It’s been a whirlwind of a few months for Red’s House. In November, the cult-favorite Jamaican pop-up series settled its first regular, semi-permanent location, at Embarcadero Center cafe Breaking Bread. Then the SF Chronicle gave the pop-up a big shout-out (two separate shout-outs, in fact), it landed a spot on Eater’s own list of hottest new restaurants, and, as owner Christopher Russell tells it, business really started to pick up. But all that momentum came to a pause a couple of weeks ago, somewhat abruptly, when Red’s House ended its pop-up run after failing to reach an agreement with the cafe on an extension, Russell tells Eater SF.
That doesn’t mean that Russell, who runs Red’s House along with his mother, Sharon Russell, has given up on his long-term dream of opening a permanent restaurant in San Francisco, where he hopes to serve Jamaican dishes like braised oxtails, rice and peas, and jerk-spiced boom boom shrimp. For the time being, the mother-son duo has transitioned to running a catering business — but they’ve also launched a Kickstarter campaign, and they’ve put in an offer on a Hayes Valley restaurant space.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but Russell says he’s hopeful that they’ll be able land on a permanent space by the end of the year.
One thing Russell is sure about, though, is that he wants to open Red’s House in San Francisco proper, not in any of the neighboring areas, in large part because of what he sees as the glaring absence of Caribbean culture and cuisine in the city. A self-taught chef who mostly learned to cook from his mother (whose family hails from Montego Bay, Jamaica), Russell touts Red’s as the “first and only authentic Jamaican restaurant in the city of San Francisco.”
That term — “authentic” — is a bit of a slippery one to use when talking about restaurants in 2020, but suffice it to say that in Russell’s experience, most of the restaurants in SF proper where you can find, say, jerk chicken on the menu aren’t run by Jamaican chefs and don’t necessarily cater to a Caribbean clientele. In fact, Russell says he’s visited some of these restaurants only to find that he was literally the only person of color in the room. San Francisco is, of course, known for the diversity of its restaurant scene, so it’s striking that ever since the mid-Market’s Kaya closed last year (under contentious circumstances), the city hasn’t had a sit-down Jamaican restaurant with a full menu and a proper dining room — or, really, much of a Caribbean restaurant presence at all.
“I hate that, ‘You should just go to Oakland,’” Russell says of people’s responses to his plans to keep the business in San Francisco despite the daunting costs. “Oakland already has a community, I feel like. I need to build community for people that live here like me, for people of color who live in San Francisco.”
“San Francisco is devoid of any real authentic black experiences, and that needs to change,” Russell says. And so he sees Red’s House, both its pop-up incarnation and future permanent location, as providing a kind of safe, inviting community space — for San Francisco’s black community and, as a gay man himself, for its LGBTQ community as well.
And in terms of the food Russell has big ambitions. He says when customers come to the new Red’s House they’ll be able to order from two different sections of the menu — a traditional one, headed up by his mother, along with more modern dishes that he’s created, like the red pea soup he’s been serving at the pop-up. Traditionally a meat-heavy, dairy-heavy dish, Russell and his mother developed a simple, elegant vegan version that’s rich with coconut milk and studded with dumplings. Chron food critic Soleil Ho described the dish as “a hug in a bowl.”
In his loftier moments, when he thinks of the longer-term future after Red’s House is fully established, Russell says he even dreams of Michelin stars — of opening another restaurant that would take Caribbean food to new heights, with “insane menu items that people would never even think of.” One day, Russell hopes, guests might even compare him to one of the chefs he sees as a role model for what he would like to accomplish — “like Mister Jiu’s but Jamaican.”
- How a Bowl of Braised Oxtails Can Paint a Vision of San Francisco’s Past and Future [SFC]