Friends who live in the Castro are counting their blessings these days. In a neighborhood that once settled for quantity over quality, a new generation of restaurants is turning out San Francisco worthy food. The standard bearer, Chow, has been joined by Frances, Kasa, Starbelly, L’Ardoise, and now Criolla Kitchen, an ebullient, happening, well-run cafe from chef Randy Lewis. His take on New Orleans-style soul food is just the right concept for this former Baghdad Cafe location.
The heart and soul of the menu–waffles and fried chicken–are available at every meal. Somehow Criolla’s tender, golden, butter-batter waffles give us permission to eat fried chicken even for breakfast. Three crisp pieces ($13.90) have moist flesh and mahogany, spice-coated skin which adheres to the juicy meat and contributes flavor and crunch to each bite. For northerners, the combination of a waffle with fried chicken doesn’t really compute, like two aliens from outer space landing on the same plate. At Criolla, they speak the same language. The light, airy waffles topped with fried chicken are especially good slathered with soft, caramelly butter whipped with cane sugar, and warm maple syrup ($1). The subtle sweetness works just right. Though one might think that the overly herbal chicken gravy ($1) would make sense in bringing these two items together, it doesn’t.
A bowl of creamy, coarse-grained ridgecut grits, punctuated with chewy bits of dried corn meal, provide the base for plump gulf shrimp in a hot, cumin-scented, tomato-based creole sauce ($14.90). The combination sings. Criolla’s grits are a revelation. And stuffed mirliton ($14.90), a plate of halved green squash known as chayote here, is fork tender and heaped with a moist filling of bay shrimp, queso fresco and bread crumbs. It comes with a tasty New Orleans- style salad drenched in creole mustard vinaigrette.
These are my go-to dishes, but if deep fried okra ($4.90) is offered, get them. They come in a paper-lined, wooden berry carton, each lady finger enclosed in shatteringly crisp Abita beer batter, gloriously completed with a dip into buttermilk dressing. A cup of Castro Quarter gumbo ($5.90) also hits the spot, with its toasty, not burnt, roux thickening, lots of shrimp, okra, chicken, smoky andouille from a New Orleans friend of the chef, Ricker Schmitt, and a scoop of white rice plopped in the middle. A length of this grilled, coarse-textured andouille also comes with red beans and rice ($13.90) that need some perking up with house-made hot and sweet sauces set on the table.
Iced chicory coffee ($3.50), served with a pitcher of cane sugar syrup, is a wonderful drink with the food.
Only three months old, Criolla Kitchen already is a hit. The triangular room evokes New Orleans funk, a cobbled together space with gray-painted brick walls, dropped half ceiling, a counter with stools, worn wooden floors, butcher block tables, ceiling fans and Marcia Ball playing on the sound system.
The warm, friendly service, which includes a host at the door to organize seating, makes dropping into Criolla Kitchen a big easy. Noisy, casual and fun, this N’awlins-style joint has found a natural home in a fun loving district 2000 miles northwest.
Criolla Kitchen, 2295 Market Street (at Noe), San Francisco
Contact: 415 552-5811; www.criollakitchen.com
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Price range: starters $4.90 to $9.90; main courses $8.90 to $14.90
Recommended dishes: fried chicken and waffle; gulf shrimp criolla with grits; stuffed mirliton, deep fried okra, gumbo
Credit Cards: all major
Reservations: not accepted