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First Bite: Criolla Kitchen Brings Some Soul to the Castro

Red beans and rice with fried chicken

Most of my friends in SF are from California or the East Coast. Not many of them are from Louisiana where I grew up. And zero of them are from Baton Rouge. So this morning, when I was interviewing New Orleans-native Randy Lewis of the new Criolla Kitchen and he told me that he used to find himself in Baton Rouge at the Silver Moon—a funky soul food dive that I used to love literally located on the other side of the tracks, giving it a thrilling element of white-girl danger—I wanted to give him a high five over the phone.

Silver Moon's incendiary smothered turkey! Please Randy Lewis, make that at Criolla so I can have it again.

For now though, I'm going to be content with the fact that within walking distance from my house I can find a place to get classic red beans and rice, properly stewed with a ham hock, paired with some humble but tasty fried chicken (none of this cornflake nonsense) and a pile of sprightly mesclun that wouldn't be caught dead at the Silver Moon. There are also four flavors of waffles should you be that kind of fried chicken eater—though this isn't a Louisiana thing. Lewis clarified that his cooking is soul food more than Creole specific.

It's also San Francisco. Not just in the side of baby greens but the way our  server enthusiastically waxed on about the housemade hot sauce by describing the way it hits three different parts of your palette.

This is not to say that Lewis's restaurant is pretentious. It's not at all. Criolla just opened in the wedge of the Castro that is the former Bagdad Cafe space and from the looks of it, it's a true turn-key situation. Nothing's changed dramatically but the food. They're even trying for the 24-hour schedule that made Bagdad the place to be for post-club kids.

I can imagine a fried shrimp po'boy—the other thing we had—at about 4 am would hit the spot. Unlike some places here, Lewis is getting his buns locally rather than direct from New Orleans. "I'm using this little bakery in Oakland. Some people have told me that I should use a baguette," he says ruefully. "I think we're going to have to train people here what a po' boy is supposed to be like." 

The menu keeps going, including shrimp criolla over grits (which I saw go by and had ordering regret) as well as stuffed mirlitons and hush puppies. All which begs for a beer. Lewis says they should get their beer and wine license in a couple weeks and my guess is we'll see some Abita on there.

Lewis, who used to be a fine dining chef in New Orleans and cooked at Mecca and Bruno's here in SF, injured his knee and was out of commission for a couple years. In that time, he decided to embrace what many chefs are doing now—casual. "It's fun to have a business where you can hopefully make a profit," he says honestly. "Because cooking is a lot of hard work." 2295 Market St. (at Noe), 415-552-5811