 Mission St. between 17th & 18th, 415-934-9300)

Honey Bunny cocktail

Southpaw BBQ has the most welcoming, festive atmosphere of any of the new ‘que joints with house beer brewed right in the dining room, additional beers on draft (like Bruery Mischief, Brother Thelonious, Deschutes Green Lakes), and a playful cocktail menu offering Sazeracs made with Germain-Robin craft brandy and tea syrup.

Sauces: Alabama white sauce, Eastern North Carolina, South Carolina mustard, sweet potato habanero, sweet chili vinegar, Memphis
Stand-outs: Slightly smoky Honey Bunny cocktail (blanco tequila, red pepper, orange and carrot juice, agave) is lively and fun.

Southpaw ribs

Their pimento cheese ($5), served with celery and old school white bread, is not near as addictive as at neighboring Hog & Rocks. Platters ($14-19) come with cornbread and two sides. Much as I wanted to love their ribs, brisket and pulled pork, they bordered on either dry or not as flavorful as other ‘que joints.  Though not barbecue, fresh, flaky catfish ($14) from Louisiana is my favorite here: comfortingly fried and not at all fishy.

Southpaw BBQ welcomes on Mission Street

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