rusty's southern in the tenderloin...well, it's someone's idea of southern, bless their hearts
Southern food has been the next big thing in San Francisco for awhile now. Places are still popping up with that focus or other's menus are changing to reflect an "essence of Southern food," whatever that is. I'm sure it will eventually pass like all things, I mean ramen seems to currently be taking off around town now. But, while these Southern places open, I'm willing to try them out with an open mind and mouth to see how they compare and contrast with what I know from growing up in the South. One of the latest incarnations to open is Rusty's Southern in the Tenderloin and nothing says Southern food like the Tenderloin!
Getting here can be a side stepping challenge around the ephemera that tends to be strewn about the sidewalks here, however, I was up for the challenge on not one, but two occasions because I really wanted to like this place.
Inside is huge. With a bar down the left and a longish space that stretches back to the kitchen. On my first visit (with Ms K! Hey missy!) they had the lights low, thus it was dark and both my cameras failed me for good pics so please forgive some slightly blurry images.
This is the fry basket, and no, I don't know why it came on a tray and not in a basket and neither did our server. It's deep fried shrimp, okra and veggies (zucchini and sugar snap pea pods) with a side of remoulade--that's like a spicy, slightly thicker version of thousand island dressing. These are more tempura than traditional thick battered and deep fried. Just the first of little tweaks they make to dishes to put a California spin on things (I'll get back to this later). These were actually pretty good and only a tiny bit greasy. They were made to order so you do get them hot and crunchy out of the fryer. It is a pretty hefty portion, and at $16 it should be. You get more than enough to share or you could actually make this a meal if you wanted.
First entree up was the cornmeal crusted catfish with smoke lima bean puree and a sauteed vegetable melange of red kale, red peppers, onions and stuff for $18. The fish was cooked perfectly--tender and soft with an almost buttery texture. However, the menu didn't say anything about this being spicy and whoo boy was it. So much so you couldn't actually taste the flavor of the catfish. It just overwhelmed it to a point you couldn't even taste the cornmeal coating. The lima bean puree was interesting but needed salt and pepper and possibly butter or just something as compared to the fish, it had not taste at all. While the sauteed veggie things were fine, they lacked a little on the seasoning too and brought a bit too much watery liquid to the plate that caused parts of the fish to be soggy. Gonna say this was a miss for both of us. I think the fish here changes every now and then, but even so, there are better versions of catfish in town.
Let's be real about this, you know the main reason I wanted to eat here was to try their smoked, chopped barbecue plate with red slaw and hush puppies for $16.50. The owner went to Smithfield, NC to learn how they cook pork and wanted to bring that style back to San Francisco. As far as being tender and getting the texture pretty spot on for chopped pork, they then killed it with the smoke, and not in a good way. It was all smoke, that is all you could taste. After a couple bites, all that smoke made my brain think of ash and burning wood and I just couldn't enjoy this at all. When I was leaving I did ask him why so much smoke and he said he wanted to elevate the flavor because he thought folks here expected bold flavors so he purposely amped up the smoke. Normally I would just secretly roll my eyes and say okay, but this time I didn't. I told him flat out we didn't like it and the smoke was so much it affected how everything else tasted and should be dialed back. He didn't much have a reply for that so I'm guessing if you try it, that taste will still pervade the dish. And it wasn't exactly the biggest serving of pork I've ever had either. My hopes for some real NC barbecue are dashed again.
I also had hopes for the hush puppies. When they came out they were in the classic shape I remember and not a ball. But biting into them, they aren't the crumbly cornmeal/cornbready thing you would expect. They were more dense bread like and just not good. Whether I didn't like because of taste and texture or disappointment they weren't the real thing could be debatable, but these are not what hush puppies should be like, no matter how much butter you put on them. Oddly enough, we did like the red slaw. It was crunchy, vinegary and just a tad sweet. Not enough to counteract the smoke but on it's own pretty tasty.
They have biscuits, but they don't come with anything and you have to order them as a side for $5. For a Southerner that's sacrilegious, but we did it anyway. While they aren't quite as good or big as Brenda's, they are still larger than normal and we did like them, especially after the server brought me plenty of butter to slather them in. Dense, flakey, floury buttermilk biscuits. While not a complete childhood flashback, they were a solidly made biscuit. It comes with pepper jelly which is something I have never been a fan of, but it's there if you are and wanna try it.
Of course we are going to have dessert! And not just one, but two desserts just so we don't feel like we missed out or anything--that's called rationalization. This is buttermilk pie. All in all, it is a simple thing to throw together. Eggs, vanilla, buttermilk, sugar and voila-pie! For some folks this particular pie can be too sweet but they did a good job here. All the flavors come through nice and evenly. The filling is creamy and the crust is flakey. Might have wanted a slightly larger slice but I'll always say that.
Bread pudding. Served warm, it was appropriately hefty and cinnamon-y. A dense slab with all the sweet flavors coursing through it. Ms. K liked this a lot as is. For me it was mostly ok, maybe came across a tad dry since there is no sauce topping for it. Probably could have used a bourbon caramel or something to offset the heavy bread. That's one yes vote and one good enough which equals worth getting.
While that concluded my dinner visit, I felt like I wanted to give the place another shot since there were more misses than hits for me. I thought I would hit them up for lunch/brunch and see what those offerings were like.
Why not start with the most quintessential of Southern food things and get some cheese grits. Hmmm....yeah, they weren't good. Not sure what cheese they were using but it wasn't pleasant. Had a harsh taste too it. But worst of all, they were not cooked properly and weren't completely done. After the fifth spoonful I gave up as each one had hard, crunchy, undone kernels and much like the cheese, it was not pleasant to eat. No amount of butter or sugar could save this, it was a total fail for me.
I didn't feel like going the fried chicken sandwich route as lots of places in this town do that, instead I opted for the pork chop sandwich. Cornmeal crusted pork chop with lettuce, jalapeno slaw, herb mayo on a toasted brioche bun. You get a choice of fries, hush puppies or side salad. I'd had the hush puppies-pass-and thought I'd be a little healthy and get a side salad. Here's where I'm gonna call them out and say that "salad" was really just about an ounce of wilted greens with little to no dressing and totally not worth it. The dish comes in at $13 and that salad does not add anything to the value of this. As for the sandwich, it was interesting. The pork chop was more small round of pork that kind of got lost amidst all the slaw, which wasn't bad on its own, and all the mayo. Plus about halfway through the sandwich I bit into this really big piece of inedible fat that kind of threw the rest of the sandwich off for me. I know pork has fat. Though, if cooked right, like on a pork belly, the fat can be soft, almost creamy and edible. This was none of those. Chewy, tough, thick and blech. I probably should have gone with the fried chicken sandwich and fries instead. Food live and learn I guess.
As I said before, I really wanted to like this place. The whole idea that the owner had made an effort to go to NC and learn to cook pork I found encouraging. Then to find out from him he amped up the flavors because that is what he thinks folks in SF expect was disheartening. Southern food in and of itself is already flavorful and not only offers taste but a feeling of home cooked comfort food. A swing through Brenda's, Hard Knox Cafe, Farmerbrown or even Front Porch will prove that. As for Rusty's, I'm sure they may garner some fans, but for this Southerner, I think I'll pass for now.