Pulled pork sandwich.
After a couple bites of my favorite Buffalo wings in the city, I was counting my blessings that the “Gypsy Kitchen” duo of Ryan Ostler and Katharine Zacher had found their latest camp at ~BRUNO’S~. And it’s testament to their fiiiiiiine Southern-inspired cooking that I set foot back in the club that lost me as soon as the red booths were ripped out in its remodel. What can I say, I’ve been living in the city for 15 years, and have many fond yet hazy memories of martinis with my friends and seeing the Broun Fellinis in the Cork Room back in, oh, let’s just say I was in my 20s and the swing scene was going strong. After the remodel a few years ago. it just didn’t have the same Rat Pack mojo I liked; the crowd and vibe changed, and so that chapter in my life was really and truly finito as soon as I laid my eyes on the tiger-striped stripper club carpet. Pffft.
But I am the first to admit the atmosphere kind of works with the new early evening dinner service. There’s a cozy little fireplace, soft lighting, and the row of two-tops along the red banquette help keep some of that Bruno’s retro aesthetic going. I may not be ordering martinis like I used to, but the smoked paprika tequila gimlet ($9) was balanced and a good warm-up to the meal.
The two times I visited, there was a DJ who came on during dinner to play some beats (nothing crazy) and there was a mellow scene of folks hanging out at the bar. The kitchen closes at 10pm, so that’s when the place really morphs into the bar/club scene it’s known for.
But when it’s dinnertime? It’s quite nice. Could even work for a casual date—but that’s only if you don’t mind getting down with some saucy food or gnawing on pork ribs in front of your date. I noticed that a couple large groups reserved the center island—would be a fun spot to hang out with your pals over birthday drinks and din din since the food is pretty group-friendly.
So, the vittles. Everything on the menu sounds so dang good that it will entice you to hit some personal calorie consumption records. Start your engine. The starter options rotate, from juicy-meets-cornmeal crusted fried green tomatoes ($5) with a dill-spiked house-made ranch dressing, to the hush puppies ($5), round little balls of moist corn bread that you slather with chili-apple butter—they’re shockingly non-greasy, considering they had a dunk in the fryer.
And then there are the legendary (in my book) Buffalo wings ($7), a pile of spicy and saucy wings that inspire deep, carnivorous pangs of happiness for me. And baby wings these are not: they’re meaty lil’ muthas. The exterior has such a satisfying texture, a magical intersection where the fryer and the sauce join in a steamy love embrace. Oh yeah, hello celery. Thanks for coming to the party. Put your keys in the bowl right over there.
Now, are you in a sandwich mood? Get ready for one of the best-in-class pulled pork sandwiches ($8) in the city. For reals. It’s the kind of sandwich that crawls into your DNA, making you crave it on a regular basis. Yup, an irrepressible hunger for it is going to shake you at some really inopportune time, like when you’re away at Whistler on a ski trip. Or when you’re in the drunk tank, and are out of phone calls. Damn. So… are you sure you’re ready to make its acquaintance? The brine-injected pork shoulder is hickory smoked for something like 18 hours, and then slapped with some tangy (and complex) Carolina sauce, and tickled with a pink slaw of purple and green cabbage. The house-made bun (a treat) was so tender, fresh, and lightly toasted, but unfortunately it couldn’t hold up to the end—the sandwich’s sauce-a-rama demands a bit more heft.
The oyster po’ boy ($8) does justice to oysters—they weren’t too overly coated and fried into oblivion like so many other executions I’ve had; you could still taste the plump, briny oyster within. The superlative baguette (from Lucky Bakery, a place on Geneva that Ryan and Kat discovered during their days at Broken Record) may be untraditional, but it’s the picture of fresh-baked goodness. It comes loaded with remoulade and cabbage, creating a trifecta of tasty. The occasional nip from a caper makes the whole thing just pop, and there’s a little hot sauce shaken in there, too.
More Southern goodness: the chicken and sausage gumbo ($13) with dirty rice and okra features a decadent and super-dark roux, one of the darker ones I’ve ever had. It had a deep flavor, full of seasoning and some heat that makes you say, “Where y’at?” Watch your bowl empty itself. Magic!
Ready for some ‘cue? The pork rib plate way over-delivers for its price ($16). You get a pile of meaty ribs that are applewood smoked, and climb the scale of bodaciousness when you cover them with a swath of Ostler’s sauce. Plus you get a choice of a side, and a buttermilk biscuit (more on those bad boys in a minute). Commence finger licking. You’ll def need the provided wet naps at the end—but don’t use them while someone is still eating because they smell strongly of deodorizer, FYI.
Chicken and waffles ($13) are definitely the trending menu item this year, and at Bruno’s, the yeast-leavened waffle gets an upgrade to business class: the Belgian beauty comes drizzled with apple cider beurre blanc. Oui. The buttermilk-soaked fried chicken thigh and drumstick feature good seasoning and flavor—and there’s nothing like biting into hot and crisp fried-to-order chicken.
You also get to choose a side, which is a taxing decision because you’ll want one of each. There are the feistily spiced collard greens and bacon, but then the fluffy and cheesy spicy grits try to steal the show—the snappy hit from jalapenos is a bonus. (Ryan and Kat discovered the producer of the wonderful grits they use in an obscure Southern baking book.) ‘Tis the season for brussels sprouts, and the tender and buttery roasted ones here almost make you want a pork chop to magically appear to accompany them.
And then… there’s the biscuit. This supreme version needs to arm wrestle with my favorite biscuit from ~BRENDA’S~ in a showdown. And it’s gonna be a tough competition. These biscuits are all about baking alchemy, sporting a combination of flaky and buttery goodness and a firm-crumbliness that dissolves delightfully on your tongue. And with the honey butter? Hold me. (All the sides are $2-$3.50.)
Dessert is up to the whims of Ms. Zacher: over the holidays, I got to enjoy a tender chocolate whoopie pie filled with candy cane buttercream ($3). Ho ho ho. The toffee crack ($1) (which says “you’ll be back” on the menu) makes appearances, made with matzo and chocolate. And then there is (sometimes) the hidden menu item extraordinaire: bacon palmiers. You can start with them, or end with them. If they’re available, I recommend doing both.
Service is a bit absentminded but at least well-intentioned and friendly—it feels more cocktail-service than restaurant-service savvy. But it’s a small matter, because it’s really about the talent of these two chefs. Their background includes some of the better kitchens in the city (Boulevard, Range, Firefly), so they have quite the touch—and they are always refining and tinkering with their already well-composed and inspired recipes. I have a lot of respect for them—they work really hard to make really good food.
When Kat and Ryan were located out at ~BROKEN RECORD~ in the Excelsior, it was quite the trek, but now that they’re smack dab in the Mission, it surprises me how few people I know have checked out their food. Gang, whatcha waiting for? Don’t let anything stand in your way. It’s time to chow down.