House-made hot sauce.
Scotch eggs (we ordered an extra one).
Smoked chicken wings.
Flounder po’ boy.
Exterior photo by Mathew Sumner.
I like little engines that could. When ~WEXLER’S~ first opened on Sacramento Street in the heart of the Financial District, more than a couple industry folks expressed their concern over the fate of owner Matt Wexler’s namesake restaurant, especially with the darkened doorways of Rubicon and Jeanty at Jack’s mere blocks, nay, feet away. But the operative word here is little: Wexler’s 36 seats (with 12 at the bar) are far from the size of those sprawling three-tiered operations. And the clientele also falls into that 30-something range, who have created a downright booming lunch business during the week (seven kickass sandwiches for around $12 can have this effect on people), and who like their cocktails in the evening. Wexler’s turns one in June 2010, and they’ve found good momentum; diners will trek there for dinner from across town—it’s not just a place for Financial District workers.
I think when people initially heard the word “barbecue,” they expected a roll-up-your-sleeves place with plates of ribs and wings, but have been won over by chef Charlie Kleinman’s (Fifth Floor, Fish & Farm) sophisticated New American flavors, technique, and presentations that integrate elements of barbecue and smoke. It’s more like top-shelf barbecue—Americana that studied abroad in France.
The smoky chicken liver mousse ($11) is a smooth and creamy quenelle of can’t miss—blame the butter, duck fat, and house-smoked bacon in it. Its acidic accompaniments have gone through a variety of permutations, like green tomato chutney or ruby red grapefruit marmalade, all successful, and total alchemy when you construct a perfect bite with everything on the plate—you just wanna face plant in it.
I feel terrible for writing about the damned Scotch eggs ($12), but the kitchen now executes them so well that they are condemned to an eternity of making them. A dark brown exterior of tender burnt ends (from brisket) clings to a custard-like egg inside, with a perfectly runny yolk. And then with a dollop of the piquant Wexler’s hot sauce, offset with the sweet tea gastrique, and you are suddenly, madly, deeply in love with an egg. This dish is quickly establishing itself as a San Francisco classic, for obvious reasons.
Bonus, they started selling the house-made sriracha-like hot sauce for $3 for 1.5 oz.—it’s spicy (but not too much) and tangy, made with roasted Fresno chilies, garlic, and the addition of roasted carrot gives it an undertone of sweetness and texture. At home, I am putting it on top of and next to everything, especially sandwiches. And eggs. And vegetables. And meat. (You get the idea.)
The salads are also fantastic, like the house-smoked trout ($13) that you scoop up with crisp gaufrette potatoes (a high-end version of mini-Ruffles), elevated with the unexpected nip of candied horseradish and pea shoot leaves; or the refreshing little gems ($10) with a tangy buttermilk ranch dressing holding a touch of piquant spice, mixed with crumbly and sweet cornbread croutons.
Dinner options include a cornmeal-crusted skate ($19), placed on a bed of (slightly salty) Savoy cabbage, crème fraîche, and whole grain mustard, a balanced and savory combination that made me attack the dish to the very last bite. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the flourish of the pulled pork stuffing.
Kleinman continues the meaty treats with smoked short ribs ($20), and a plate of pork ($20), a mix that changes week to week (on one visit, it was a hefty combo of a country-fried cutlet topped with pork belly). There’s also a vegetarian dish or two on the menu (ditto on the lunchtime sandwiches), but really, meat lovers have the most fun here. Almost everything has a little kiss of smoke, but it’s never overwhelming: it’s more like smoke wafting from a neighbor’s window, less like an airport smoking lounge in Germany.
Desserts include the inside-out root beer float ($6) with house-made vanilla soda, Humphry Slocombe root beer ice cream, and whipped cream that will have you slurping it through your straw to the very bottom. (Just try to restrain yourself if you’re on a date, mmmmkay?!)
Lunch, in a word, rocks. The word is out that the vittles are tasty, affordable, satisfying, with people even waiting outside until the doors open at 11:30am (try to get there before noon to score a table, or go later in the day—lunch is served until 2:30pm). Diners pile in at the two large tables at lunch, making them into communal tables. I wouldn’t come here with a group or for a business lunch, but for a casual lunch with a meat-lovin’ co-worker, yes. You can also call in and get your lunch to go.
We couldn’t say no to the smoked chicken wings ($8), a lunchtime tower of saucy numbers perched on a creamy base of yogurt and Pt. Reyes blue cheese. The wings had a great taste and texture (they’re smoked and then fried), but the drumettes were oddly dry and overcooked. Bwok.
Supremely fresh flounder with a light cornmeal coating shows up in the po’ boy ($13), dressed with a spicy tartar sauce, and celery root slaw on the side. There’s also a drippy and hefty BBQ brisket bánh mì ($13), with thin slices of smoky meat that just fall apart (the brisket is made with a mustard dry rub, and smoked for 8-12 hours), counterpointed with a sweet and spicy aioli, pickled cabbage and Fresno chilies, and sprigs of cilantro. The Acme sweet deli roll soaks it all up. It’s not a traditional bánh mì by any means, but is it a sandwich you want to get to know? Quite. The promised bacon in the light dressing of the side of macaroni salad, however, was far too subtle (kind of like some San Francisco guys—like, are you gonna ask me out or what?).
At first, the space’s design from Aidlin Darling Design felt underdone to me, with mostly bare walls, and wood tables with industrial metal chairs (matching the spare bar with metal stools). The only points of visual playfulness are the red chandeliers and the rippling black laser-cut wood piece on the ceiling that looks like something out of Alien or a burnt dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. But then the soft candlelight starts to warm things up, along with the music and friendly staff. Oh yeah, and the Scotch eggs and hot sauce.
It’s the kind of place where two guys can roll in for a bite at the bar, or a couple can be out on a getting-to-know-you date night, and the atmosphere is just right for both. There’s definitely a fair amount of buzz and energy. My preferred seat is truthfully at the bar, because it means I can have the fabulous Kate Bolton whip up some excelente cocktails (there are always a couple special cocktails offered each night). I find myself drinking cocktails with dinner here because the smoky food stands up to my Manhattans (I’m just finding excuses). But the affordable wine list has a nice range of wines that will appeal to any palate, with a strong focus on California wines, good ones, and all clock in at $9-$12 by the glass. Beer drinkers will not go thirsty, either, with three on draught and eight by the bottle. And for you stock market or punch-out-at-5pm types, happy hour food and drinks are offered during the week from 2:30pm-6pm.