Putting hearty treats like Asian hangar steak and chicken milanese on the front burner
DINE If "i" comes before "e" except after "c," then "bar" comes before "grill" ... well, I would have said always, but recently I came across an exception to this rule. This would be Southend Grill 'n' Bar, which opened toward the end of March in a Valencia Street space long occupied by Café Arguello.
The flipping of these two words from their familiar, not to say ossified, positions is more than just a bit of wordplay or a flouting of some alphabetical-order rule. When "bar" comes before "grill," the subtle implication is that drinking is the first order of business and that food, while not exactly an afterthought, is supplemental. Eating while drunk can mean that standards loosen as to what one is eating (and, for that matter, drinking). Putting "grill" first, on the other hand, advises us that a place isn't serving food just to help move the booze — that while the feel might seem little different from a standard B&G, the emphases have shifted.
Southend doesn't look much changed from Café Arguello. The long, high-ceilinged box of a dining room (which sits right at the corner of Valencia and 26th streets) still has a slightly formal, slightly hushed tone; the walls have been repainted, but they're still hung with artwork, including an impressive piece by Rafe Mischel, and candles still flicker in the evening air.
And the bar still stands, in a far inward corner of the dining room, where perhaps it serves as a kind of magnet. At dinner one night we bore stoic witness as three raucous female police officers whooped their way through the dining room to the bar, where they whooped some more before departing (with yet more whoops) in the direction of Mission Pie.
The food is very different from the Spanish cuisine of Café Arguello days, of course. Southend's kitchen takes its cues from around the world — though not from Spain. There is a certain amount of bar food, including firmly crispy onion rings ($4), a dish I dislike as a rule, but not here, and potato skins ($7) baked with cheese and bacon and served with sour cream. If there is a food more redolent of 1980s happy hours at boîtes in the suburban Midwest, I can't think what it would be. These were slightly underseasoned but plush to the tooth and very satisfying. Also a bit underseasoned was a bowl of (meatless) pinto-bean chili ($5), although a skin of melted cheese and a strong cumin charge made up most of the deficit; I just had to add a sprinkle or two from the tabletop salt shaker to bring the chili into trim.
Little flaws permeate the cooking, but without seriously diminishing its pleasures. The ground beef in the Thai lettuce wraps ($7) was a tick or two past well-done, but it remained tasty and quite spicy. And because the lettuce leaves were fresh and moist (as if just sprayed by one of those sprinklers you see in supermarket produce sections), the meat's lack of moisture wasn't fatal.
We were told that spinach ravioli ($10) was dressed with what our server described as a "creamy" pesto sauce. (You can also get the ravioli with alfredo sauce.) The pesto might indeed have been creamy when made, but when tossed with the ravioli it turned soupy. Still, the dish remained flavorful. And we did find real creaminess, along with the dulcet breath of tarragon, in a side of cole slaw ($4). The crispness of the cabbage shreds (a mix of red and green) suggested that it had been made just recently.
Bigger appetites will be drawn toward the chicken milanese ($12), a full (not half) boned breast of chicken, breaded and sautéed until crisp and golden, then served on a bed of wilted arugula. Chicken is often quietly dissed as characterless, but, as this dish proves, it can sometimes stand on its own without high-powered sauces and rubs.