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Bar cuisine at the Broken Record 

Wednesday, Jun 3 2009

If you live out in the Excelsior District, you probably already know about the Broken Record. Located four blocks east of the Mission/Geneva crossroad along a broad swatch of barbershops, auto repair establishments, and pizzerias, its rambunctious hipster vibe is so reminiscent of what you'll find in the Mission or the 'Loin, any thoughts of municipal sectionalism will vanish in its candlelit glow. Near the entrance is a cozy eight-stool bar area where trivia contests and beer pong tournaments are regularly hosted, darts and billiards are an ongoing presence, and the mood is both friendly and resolutely anti-attitude. But what concerns us here is the expansive area in the back where some of the city's finest pub grub is prepared and served.

Bar food as a cuisine isn't generally afforded the respect it deserves. Even in its humblest state it not only delivers enough calories, proteins, and roughage to absorb the toxins ingested over the course of an evening, it also provides a lusty and substantial counterbalance to the amorphous pleasures of alcohol. What could be more soul-satisfying than a beaker of beer and a freshly nuked frankfurter, or a dry martini and a packet of Planter's? Happily, the Broken Record's kitchen staff takes a much higher road. Chefs Katharine Zacher and Ryan Ostler, whose previous gigs have included Campton Place, Boulevard, and Quince, demonstrate their expertise with an impressive array of down-home booze-friendly snacks and platters that are as pleasing to the palate as they are satisfying to the belly.

The back-of-the-house operation is strictly cash-only counter service, with the day's menu printed on a blackboard over the open kitchen. You can sit in the main dining room, a fancy name for half a dozen tables, blood-red walls, exposed piping, votive candles, original artwork, and a movie screen complete with theater seating and projector (you never know when a movie will break out), but it's nicer to sit at one of the picnic tables on the brick patio surrounded by hanging plants and flowering acacia. (Although the Broken Record is sometimes described as a dive bar, it isn't.) The demographic is largely young and noisy, but the people who schlep the food to the waiting tables are courteous and attentive to one and all.

And such food. The Buffalo wings ($6) are terrific: meaty, moist, and tender, with plenty of tang and spice in the coating and an especially chunky blue cheese dipping sauce alongside. There are skinny, crunchy french fries ($4.50) dressed with freshly grated Parmesan and just enough garlic to keep things spiky. The house mac 'n' cheese ($5) is one of the best renditions in our long experience, involving al dente bowtie pasta, a creamy yet pungent five-cheese sauce, and a lovely top crust enhanced with shards of smoky bacon and crunchy bits of cornbread. The kitchen's occasional and successful forays into bayou country are exemplified by the shrimp gumbo ($8), a big bowl of rich, thick, smoky-spicy broth with crabmeat, scallions, plump and juicy prawns, and lots and lots of okra. There are also side dishes of light, crunchy, barely sweet coleslaw ($2), lush creamed spinach ($5), and a light, flaky, warm-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuit ($5) raised to the level of sainthood by its dollop of honey butter.

The Broken Record is locally renowned for its unusual array of sausages ($6 each), especially the boar, a lusty, gamy meal in a bun accented with cranberries and Shiraz. The rabbit sausage is more delicate: beautifully balanced between sweet and herbaceous with a hint of white wine and an almost creamy texture. Less noteworthy is the hot link, a perfectly serviceable example of the genre, and the alligator, which more or less tastes like the hot link. All sausages are available with grilled onions and a nicely snappy sauerkraut.

The house sandwiches are also noteworthy. The Hot Italian ($8.50) is a smaller, tidier version of Louisiana's gargantuan muffuletta, offering coppa, salami, mortadella, and provolone on an exemplary housemade bun but not quite enough eye-opening tapenade to give it that old N'Awlins bite. The shrimp roll ($8), another Gulf Coast fave, packs sweet prawns and chunks of pickled asparagus into a tender Italian roll with excellent results. Best of all is the pulled pork sandwich ($8), a hillock of positively abundant house-smoked pigmeat moistened with tangy Carolina-style barbecue sauce and served on a homemade roll with a tangle of coleslaw.

Desserts are Zacher's specialty (she was once Firefly's pastry chef), and on a given evening the menu might include the chocolate whoopie pie ($5), rounds of pillowy devil's food cake sandwiching a fluffy, creamy, marshmallowy filling, with the cream and the cake melting together into a simply luscious treat. The Snackers bar ($2), an upscale rendition of the great midafternoon pick-me-up candy, drapes a layer of tender, honeyed nougat, roasted peanuts, and buttery caramel in rich Valrhona chocolate; one taste and you'll never go back. And the toffee crack ($1), a cracker blanketed with fudge and a thin layer of crunchy brittle, is a quick and easy way to achieve the bliss state.

The wine list is simplicity itself: There isn't one. Turn your attention instead to the bar's locally famous wall of whiskeys, more than a hundred mostly top-shelf bourbons, ryes, and single-malt scotches ideal for sipping neat and iceless. The bartenders know the selection well and will be happy to offer suggestions. (This isn't the place to come for an adroitly mixed cocktail, however.) There are also eight beers on tap, seven of them worth ordering, particularly Lost Coast's tasty Alleycat Amber and Speakeasy's ebon Hunter's Point Porter (both $4 a pint), crafted just across Bayshore on Evans Avenue. They're especially nice with a platter of wings, a sausage or two, a side of slaw, a whoopee pie ...

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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