Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
From left: Hussey, Calhoun and Wells
With the opening of Southpaw BBQ a year ago, Elizabeth Wells and Edward Calhoun sought to fill a void they saw with barbecue and Southern food. At first, the emphasis was on classic southern meat-and-three items, like pulled pork with sides of collard greens and mac and cheese. After a chef shuffle, Max Hussey (formerly of Epic Roasthouse) came on, and proceeded to perfect their chicken while converting legions of Missionites into goat-eating fiends. Eater sat down with Wells, Calhoun and Hussey to talk about the first year in business, and Southpaw's future direction.
One year in, have things turned out the way you expected?
Edward Calhoun: I think it's important any time you open a restaurant to have modest expectations. Luckily we all went in with modest expectations and we've been able to exceed those extraordinarily. The biggest surprise would be the smoker. As a barbecue restaurant, we have to smoke meat, but on our first day of business our beautiful, brand new smoker blew up on us. We had to operate for a week and a half without it.
Elizabeth Wells: A lot of people were interested in coming in early, and then having that happen on the first day was a little heartbreaking.
How did you change things for that first week without a smoker?
EC: We tweaked the menu. Of course, when people come to a barbecue restaurant, they are expecting a smoker, so we said "give us a week, we're getting there." Considering that happened it was an incredible week. We got a lot of good response from people, and a lot of understanding. If we could make it through that and people still like us, come back and praise us, then it's all good.
Are you all from the South originally?
EW: When Edward and I decided to start the restaurant it was really based off of our love for southern cuisine, and being both originally from the South. I'm originally from Alabama, Edward is from North Carolina. And the one thing that we really missed in San Francisco was the southern cuisine we grew up with, and really wanting to represent the true nature of southern cuisine and how creative it can be as well.
EC: Absolutely. There's just a style of restaurant that you get in small towns in the South. We give the choice of sides, the meat and two vegetables. Although invariably in the South, very little of what you pick on the side as a vegetable is actually a vegetable. It's cheese covered pasta, and banana pudding is a vegetable [laughs]. That was my favorite vegetable to get. It was really about coming back to those places we enjoyed growing up, and having a lot of people, southern expats if you will, living in the city and wanting a place where they can come in, feel comfortable, and get food that they can appreciate.
Who are your customers? Are there a lot of people from the South coming in?
EC: It's been a mix. We have a lot of neighborhood people, which I'm grateful for and definitely the corner set of who we're going after. But we have a lot of people from the South who obviously come in and want to check out the new Southern place on the block, or city, and give us their feedback.
EW: As far as the southern clientele, we do get a lot of southerns who come through and for us, that's a special moment too, for them to to be like 'Oh, this is what I grew up with! This is how it tastes! I'm so excited that you guys have this'
EC: And we're picky. Southern people are picky. We grew up and we eat southern food and to have someone from eastern North Carolina talk about the sauce that Max came up with that's eastern North Carolina BBQ sauce and go 'Oh, that's it!' for me, being from there as well, to feel that and be able to share that is always a great feeling.
EW: BBQ sauce can be a very emotional thing as well, and it is connected to what you grew up with and how your family cooked. Ed and I joked a lot when we were getting ready to open, thinking 'What are we going to do? Is it going to be North Carolina or Alabama style? What do we do?' [laughs] Regionally, what we've tried to do is showcase a lot of loved favorites from around the Southeast. And it's great to have southerns who come in and say 'I really like that dish. Now my grandmother does it this way.'
Max Hussey: And discuss whether collared greens need to be chopped or not [laughs].
EC: Before this, I was definitely part of the team saying North Carolina barbecue was the only way to do BBQ. I would talk to Elizabeth and she would go 'But you gotta have barbecue in Alabama,' and I would say 'Have you even seen a pig before?' [laughs] Having fun arguments like that. After about three weeks here, feeling like you're competing with everyone's grandma, you really start to appreciate all the different styles, of not just southern food, but food in general.
How has the menu changed over the year?
EW: Max has been with us for six months now and has really done an amazing job of elevating our menu to where we are right now. Originally it was really about barbecue and southern food, barbecue being predominate. Before Max came on board, we had just started branching more into the southern cuisine, and that being just as important as the barbecue we serve.
EC: We were able to do a lot of really good things early on with barbecue, and really being able to explore those things. But we have a great space and a great kitchen. What we really want to do and what means a lot to us is southern food, and working class food. For Max to come in and have his skills, his talent, his experience, he's done some amazing things in the last six months.
MH: The opportunity to come over here was phenomenal. For me southern food is the only true, as far as I see it, American-style cuisine that hasn't been influenced by overseas. Most of this curing and dry rubbing was a matter of necessity back before refrigeration. Hoppin' John is black eyed peas, which was abundant, and rice, which was abundant, and a way of feeding and fulfilling people's appetite on a very small budget. That's classic southern food. As far as building out the menu to showcase other southern food, we're taking southern techniques to San Francisco sensibilities, with sustainability and eclectic items. We have wild boar sausage that we're making now, in house. Seasonal-wise we're making huckleberry mustard to go with that. We've got a goat dish on the menu that's become wildly popular and I threw it out there just to see how it would go. Just within the first couple week I thought I had made a mistake, but then it took off. Also, my main goal was to make absolutely everything that's humanly possible in house.
What else besides the goat has been a popular menu item?
