Brenda's French Soul Food has been a staple in this town for some time. It's quite the popular spot as evidenced by the lines waiting to get in, that's what happens when you put out good food and don't take reservations. As waiting in line for something is like a right of passage in San Francisco. For whatever reasons, the folks at Brenda's hadn't done much about expanding--that is until recently. Suddenly they've opened up a cafe/coffee shop/store a few doors down called Libby Jane and in the last couple months they've taken over the old Blue Jay Cafe (websites seem not to go away) space and turned it into Brenda's Meat & Three (some websites need to be worked out). I like the original, so when I heard about this outpost I was interested in giving it a try to see what if any differences there would be between the places.
The layout of the space hasn't changed, but they have given it a fresh white coat of paint and cleaned it up a bit. The theme of the place is based around old school Southern cafeterias where you could get a meat and 3 sides for a decent price. Though, this is San Francisco and old school prices unfortunately, do not apply. I visited the place on 2 separate occasions because there were so many things on the menu that looked good. Thing is, the meat and three deal is only available at dinner and some of the other things are only on the lunch/brunch menu. It's like they are trying to lure you back and of course, it worked. First I stopped by for lunch and made sure I was really hungry so I could try several things. I started with 2 appetizers.
Johnny cakes stuffed with shrimp, bacon, scallions, jalapeño, cheddar and corn served with a three pepper butter. Johnny cakes are basically cornmeal, formed into a pancake and fried in a pan--usually cast iron and using bacon fat. Here they aren't using the bacon fat but these were served hot off the griddle and I really liked them. Lovely brown crunch on the outside, soft and warm inside. The stuffing adds a nice twist on the traditional plain versions. I couldn't taste the bacon so much but I did get nice pieces of shrimp, the gooeyness of the cheese and that great kick from the jalapeño. The pepper butter was more of a compliment and not too spicy and melted easily over the hot cakes. Like a fancified version of what grandma made. They are gonna run ya' $8, wish they were tad less.
Then was a $2 taste of the low country gumbo. Dungeness crab, shrimp, andouille sausage, okra, tomato, scallions and rice in a small but hearty little bowl. For the price this was pretty big on flavor and I like they way they put a lump of the crabmeat on top with the rice so you could actually taste it. It didn't get lost in the spicy gumbo. You do get just a little bit of everything in it's description and it's a great version that they also serve at Brenda's original location. I think with a taste, cup or bowl you really can't go wrong with this. Though if you upsize, you will need to order bread to with it.
For my main I got Big Mama's spicy chicken sandwich. Their secret recipe spicy fried chicken breast on a toasted bun with mayo, lettuce, tomato and dill pickle. It comes with pickled watermelon and I chose the cole slaw as my side. This really is a big 'ol sandwich, I had to cut it in to to eat. Fresh and hot out of the fryer it definitely has some spicy kick to it but not so much it will turn you off, burn your tongue or make it so you can't taste anything else. You get copious amounts of lettuce and mayo which was just fine with me. The pickles are also a heap and while I liked them on their own, I didn't so much on the sandwich. For me it made the sandwich taste a little too salty between the coating and the pickles. Once I took them off it was fine. Plus, that whole chicken breast and pickles thing is a little to Chick Fil-A for me. Beyond that it was a yummy, filling sandwich. I liked the cole slaw too as it had just a touch of mayo and poppy seeds it looked like. I also put some on the sandwich and really like the mix of it with the spicy chicken. Maybe they should try that instead of lettuce and tomato? If they did I could have gotten fries, because you know, fried stuff. Either way, really good sandwich.
By the time I finished these three things I just wanted to roll over and take a nap. It's all very filling Southern food so come with an appetite if you are going to have more than one dish. But I wasn't done yet as I came back during dinner hours to try the whole meat and three thing the name comes from. Options can change daily so they have the choices listed on a chalkboard above the kitchen. For me there wasn't much choice, once I saw the pork belly my mind was made up.
Pork belly with red pepper jelly, collard greens, fried okra and cauliflower au gratin. Let's start with the sides. Loved the okra--crispy, cornmealed and the crust had hint of red pepper flavor which was tasty. The collards were cooked soft and chewy with bits of bacon, very well seasoned, I didn't need to add any additional to it. The cauliflower was cooked just right--not too mushy, not too crunchy. There was just a sprinkle of cheese on top, for au gratin I kind of wanted more. They also had a cream sauce that too thin and runny. Had it been thicker I might not have wanted more cheese. These did need a little pepper to add some flavor. Not a total miss but they needed some help. As for the pork belly, I only half liked it. Had I known it was going to be drowned in the jelly I'd have asked for it on the side. They really did put too much on here. The jelly itself was nice and spicy, for me not too much, for other folks it may be if you are not used to it. The pork was cooked well once you got past the top layer. Underneath it was soft and juicy they way it should be. However, the top, while there should have been some crunchy skin, was overcooked to the point where it was too hard to even cut with they knife they gave me. Then when you add that jelly on top it made it gummy as well--very unappetizing. Where I wanted some great crunchy skin I got an unchewable mess. Sometimes less is more and on the pork belly less jelly and less frying of the outer skin would make this a total package. As is, I can't say I'd recommend this as my meat choice. At $17.50 a pop for the belly it is pricey and not exactly cafeteria meat and three prices as you can see. Thus my skittishnish about getting it again.
However, this did not leave me undaunted. I'd come with my appetite again and couldn't pass up the chance for some old school chocolate cream pie.
Again, I'm gonna jump on the less is more bandwagon for this dessert. All that chocolate drizzle, powdered sugar and cocoa powder was totally unnecessary. The pie itself stood up very well on its own and I loved it's flavor. From the salty crust to the chocolatey pudding filling to the softly stiff cream on top. Everything worked well together. The addition of all the frippery was totally not needed. Good pie is good pie all by itself. I'll say get the pie and just tell them to leave all the powder and drippings off.
Brenda's Meat & Three is no Brenda's French Soul Food, it's more like a cousin who's learning the ropes. Some of the dishes are crossovers from the main restaurant and some are different takes on Southern classics. Like any new place, it can be hit or miss and they have some kinks to work out. I'm not sure I'm ready to try the meat and three dinner again, but I would definitely go back for lunch or brunch. I would also go back for the pie, though probably to go and without all the fanciness, sometimes less is more, particularly where Southern food is concerned.