At around 10 on a recent Monday night, 6-month-old Southpaw BBQ was just starting to jump. LCD Soundsystem blended into Broken Bells on the amped-up speakers, while a Red Sox-capped bro alternated between shots of tequila and bites of fried oyster. At the crowded bar, an immaculately dreadlocked Missionite sipped at her aged bourbon. Everyone was having a rollicking good time.
The party continued with the décor, sort of a mix of dot-com start-up and Muscle Shoals chic. Single light bulbs dangled from coiled wires, backlit picture frames dramatically displayed scenes from the old South, and a series of bright red and green oversized mason jars, serving double purpose as pickling vats, sat on the kitchen counter. Above the bar, a hanging line of rough-hewn wood baskets containing illuminated bottles induced cravings for moonshine. Good thing that co-owner Edward Calhoun, formerly behind the bar at 25 Lusk, keeps six legal varieties on hand.
Calhoun and fellow owner Elizabeth Wells recently made a switch at the kitchen's helm, bringing in Max Hussey, who has a slew of impressive sous chef stints on his résumé, including Emeril's flagship in New Orleans, as well as Epic Roasthouse and 25 Lusk here in San Francisco. He's tinkering with the menu, and while the entrees I sampled showed promise, seasoning issues on starters and sides were a stark reminder that the food is still a work in progress.
Hussey already shows mastery over the smoker, as all of the meats that I tried impressed. One of his first changes was to replace braised brisket with a smoked version. Hussey lets his brisket ($17) rest for 13 to 16 hours over a pile of hickory, rendering craggy hunks of beef with a properly crisped bark and a creamy interior. The fragrance of smoke hit the table before our server even set down an order of four mammoth yet tender pork ribs ($19), dry-rubbed with secret house seasoning, bringing to mind the legendary ribs at Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous in Memphis. A starter of "Natchez," ($12) a playful riff on nachos, featured sweet, moist pulled pork alongside black-eyed peas and pimento béchamel over a generous helping of warm, crisply fried potato chips that held up to the last bite.
Most attention-grabbing was the whiskey-brined chicken ($15). Half a bird gets the triple treatment of a long soak in a brine of whiskey and citrus, a 45-minute spell with the hickory, and then a naked drop into the deep fryer. The outcome was a skin that shattered upon initial chomp, giving way to moist, smoky flesh with the faintest hint of a whiskey aftertaste. It's among the most distinctive poultry preparations I've ever enjoyed.
Like sommeliers describing a carefully curated wine list, servers walked us through each of the seven barbecue sauces on the table, even suggesting which proteins or vegetables would be a good fit. I'm all for user choice, but this seemed a bit much. Still, a few sauces stood out, particularly the sweet potato, a blend of sweet potatoes, onion, garlic, habanero, brown sugar and molasses. I squeezed a puddle of it on my plate to mask the saltiness of the dry hushpuppies, included with each main dish. Also noteworthy was the Alabama white, really more of a dip than a sauce, that invoked comparisons to ranch dressing. Wells told me that this sauce is found only "in small patches" of her native Alabama.
As for the aforementioned salt, it's a major problem. On my initial visit, nearly every starter and side I tried was plagued by an overuse of the stuff. The braised greens, the Brussels sprouts, the fried pickles, and even baked macaroni and cheese were so salty that faces puckered and portions were left nearly untouched. A tablemate whispered a wish to spit out her food.
Fluffy, delicate deviled eggs ($7) dusted with smoked paprika gave me a new appreciation for the trendy appetizer. Yet one bite of the accompanying garnish of over-brined chow-chow, a pickled relish popular in Louisiana, left my tastebuds needing a few minutes to regain sense. The house terrine of smoked bacon, ham hock, collared greens, and cheese grits ($12) sounded like a good idea, but also was too salty. On a second visit, a much better, decadent hog's headcheese ($12), gamy and laced with fat, had replaced it.
Not all is lost outside of the smoker. For a side of cheese grits (two sides are included with each entrée, $5 a la carte), Hussey uses stone-ground yellow grits from Delta Grind in Mississippi, and cooks them low and slow in milk before adding a wallop of cheddar and Parmesan, resulting in a far cheesier sensation than the abovementioned macaroni and cheese. An extravagantly rich creamed corn is first steeped on the cob in cream for two hours before Hussey shaves the kernels into more cream, onions, bell peppers, and celery. A finishing of cream cheese and brown sugar took the corn to a point barely shy of dessert.
Service on both visits was more Michelin than Mission, going above and beyond what anyone would expect from a place with "BBQ" in its name. Water was quickly refilled, the table was brushed of crumbs in between courses, and napkins were refolded during trips to the bathroom.
For now, Southpaw has a monopoly on barbecue in its neighborhood, and if the packed bar is any indication, it's already won over many local merrymakers. However, with Hi-Lo, the forthcoming Southern spot from the Maverick/Hog & Rocks team opening a mere two blocks away, Hussey needs to continue hammering out the remaining kinks, and fast.