Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dish on Dining: Brenda’s French Soul Food

Down Home Comfort in a Shoebox
652 Polk St. (at Eddy), San Francisco
Tenderloin neighborhood
PH: 415.345.8100
Breakfast and lunch, weekdays (except Tuesday), 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; weekend brunch, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

In honor of Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday, I decided it’ll be fun to feature a New Orleans-inspired restaurant. So when I thought of which one, Brenda’s French Soul Food came to mind.

This tiny (thus cozy) restaurant serves breakfast and lunch but it has been extremely popular for its brunch since it opened in late 2007. First it was just on Saturdays but now you can get in line for brunch on both weekend days.

On Polk Street next door to a corner KFC, Brenda’s opened in a spot that was a former Japanese take-out restaurant. Take-out was probably the best route to go because of the small space, but with soul food you have to enjoy it right away on site.

I arrived this past Saturday to try the brunch and because of poor planning got there at exactly noon, right at the peak of brunch. Crowds of people were lingering around the entrance and the sign-up list on the clipboard right outside the door was already full. I had to add my name in a made up line underneath. (The wait staff who checked the list didn’t even bother adding another sheet as more people later scribbled their names all over the bottom after me. I guess they didn’t want to encourage more people to wait?)

Most people place their names on the sheet and then walk around the neighborhood. But if your name gets called and you’re not there, then they move on. So I waited patiently and actually my wait only lasted 40 minutes before I got a seat at the counter against a mirrored wall.

I found it humorous to see a sign that says the maximum occupancy is 40 because, really, the only way they could fit 40 people in the space is if everyone stood up in the middle of the room. In reality, little space can be found between tables so people had to be very careful—and polite—when maneuvering around to their seats. (I pity the poor person who’s back of the head faced someone’s butt at a counter seat.)

Brenda’s is named after Chef Brenda Buenviaje, who is originally from New Orleans and have cooked in such places as the former Sumi in the Castro and the nearby DeLessio Market and Bakery in Hayes Valley. At her tiny brunch spot, it’s all about Creole cuisine.

I love the exotic allure of Louisiana cooking, with ingredients like crawfish and andouille sausage. But the challenge for me about Southern cooking, especially New Orleans, is that many of the specialties are deep fried, which I’m not a fan of. Things like beignets (the deep-fried doughnuts), po boys and hang fries (deep fried oysters).

For example, Brenda’s specialty is her beignets, which are filled with such flavors as diverse as apples to chocolate to crawfish. I passed on the beignets, but people near me ordered them and they looked like little square pillows (instead of the round doughnut holes I’ve seen at other restaurants).

Instead, I settled for a cup of Chicken, Sausage and Okra Gumbo ($3.50 for the cup, $6.50 for a bowl). The gumbo is served with a sprinkling of rice on top. After watching last week’s episode of Top Chef in New Orleans, I felt like an expert in discerning the proper color of gumbo, which means it has to have a dark roux to be considered authentic.

Brenda’s gumbo was definitely dark, and the gumbo was filled with chunks of chicken and sausage. Overall, I enjoyed it but it lacked a kick, IMHO. It was good but it seemed like it was coasting on one note of flavor and not as complex as it could have been.

For my entrée I ordered one of the day’s specials, which were the Eggs Benedict with Fried Catfish ($10). Other specials included Hangtown Fries and Po Boys. On the regular menu you get an assortment of Creole-flavored omelettes and grillades and grits.

The portions are quite huge when they arrive, and my two eggs benedict looked like orange globes as they sat bathed in a special Creole sauce. I ordered my eggs with a side of grits, which were made of yellow cornmeal and was creamy and nice.

Side note: I found it odd that the server brought my grits without a spoon. Are you supposed to eat grits with a fork? On the table, there are silverware, but only a knife and fork. I thought maybe it was an oversight by the busy servers, but then the person next to me ordered grits and her bowl was also served without a spoon. She had to ask for one, too. Is it a faux pas to ask for a spoon for grits?

The poached egg sat on top of the fried catfish sitting on top of a biscuit half. So let’s break it down starting from the bottom: The biscuit was great, just amazingly buttery and flakey, holding up well despite the sauce. The fried fish lost its crunch because of the sauce, which is a given, but the flesh was still flakey and tender, which I really enjoyed. The egg on top, however, was too set, so that meant the yolk didn’t ooze out with creamy goodness. Instead, it just sat there unwilling to be spread around the rest of the meal.

After my meal, I was completely stuffed, barely eating much of my grits. This seems to be one of the reasons for the popularity of Brenda’s—you never leave hungry.

Brenda’s is a charming spot that easily brings you the feeling of New Orleans without a plane ticket. But the food, while plentiful, is solid but a one note. It doesn’t add anything special nor does it take risks in style. It’s just plain, Creole comfort food. And at its price point, it’s no wonder there’s always a line outside for brunch.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Creole in tight places)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon


Passionate Eater said...

Well, I have never heard of grits being eaten with a fork, and I lived in New Orleans. I love your great New Orleans food discoveries, this affordable place looks hip and the food also looks delicious!

Chubbypanda said...

It's 8pm, I'm stuck in the office, the last time I ate was noon, and your pic of the Eggs Benedict with Fried Catfish just made my mouth water in an incredibly painful way.

I think you owe me brunch. =D