This iteration is a fun, fast-casual approach to New Orleans-inspired Southern, Creole, and Cajun cuisine.
The lines started forming daily in early October, as soon as Brenda’s opened its doors. They’ve rarely subsided since. The buzz about the Temescal-Broadway offshoot of the popular Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk Street in San Francisco had been humming for about six months. Instagram and Facebook posts began popping up last April, with photos of the build-out of the ground-floor space in the new Maya Apartments building, the installation of signage, slogans on the backs of staff members’ T-shirts, smiling team members working in the kitchen, and signature jars of pickled watermelon and okra being prepped.
From the social media self-promotion and the queues down the sidewalk (echoed almost exactly by the skyrocket launch of Boichik Bagels at College and Alcatraz) to the clearly defined culinary focus (New Orleans-inspired Southern/Creole/Cajun cuisine) and the fast-casual service, Brenda’s says a lot about how and where we’re eating in the East Bay. The where includes the burgeoning hub of dining and drinking activity on the blocks around Brenda’s that house Mama’s Royal Cafe, Ohgane, TrueBurger, Café Encina, Copper Spoon, Teni East Kitchen, Clove & Hoof, Biergarten, the forthcoming Brozeit Lokal spinoff Magpie, and Umami Mart. The how entails ordering and paying at a counter — in Brenda’s case, just inside the door — and having your food delivered quickly to the table you’ve anxiously secured and demarcated with a numbered placard.
Brenda’s fast-out-of-the-gate start also raises questions about how restaurants can regulate supply and demand to their benefit, and how the fast-casual model affects the overall dining experience. When I first looked into the Brenda’s space, before the restaurant opened, I was taken by the disproportionate amount of real estate devoted to the kitchen and prep areas compared to that set aside for the dining room. The patio on the north side of the building seemed capable of seating more diners than the interior. It turns out that both spaces can accommodate 30 or so, depending how tables are arranged and how many people scoot into place on stools at the two inside counters (a small one faces the kitchen; a long narrow one looks out the front windows onto Broadway). I ride down Broadway five or six days a week, and I’ve counted as many as 40 people in line at peak breakfast, brunch, and lunch hours. I wondered if there was a conscious strategy to limit the seating and create the appearance of high demand to trigger the logical deduction by passersby that, damn, that place must be good!
Once I finally stood in the lines several times, I discovered that they move pretty quickly. At one lunch, I got in line at 11:35 a.m., behind about 15 other people and in front of the window where cooks are forming beignets by the score. At 11:52 I was seated at an outdoor table with an excellent café au lait ($3.50) in front of me. My breakfast — crispy pork belly with cheese grits, a poached egg, and onion jam ($14.75), plus a fried chicken thigh ($3.25) — arrived three minutes later. Dining solo has its advantages at Brenda’s. So does calling ahead for to-go orders, which I did once for a Troublemaker po’boy (fried oysters, a slice of bacon, lettuce, tomato, dill pickle, and creamy horseradish “Tiger sauce” on a toasted soft French roll, $15.75), and another time for a “three way” of beignets (one plain, one with cinnamon-laced Granny Smith apple filling, one with Ghirardelli chocolate, $8). I’ve not seen lines at opening at 8 a.m., nor did Robin and I encounter any wait at all on a Sunday evening around 7.
The fast-casual model has its obvious advantages: for the business, lower staffing costs and quicker turnover; for the patrons, speedier food delivery and no waiting for a bill to arrive. You can order more food at your table at Brenda’s, but you have to flag down a food runner and pay as you order. The drawback for some might be the pace of the meal. Fast-casual compresses time and, in a place like Brenda’s, space. And for me, that became more of a consideration given what I was eating. A po’boy (Brenda’s makes 12 meat, fish, and veggie varieties) is fine to grab at a stand at Jazz Fest in New Orleans as you roam from stage to stage. But a lot of Creole and Cajun cuisine is the epitome of slow food, which implies not only hours of preparation, essential to gumbo, jambalaya, and most great sauces, but a leisurely approach to its consumption, as well.
At Brenda’s, the inherent slow food/fast service contradiction is masked by crowd energy and conversation, and a bons temps rouler vibe that infuses the place through rollicking blues, soul, New Orleans, and Cajun music, gracious albeit hustling service, and the lively interior design with a classic red, white, and black color scheme (with a pressed tin ceiling), a large Holy Trinity Farms mural on the back wall, and a kitchen sign that commands “Be Nice or Leave.” (Energy and patrons were notably lacking during our Sunday dinner visit, when the lights felt too bright and stark, more like a fast food chain, and the staff seemed eager to close up.)
Fun seems an important experiential element to New Orleans native chef/proprietor Brenda Buenviaje and her co-owner and wife, Libby Truesdell. (In addition to Brenda’s French Soul Food, they also operate Brenda’s Meat & Three; their Libby Jane Café closed in November). Fun is built into the menu with such names as the Big Fat Y’at (an Andouille sausage po’boy) and such breakfast sandwiches as the Messy Mess (two eggs over-medium, tomato, ham jam, cheese, and bacon or a pork sausage patty) and the Make Your Own Damn Sandwich.
And that menu is huge, from French toast, omelets, benedicts, shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, and hashes at breakfast (served until 3 p.m.) to lunch and dinner offerings (starting at 11 a.m.) of fried chicken with a slew of sides (including 11 vegetarian or vegan), “big bowls” of chicken and Andouille gumbo ($11.75), red beans ’n’ rice ($12.75), chicken étouffée ($13.75), and pasta Orleans ($18), and “big plates” of chicken and Andouille jambalaya ($14.75), catfish ($18), BBQ beef brisket ($18.75), and all those po’boys.
On my five-sampling scorecard, there were no losers and only a few “meh” dishes: one-note mac’n’cheese, OK coleslaw, country gravy that had a nice onion flavor but arrived goopy and congealed, and surprisingly, the brisket — a generous serving that was lukewarm and overwhelmed by the sauce, plus one slice had been cooked to mealy smithereens. Winners included the pork belly-cheddar grits breakfast with a slamming spicy onion relish, the flaky, sinewy cream biscuit, the unfussy fried chicken thigh (lightly battered, crisp, juicy), the oyster po’boy, the jambalaya (lots of flavors dancing through the rice, complemented by a well-dressed salad of greens), and the pickled watermelon rinds (complimentary). And the beignets — their texture leans toward the cakey side of a doughnut but is just light enough when still piping hot. In the crawfish version ($12 for three), the seafood filling is blended with with cheddar, scallions, and cayenne. I’ll get back in line to try that.