Spiced ribs and dreamy Natchez: the Mission BBQ makes a tasty comeback
APPETITE As I've often bemoaned, finding authentic 'que outside of the Deep South is a rarity. Case in point: Southpaw opened late 2011 on Mission Street, a BBQ oasis of the gourmet kind, brewing its own beers in a couple in-house tanks. Welcoming staff and flaky catfish impressed me early on, but watery sauces and dry ribs and brisket deflated my BBQ dreams.
Fast-forward a year. With new chef Max Hussey on board, I'm back, working my way through much of the food, cocktails, and beer selection. As a Massachusetts dishwasher and prep cook, Hussey boldly slipped a resume to Emeril Lagasse at a book signing, moving to New Orleans a month later to eventually become executive sous chef of Emeril's Delmonico. Melding Southern touches with San Francisco tastes, he's cooked at 25 Lusk and Epic Roasthouse.
Southpaw's BBQ staples (pulled pork, brisket, ribs) have all improved under Hussey's watch. While ribs look dry, crusted in 17 spices, they're actually tender, aromatic, addictive. Appropriately fatty beef brisket is smoked for 14 hours. If you must do chicken at a BBQ joint, you could do worse than this whiskey-brined version. Catfish is still strong, lightly pan-fried, and available on a sandwich ($9), which begged for a little more remoulade on melting-soft brioche. Newly-added quail explodes with boudin sausage. Each meat and catfish selection comes as a platter ($14-19), with hushpuppies and choice of two sides. Choosing those sides ($5 each or 4 for $14) is a challenge. Cheddar grit cake hides a juicy hamhock, mac 'n cheese comes alive with red pepper, sweet potatoes are whipped soft with bourbon, sweet chili-braised Southern greens and a new creamed "lollipop" chard kale make eating greens nearly dreamy.
Creativity shines in starters like smoked pulled goat ($12) with salsa verde and house pickles scooped up by Southern fry bread, or roasted duck breast and goat cheese rosti ($12). Abandon all, however, for Natchez ($12), named after the Mississippi town, sounding a lot like "nachos". Think warm potato chips falling apart under pulled pork and black eyed peas, drenched in pimento bechamel and hot sauce. Divine bar food.
Hussey also perfects fried oysters. These delicately treated bivavles exude briny freshness unusual for fried oysters. Currently, they're loaded with bacon and onions on a sandwich ($11). While BBQ sauces like sweet potato remain a bit watery, lacking in flavor punch for me, Memphis smoked sauce is briskly gratifying. But all praise goes to better-than-ever Alabama white sauce: mayo-based, packing pepper and vinegar bite, it makes just about everything sing. I'd rather fill up on savory options than desserts ($8), but banana pudding with house 'nilla wafers evokes childhood comfort.
Drink is as important as food at Southpaw. Brewer Phil Cutti started homebrewing in 1995 after shopping at SF Brewcraft. Learning from Speakeasy founders Steve and Mike Bruce, homebrewing led to his own gypsy label, Muddy Puddle Brewing. Southpaw's small program allows him to experiment with a range of beers and collaborate with other brewers. House brews ($6) are balanced, readily drinkable crowd pleasers. Posey Pale Ale is subtly hoppy, Pisgah Rye Porter is complex without being heavy, and a Smoked Cream Ale is smooth with a smoke-tinged finish. As active members of SF Brewers Guild, which puts on the fantastic SF Beer Week (www.sfbeerweek.org ) coming up February 8-17, Southpaw hosts intimate classes and tastings, like a collaboration beer pairing dinner with San Diego's famed Stone Brewing on Feb. 11, one of the brewers they feature on their hand-selected draft menu.
In addition to beer, Southpaw founder-manager Edward Calhoun's American whiskey selection and cocktails make fanatics like me smile. Growing up in his father's North Carolina bar, Calhoun honed bar chops in three cities that know how to drink well: Savannah, New Orleans, San Francisco. Playful balance exemplifies the cocktails ($9), whether a Rye Old Fashioned sweetened by pecan syrup or Rescue Blues: smoky Scotch and Combier Rouge dancing with cocoa nib syrup. My favorites? Mishi's Regret No. 2, hot with habanero, smoky with Mezcal, brightened by lemon and cassis, or cheekily-named Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari's character on my beloved Parks & Recreation) where sarsaparilla-root beer notes of Root liquor intermingle with lemon and Shiraz wine. Get educated with whiskey flights ($12-16) grouped in themes like Peated American Single Malts or Bay Area Whiskey, or flights featuring a craft distillery like High West.
Gracious founder-manager Elizabeth Wells, an Alabama native, sets Southpaw's downhome tone. She moves about the restaurant, attending to needs of each table. Staff follows her lead, ready with a smile, a platter of 'que, and a glass of bourbon. Down home, indeed.
Southpaw BBQ 2170 Mission, SF. (415) 934-9300, www.southpawbbqsf.com 
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