NOTE: Ryan and Katharine are no longer cooking here, but BR still has a kitchen going, with items like fried chicken, potato skins, and the whiskey collection is excellent.
Do you know where the Excelsior is? I wager you'll look it up once you're through with this review. To be perfectly honest, I have never cruised Geneva Avenue for eats (or anything else, actually). But back in the beginning of 2009, when I was writing up Church Key (a new beer joint in North Beach), owner Jason King told me about his other joint out in the Excelsior, ~BROKEN RECORD~. He mentioned the talented duo of chefs working out of the kitchen in the back, Ryan Ostler and Katharine Zacher, who served their first vittles on Election Day. They are quickly becoming known around town for their hi-lo menu of inspired BBQ and house-made baked goods.
Back in January, I rounded up a posse and off we went. Broken Record has all the makings of the perfect neighborhood joint: dart board, pool table, and beer pong (!); a friendly staff; an iPod playing a mix of Judas Priest, Pixies, the Stooges, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie; dudes drunkenly nodding off at the bar; a grand selection of beer and booze (more on that in a moment); a back patio for smokers and alfresco types; and with a kitchen in the back, well, there's really no reason to ever leave the place, except to take a shower.
The back room has red walls, a few booths, some two-top tables, and theater seats around a few small tables. It's pretty DIY/bare bones (there are even a few folding chairs), so don't expect a looker. But the food is going to be getting all your attention in a few moments, just you wait. Oh, it's also pretty chilly, so be sure you have something toasty to wear. Then again, that's what bourbon is for.
The first thing to order off the chalkboard is the Buffalo wings ($6). I know, really? I stopped ordering Buffalo wings a long time ago since they're usually frozen and from a bag, but not these puppies. In fact, the wings are the reason I had to come back a few weeks later--they were quietly flapping at me. Best I've tasted in the City. The kitchen ingeniously fries these meaty chicken wings and drumettes and then sauces them up, so the breading gets saturated with the sauce. It's an untraditional execution, and insanely delicious--you almost don't want to adulterate the flavor with the back-up singers of celery and fresh-made blue cheese dressing. Well, a little.
We also tucked into some hush puppies ($4), fried cornbread balls with cheese and chiles; it's another easy dish to share. These roly-poly little numbers came with a fresh-tasting ranch dressing that almost seemed Indian--although our table ultimately decided we prefer honey or maple syrup as a hush-puppy accompaniment to hit that perfect sweet-and-salty balance.
To the sandwiches. Ostler, who is from Texas, has a smoker here, so of course we had to try the beef brisket ($7.50). It comes on a house-made roll with pickled onions. Juicy, smoky, delicious. On a second visit, we fell even deeper in love with the pulled pork ($7.50), a sloppy delight with a tangy Carolina sauce and red cabbage slaw. Zacher's homemade rolls are scrumptious--and they magically hold up to these meaty monsters.
There are also some exotic and gamey sausages to choose from, like boar, rabbit, venison, pheasant, and even gator ($6). The sausages and rolls aren't made in house (the rolls are actually kind of meh, especially when compared to the house-made ones), so I would recommend you try the BBQ items first. But these gourmet dogs are still mighty tasty. And for $6? Uh, yeah.
Our favorite was the rabbit with prunes and brandy--as one of my posse members noted, it was like a taste of France. We were actually scheming about how good the rabbit would be in one of the buttery biscuits ($1.50) with a cherry jalapeno jam. (This is what happens when you eat with people who like to cook and eat--we royally geek out on flavor.) The spicy beef hot link ($5.50) also satisfied, awesome with the tasty trinity of Dijon mustard, grilled onions, and sauerkraut.
There is an oyster po' boy ($7.50) with a spicy aioli, and vegetarians will be fired up about the smoked tofu sandwich ($6.50). The Frito pie ($5.50) remains on my to-try list--I know I'll dip into it soon enough.
You ready for some sides? The mac and cheese was outstanding, a creamy five-cheese medley studded with roasted pasilla peppers, and shockingly only $2 for a little ramekin. It looks like the scary boxed mac sauce, but it sure doesn't taste like it. The ramekins are a bit hard to eat of, so be careful or you'll spill half your order. You can also order a side of greens with bacon, roasted Brussels sprouts, tangy slaw, all made with care.
Save room for dessert, because you will stoke your taste buds with sweets like a s'more with a homemade marshmallow and graham cracker, or a decadent cupcake ($3), or whatever Zacher is baking that day.
This charming cookin' couple met while working in the pastry department at Boulevard. Zacher has also worked at Campton Place and Firefly, where she became the pastry chef. Ostler helped open Range, plus Quince, tinderbox, and Serpentine. They've got cookin' chops, they're talented, use good ingredients, and are working so hard to make this happen: many long hours, lots of time on their feet, no budget, and it's just the two of them. And they make damned good food, fo' cheap. Exactly the kind of people you want to support. So cooks, chefs, diners, and adventurers, get your butt out there if you're craving some down-home eating, it's absolutely worth the schlep.
And boozehounds and beer lovers, you will be kindly rewarded with a thoughtful array of beers, and wait until you see the wall o' whiskies. It's an outrageous collection, over 200 in all. Totally unexpected considering the location. But beware Fridays, which is 50-cent PBR night, and it's reportedly quite the madhouse (duh). We also were lucky to get our food order in one night before a soccer team descended on the place for a post-practice bite. Every firehouse, sports team, police station, band, writing group, and book club should adopt this place.
One last note: unfortunately a cranky neighbor has unearthed a discrepancy between the zoning and liquor license for Broken Record. According to neighborhood zoning, the bar should actually close at 11pm. Eep. Which would spell the death of the business. So once you go and fall in love with the place, please consider attending the hearing on April 2nd, or at least drop a line to Adrian Putra at adrian.putra [at] sfgov [dot] org in support of the Broken Record staying open until 2am. It's a little lighthouse of beer, bourbon, good eats, and nice peeps on an otherwise dreary stretch of a street.
1166 Geneva Ave.
Cross: Naples St.
San Francisco, CA 94112
Ryan and Katharine are now cooking out of Hi-Lo BBQ, but BR still has a kitchen going with some excellent barbecue (and brunch!), and the whiskey collection is excellent.