Beignets, gumbo, and fried chicken-and-waffle sandwiches...we'll take all of the above.
Once sauced to perfection only in the southernmost cities of the United States, soul food—a style of cooking that has roots in pre-colonial Africa but didn't actually enter the mainstream American lexicon until the 1960s—has officially captured the hearts and bellies of the Bay Area with with a number of restaurants that lure us in off the street with the salty scent of tasty fried things.
But naturally San Francisco chefs are infusing the traditional southern grub with the local ingredients of California; and you'll even find some vegan options (a must around here). If sopping up the grease is your preferred way to end a meal, here's where to look.
Brenda's French Soul Food
There are endless morsels to chow on at this Tenderloin mainstay—chicken étouffée, shrimp and grits, and all the oysters. But it's the flight of beignets, both savory and sweet, that make Sunday brunch worth the hour-long wait. (You can order them online from Caviar but, trust us, it's not the same.) Start with the spicy crawfish flavored with cayenne, scallions and cheddar; finish with the oozing molten Ghirardelli chocolate. // 652 Polk St. (Tenderloin), frenchsoulfood.com.
Hard Knox CafeHearty meats, fried pork chops, and oxtails. Need we say more? In addition to Cajun shrimp balls and some of the best fried chicken around since 1999, chef Tony Hua also offers "southern specials" such as crawfish étouffée and fried chicken pot pot. // 2526 3rd St. (Dogpatch) and 2448 Clement St. (Outer Richmond), hardknoxcafe.com.
Two words: fried chicken. Come for the spicy Nashville-style sweat-inducing fried chicken with a corn cake, whipped honey butter, and pickles. Chase it with a bourbon (you're at Slanted Door's whiskey bar after all) and a Mississippi mud pie. // Pier 3, The Embarcadero (Embarcadero), hardwaterbar.com.
The Front Porch
From beignets to gumbo, fried okra to the sweet tea–brined pork chop, this beloved Bernal spot has it all, including the requisite rocking chairs on the actual front porch. And "bacon crack." In addition to some of the usual suspects—we still say this is the best spicy shrimp and grits in town—you'll find a vegan jambalaya with tofu and shitake mushrooms; Dr. Pepper-braised short ribs; and blueberry cornbread pudding. Better pull out those stretchy pants. // 65A 29th St. (Bernal Heights), thefrontporchsf.com.
Hops & Hominy
The work of three Florida natives, Hops & Hominy melds southern flair with sustainable and organic ingredients, micro-beers, and local wine. This may be considered a more sophisticated take on soul food with a seasonal menu, but don't let that deter you—the mac and cheese, fried oysters, fried chicken, and shrimp and grits are legit. // 1 Tillman Pl. (Union Square), hopsandhominy.com.
Brenda's Meat & Three
Hailing from the west bank of New Orleans, owner Brenda Buenviajé long ago proved that soul food is in her, uh, soul. (Yes, she's that Brenda, see above.) Her sophomore SF restaurant, Brenda's Meat & Three, serves exactly what you think: a meat (or other entree) and three sides (or no meat and four sides if you'd rather). With proteins including fried catfish, blackened snapper and barbecue beef brisket, and more than 20 different sides including options of vegetarian (cauliflower gratin, glazed carrots), vegan (collard greens, roasted beets), and gluten-free (mashed potatoes, red beans and rice), you could eat here over and over again and literally never get the same twice. Don't let us stop you. // 919 Divisadero St. (NoPa), brendasmeatandthree.com.
Happiness ensues when soul food meets bar food at Tupelo, the place to go for cocktails and indulgent apps such as fried okra and pickle chips, bayou shrimp hushpuppies, and baked mac and cheese. Weekend brunches are also popular, but we recommend you check out a blues bands one evening (after 9pm). Know what goes great with live music? Sazeracs. // 1337 Grant Ave. (North Beach), tupelosf.com.
This syrup-drizzled buttermilk fried chicken sandwiched in a golden-brown waffle is worth tracking down. Follow the food truck on its website for a calendar of events where they'll be stationed, and go for churro waffles and aged cheddar mac and cheese. // thewaffleroost.com.