The second day of summer 2009 almost persuaded San Franciscans that maybe all that warm summer weather talk isn't just a lot of hype. The sky was a beautiful fogless shade of blue. A gentle breeze did nothing to temper the ambience. Birds twittered in trees positively shady in their leafiness. And in the general vicinity of South Beach and the ballpark, there were gentlemen in shirtsleeves, children gamboling on playground superstructures, and office drones and homeless folk sitting in the soft warm sunshine. It was, in short, the perfect day for a picnic.
Of course a picnic requires food and drink and stuff like that, and one convenient venue for stellar takeaway is Little Skillet, a one-window operation in SOMA. An offshoot of the upscale farmerbrown soul food restaurant at Market and Mason, Little Skillet follows farmerbrown's lead in serving a combination of nouvelle soul and Creole cooking with New American accents and locally, organically, and sustainably nurtured ingredients. Although the food here is far more casual — chicken and waffles, po'boys, salads, a few daily specials — there are plenty of options for a long and lovely lunch al fresco.
The setting is Ritch Street just off Townsend, an artsy-industrial alleyway of red brick, blossoming flora, and old wooden shutters mildly reminiscent of Savannah or New Orleans. Little Skillet's entire operation is centered on the canopied window in the middle of the block where you order your food. Beyond is a kitchen teeming with activity; to the right is a list of the daily specials; to the left is a little cart with Old Bay seasoning, Chinese chile sauce, and green Tabasco; and a bench perfect for one big adult or two small children. You can also park yourself across the alleyway on a conveniently situated loading dock.
Although the same basic menu is served throughout Little Skillet's nine-to-three opening hours, there are always a few daily breakfast and lunch specials. The breakfast po'boy ($7) is a big fluffy omelette stuffed with sharp melted cheddar and thick shards of bacon, sprinkled with chives, and crammed into a substantial torpedo roll with chopped tomato and a peppery mayonnaise. It's one hearty eye-opener. A slightly more delicate option is the buttermilk waffle ($5), a rather spongy house specialty served here with a dusting of powdered sugar, lots of sweet juicy strawberries, and a thick dollop of dense, decadent lemon-tart mascarpone. Creamy, buttery grits ($5) are available topped with scallions, melted cheddar, and lots of chewy, peppery andouille sausage; or in a sweeter version with melted brown sugar and crunchy pecans, chunks of fat-streaked bacon adding a nice smoky counterpoint.
The house chicken and waffles ($7 for two pieces, $8.50 for three pieces) are good enough on their own — the poultry is moist and tender, with a nice crunchy coating — but what really makes the dish special is its array of topping options ($1 each). Sure, you can opt for the thin, sugary maple syrup, but the butterscotch is as thick and luscious as melted caramel, the strawberry rhubarb makes a wonderfully brisk and puckery complement to the buttery waffle, and the sausage-studded wine gravy is all lush, creamy succulence. There's lots of roughage in the BLT salad ($8), most of it chopped romaine lettuce dressed in a not particularly garlicky green garlic ranch dressing; the bacon amounts only to five small rectangles, the tomato to nine tiny cherry reds, and the advertised cornbread croutons are missing altogether.
Happily, there are more po'boys to be consumed. The Creole shrimp ($9) is packed with plump, sweet prawns that taste like they've just been scooped out of a Pontchartrain spice pot, with just enough onion, tomato, lettuce, and sweet pepper for ballast. Even better is the pulled-pork po' boy ($8), in which a very generous helping of sweet, smoky, absolutely creamy shredded pork shoulder overruns its torpedo roll and a good time is had by all. All po' boys come with a slice of sweet pickle and soft puffy housemade potato chips. Other sides include feathery biscuits with housemade raspberry jam and sweet butter ($2.50); skinny, crunchy french fries with lots of tater flavor ($3); your basic creamy, slightly sweet coleslaw ($3); a better-than-basic potato salad draped in mustardseed ($3); and a rather impressive fruit salad with small chunks of impeccably fresh melon, pineapple, kiwi ,and blueberry ($3).
The dessert menu is limited: miniature pecan pies and red velvet cupcakes. (Daily dessert specials have included chocolate mud cake and bread pudding with rum and plantains, however.) The red velvet ($3) features a thick, luscious cream cheese frosting, but the cake itself is dry and unexciting with no particular flavor. The pecan pies ($3 for four) are a better bet: tiny — about an inch across — they pack a lot of nutmeat and buttery syrupy filling into their flaky crusts.
The impressive beverage list includes housemade iced tea, Dr. Tima's all-natural honey-sweetened root beer, Fitz' cane-sugar cream soda out of St. Louis, Faygo soft drinks from Detroit, and Prince Neville's rambunctious and locally brewed hibiscus punch and ginger beer. Especially refreshing is the homemade lemonade ($2), a cool, brisk, not-too-sweet delight. It comes in a plastic cup or a mason jar you can return the next time you drop by.
The line stretching to the window can get mighty lengthy at lunchtime, but things are usually quiet up until 11:30 a.m. or so. You can also call in your order before you leave work; go to www.twitter.com/LittleSkillet to find out about the day's specials. (Bring cash; no credit cards are accepted.)
To supplement your meal, Cento's takeaway window is right next door to Blue Bottle Coffee, available in all the usual configurations. And if that Ritch Street loading dock isn't quite Renoir-esque enough for your picnicking needs, head northeast a couple of blocks to the Victorian recesses of South Park. This urban enclave of shade trees, greensward, tables, and benches is the perfect spot for a midday summertime getaway.