Food writers like me tend to write about bar food with all the eagerness of a vegan covering the dog races. That's not to say that Buffalo wings can't be transcendent. And the gratitude you feel, when receiving an order of jalapeño poppers after a few two many MGDs, can mimic religious ecstasy. But many bars seem to think there's a choice to be made — booze over food, or food over booze? Then they back the booze, with its higher profit margins, and bring on the fryer and the frozen potato wedges.
Something is shifting in San Francisco. The secret cabal that sets our food trends has decreed that every new restaurant have an ambitious cocktail program. What with this diktat and the lingering influence of 2005's gastropub fad, the city is seeing a wave of places trying to be bars and restaurants at the same time. Some, like Heaven's Dog, Beretta, and Prospect, are full-on restaurants with large, separate bar areas and bartenders who earn national press coverage. Others, like Comstock Saloon, started off intending to be cocktail bars and lucked into hiring a chef whose food has its own following. The city has seen attempts to reinvent the brewpub and the izakaya, with middling success, as well as several places (Barbacco, Heirloom) that blur the line between wine bar and full-service dining.
And then there's Hog and Rocks. If I had to place this new Mission spot on the spectrum, I'd say that it's a neighborhood bar designed by two guys who love to eat. Opened six weeks ago by Scott Youkilis, the chef of Maverick, and Tres Agaves' Eric Rubin, Hog and Rocks keeps its alcoholic ambitions modest — a working stiffs' bar if your collar is white — and the prices on much of its menu moderate. Order a grinder to soak up a couple of glasses of beer, and your meal won't cost much more than $20. You can start with a Manhattan and half a dozen oysters and move on to lamb belly and sardines, and you're out $40 a head. The execution of the food is still a bit klutzy, and Hog and Rocks has serious acoustic problems, but the formula is sound.
The room reworks the Western saloon in loft-age lines and man-cave colors: a field of charcoals and blacks, cement floors, and milky, Victorian-style pendant lights. It's stylishly functional rather than bleak, partly because of the large windows that stripe two of the walls; in the August-September heat, the windows are open as wide as they can be, and I kept expecting to see customers enter and exit through them. Stand-up drinkers have been corralled into their own half-walled area, where the vibe barely differs from the banquettes and low tables that ring the room and the shoulder-height communal tables at its center.
Which brings me to my one major complaint: With its low ceilings and hard surfaces, Hog and Rocks is loud. Hundred-vuvuzela loud. My Bloody Valentine concert loud. Everyone speaks in all-caps, punctuated by hunhs, and that is when the room is only two-thirds full. Am I just too old for bar noise? I wondered, then watched every one of my guests step into the street afterward with the relief you feel entering an air-conditioned bank on a 90-degree day.
The bar sticks to classic cocktails, and by classic I don't mean 1884 drinks that archeologists copied from crumbling bar menus, but wedding-caterer standards like whiskey sours and martinis. The Harvey Wallbanger makes an appearance, signaling that it's becoming the "Naw, dude, you really gonna order that?" drink of the moment. Rubin's draft-beer selection is small and quirky, with two American saisons (Belgian farmhouse ales) and a German dopplebock; so is the list of wine by the glass and by the bottle, most priced at $30 or below. Beyond that, Hog and Rocks offers three Napa wines tapped from the barrel, all easy-drinking vintages that match the brawny food. They include a straightforward sauvignon blanc from Clif Family Wineries ($6), all guava and straw, and a fruity Malbec from Steltzner ($8) with a nose of violets and lilacs.
And what goes best with beer, wine, and cocktails? Ham. The novelty of Hog and Rocks is its ham plates. Youkilis showcases plates of Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamon serrano alongside American country hams, a fooderati fixation of late. The cooks shave the meat into transparent, white-rimmed swatches, ruffling them on the plate like the gathering of a tulle skirt. A 10-month-aged G&W ham from Tennessee ($11) is paired with glazed almonds, echoing the faint sweetness in its sugar cure; a salad of roasted apricots and purslane brightens up the earthier, denser flavors of a Berkshire ham from Newsom's Country Ham in Kentucky ($15), aged twice for 20 months in an open-air barn. Hog and Rocks sells parallel tastings of oysters (sloppily shucked, cleanly presented on icy silver trays), but they seem at odds with the surroundings, unable to shake off their refined reputation.
At its best, Youkilis' food is bold and solid and populist, without resorting to dude-food stunts (bacon-wrapped bacon!) or other bar-food clichés. There's no irony to the ripe tang of the basketball-colored pimento cheese ($6) he serves with a soft French bread, though the mason jar it is presented in may satisfy the irony-besotted diners who order it. His salad of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and boulders of juice-saturated bread ($10) vibrates with acidity; another salad brings together the bite of arugula, the silky texture of lightly cured tuna, and the sweetness of roasted apricots. He fries corn fritters ($8), each bite a pop of sweet corn kernels and a gush of melted cheese, and serves them with an aioli spiked with Tabasco and flecked with ham and chopped clams.
The East Coast grinder ($10 small, $15 large) is fine, but the patty melt ($10) is the sandwich I'd go back for, with its toasted bread, thin but pink-centered hamburger, and layers of melted Emmental, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions coated in Frisco sauce. Both sandwiches come with undulating, feather-light potato chips, which disappear long before the sandwich is half-eaten.
Where the chef hasn't yet found his balance is with the dishes tailored more toward bistro sensibilities. Sometimes, with an anodyne chop salad ($13) dominated by bitter chicories, he applies too much restraint. It wants more cheese, more meat, more olives (though the sweet-tart Peppadew peppers in the salad deserve their own star vehicle). Sometimes, as when he pairs slices of lamb belly ($13), which are braised and then browned in a cast-iron skillet, so the slices come out both musky and meltingly tender, he pushes too far — the lamb is paired with a creamy, starchy mix of chickpeas, raw cherry tomatoes, and fromage blanc that proves too rich to eat. And occasionally, as with the roast octopus and smashed new potatoes ($11), the cooks simply forget to season and sauce the dish, ruining it.
Even at its worst, what I liked about Hog and Rocks was the thoughtful way it responds to the challenge of being a bar and a restaurant at the same time. Youkilis' dishes are salty, rich, and broad — but they're not jojos and greasy chicken sandwiches. Hog and Rocks' fare resembles the bar-food traditions of other cuisines: Spain's pickled anchovies and chicken croquettes, Korea's seafood pancakes and rice noodles slathered in sweet-spicy sauce, Japan's okonomiyaki and skewers of grilled chicken skin.
And if you can't imagine downing a couple of boilermakers without a side of fries, you can order that, too. Youkilis isn't stupid, after all.