MH: Outside of the barbecue itself, the hamhock has been doing pretty well.
EC: I would say the hamhock, the goat, the sausage, and the duck breast with goat cheese mousse. And I think that's a great example of using some higher end techniques that Max has learned over his many years, but using it to produce a very clean flavor.
EC: Leaving the smoked meats out of the equation, I'm going to say that the chicken has been very popular. With [Max's] preparation, it has been one of those things where we wanted to have chicken on the menu, and we wanted it to be good. The execution just spoke to so many people that they literally will come in just for the chicken.
MH: It's always funny to me, everybody does chicken. If we're going to do chicken, let's do something interesting and something really well executed. For this chicken, the whiskey brine was already on the menu when I got here, which is a great idea to me. So we've got a citrus and whisky brine that the chicken sits in for 48 hours, a minimum of thirty. Take it out, hit it with our dry rub and let that rest for a couple hours. Then we smoke it for about 45 to 50 minutes. So the chicken is right there, almost already cooked, just a few minutes away. To finish it, we deep fry it with no breading so all the fat in the skin is rendered crispy and all the moisture in the chicken itself is still locked in. You end up with a ridiculously crispy chicken skin, with moist tender chicken, which is perfect. Not the dish, I hate the word perfect, but for me, it's how I like to eat chicken.
Anything you took off that menu that wasn't working?
EC: The fried oyster appetizer.
EW: Actually, the cornbread.
EC: That was a more logistical thing. In the beginning we had a cornbread we were trying to do.
EW: Old school style.
EC: In a skillet, piece of cornbread cooked, fresh. We do hush puppies now which is essentially deep dried cornbread, very traditional to have with barbecue where I'm from. The cornbread was great. The problem was it was homestyle cornbread, and we just couldn't get a piece on every plate. We'd get super busy and there was no way logistically to let everybody have that. There's that fine line of home cooking and what you can actually replicate in a restaurant.
Do you guys read reviews or look at Yelp?
EC: We have so many great reviews on Yelp, but it's human nature when you have this much emotion invested in something like this, to read through 30 great reviews on Yelp and only remember the five negative words in one bad review. We certainly use it. I look at the aggregate and see where we are, and see where the rating are, occasionally. But we definitely try to stay away from it on a day to day basis.
MH: First three months I was here I would get off at midnight and I'd be on Yelp until two o' clock in the morning. And it just was not healthy at all. It came to a point where I got gun shy, because southern food is aggressively seasoned which can be considered a bit heavy for some people. Instead of losing the authenticity of southern food, I had to just do what I do. It can be very helpful to read reviews in some cases.
What has surprised you most over the year?
EW: When we decided to take on brewing as a large part of the restaurant, we had modest expectations. With the brewing, we wanted to have incredibly great home brewed beer here, and whiskey. As part of southern food, it's a big part of the culture. Our expectations have been exceeded, not only with the quality of beer that we're getting, but also the response. People have loved the beer and it's become an integral part of our business.
EC: I think also, anytime you have customers that really attach themselves to your restaurant and believe in what you're doing and invest in it, they're almost evangelical for you. That first week, we had people come in twice, and have been with us ever since. It's one of the reasons I'm in this business. Elizabeth has also done a great job of reaching out to charities.
EW: We're approached by a lot of charities and anything that we can do to support local organizations that are trying to do right by our community, we do our best to really reach out as well.
What are your goals for the next year?
EC: I want to get on So You Think You Can Dance. [laughs]. Oh, you mean professionally.
EW: [laughs] We all have a shared passion for a lot of things we want to push forth.
EC: From the bar perspective, it's about following Max's lead and living up to the standard he set for making as much as we can in house. We're going to start making our own vermouth and we're already doing bitters and syrups. Just getting as much unique flavors as we can on our own
MH: Now that I've got my footing and my bearings here, and I've got a sous chef that I am comfortable with, going forward I would really like to get charcuterie and curing going here as well. Mainly for me, it's keep reeling back into southern food, historical dishes and brining them out from the past and doing a new version of what was American cuisine. There's a lot of little gems that are forgotten that are from Tennessee to Georgia to Mississippi to Alabama. I also enjoy the wild game and exotic meats and want to keep pushing the envelope. The goat worked well, the wild boar seems to be doing well. I'll find another wild animal out there somewhere that doesn't seem to be on anyone else's menu. Antelope is all I can say.
I love Antelope.
MH: Isn't it incredible?
EC: And so cute.
MH: It's a shame they don't move faster [laughs]
EW: And to add to that, speaking about the community, one thing we're all really excited about is doing partnership classes. We're going to start doing classes in the space as well. One which, we're talking to 18 Reasons about doing this sausage making class here, also with our brewing system, finding ways to do collaboration beers here as well. Another thing we're going to put into play, we haven't ironed out all the details, we're doing a chefs bar, it's been really fun for people to come in and chat with Max.
Any special customers that have come in that you didn't expect?
EC: It's San Francisco so we're not flooded with celebrities, but for me personally it's when people come in from other restaurants, restaurants that I respect. The beauty of being in San Francisco is that you can, the restaurant business is kind of our movie industry and so if a chef comes in, or even a sous chef or bartender, that get's me really excited.
EW: We've built up a lot of regulars from the restaurant industry, which has been a huge complement for us. That's the biggest complement we could ever be paid
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