Oakland just produced a new rival for the title of Best Restaurant Name Ever.
Lois the Pie Queen has held the top spot for decades. Sadly, the Pie Queen herself passed on before I could spot her, elbow-deep in pureed sweet potatoes, flanked by floury attendants propping up her tiara. The first runner-up, San Francisco-based Miz Brown's Feed Bag, unfortunately does its name justice.
So for almost a year, I -- along with a good portion of the Temescal district -- have been waiting for the "open" sign on Sweetie Pie and Poppy's Authentic Southern Cuisine to light up so I could add it to the list.
"Who's Sweetie Pie and Poppy?" I asked Rosemarie Hunter, one of the owners. Why, the names her granddaughter Jasmine gave to her (Sweetie Pie) and her husband, O.J. (Poppy).
The restaurant's name symbolizes the Hunter family's commitment to running the business together. Three children run the kitchen and dining room, and other family members come in to help with odd jobs. Sweetie Pie, a retired UC Berkeley employee now in her seventies, presides over them. The Hunters have owned the building, which once housed the Sportsman Club, since 1993, but caregiving duties kept them from doing anything with it. Over the past two years, though, they slowly renovated the club, a longtime Oakland hot spot where Rosemarie and O.J. had some of their first dates. Six weeks ago, Sweetie Pie and Poppy's opened with a vengeance, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and, best of all, Sunday buffet.
The six dinner entrées make up a shortlist of Southern hits. Some lived up to the promise: homey, straightforward family dinners made from recipes Rosemarie claims have been passed down for generations. Coated in cornmeal, the fried catfish looked like a pile of gold nuggets. Since it doesn't soak up the oil so easily as liquid batters, cornmeal always produces the driest, crispiest coating when it's done right. Which it was, with well-judged amounts of salt and pepper and enough time in the fryer to cook it through, not overcook it into particle board. The meatloaf didn't crumble so much as gently give way to the fork, which means that the cooks mixed enough fat into the ground meat to melt away. "They added liquid smoke," commented an astute dining companion, and sure enough, there it was -- a slight whiff of the campfire that put off a couple of my tablemates but which I thought rounded out the flavor. Gravy-smothered pork chops had been pan-roasted and then braised to finish the cooking. The latter step rubbed out the crisp edges of the exterior but left the insides full of juice.
A couple of the dishes, however, could have used more finesse. Nubbly, dark-brown salmon "crochets" (croquettes) were bound with so much flour that they tasted more like bread than fish. While the buttermilk-fried chicken, its coating as wrinkled and crunchy as tree bark, had a wonderful flavor, both the breast and thigh had dried out either under a heat lamp or as they'd been reheated. And the medium-rare steak didn't come from the highest grade of beef -- my knife, as well as my taste buds, could tell.
Each of the entrées comes with a couple of sides -- you choose one vegetable, and can switch out starches with impunity -- and everybody knows the sides are where it's at. The homey mashed potatoes were made from real potatoes, and coated in real gravy started with real drippings. None of that floury, bouillon-y taste of the package. The glistening, molten yams were cooked in a clove-and-allspice syrup that put the sweet in sweet potatoes. On one visit, the black-eyed peas had been left over the steam table long enough to turn them into mush, but on the next visit they stayed firmer, full of the aroma of earth and lentils. And fluffy Cajun rice, each grain chewy and distinct, was cooked with just enough green bell peppers and spices to delicately perfume the rice.
Collard, mustard, and turnip greens were cooked, and cooked, and cooked until silky soft, with a little fatback, and some turnip root to add sweetness. I was devouring the greens with large spoonfuls of what I thought was a really good polenta when my Texan tablemate crowed, "This cornbread stuffing tastes just like my mother's!" Oh, stuffing -- I suddenly felt effete and Californian.
Dinner rolls ranged from soft to dead stale, but the corn muffins were obviously made the right way -- by pouring a bit of melted butter into the muffin tins right before they went into the oven. The butter melts around the edges of the cups, so each muffin pops out golden, ringed with a brown crust, and the crumb becomes dense and moist.
Our service during dinner was a little scattered, and our waitress appeared a bit nonplussed with her duties, but the whole family turned out for Sunday buffet, greeting patrons, regularly checking on tables, and making guests feel welcome.
Normally buffets suffer from congealed fat, soggy baked goods, and steam-table bins overflowing with bland stomach-fillers. Sweetie Pie and Poppy's Sunday afternoon buffet isn't just a good deal, it's just plain good. For sixteen bucks, you can eat small -- or large -- portions of almost everything on the menu. Plus ham and fried chicken wings and tiny green cupcakes, and all the ice tea or lemonade you can drink.
Starting at two o'clock, as church lets out, the ladies in beautiful hats and impeccably tailored gentlemen start congregating around the tables, creating the atmosphere of a church potluck. The Sunday sun brings out the charm of the grandma's-dining-room decor, which under the electric lights at night looks a little bare. Sweetie Pie has set each table with rose-colored tablecloths topped with lace, then wisely covered them with glass. She moved her china cabinet to the front of the room to show off a few prize mementos. And she has set up a full bar, with a few inexpensive wines and beers -- Bud to Sam Adams -- although it hasn't yet become a destination in itself.
I'm not generally a fan of buffets, but my friends and I enjoyed just about everything we tasted that Sunday, from the wings to the cupcakes. The only dish that fared badly was the sweet potato pie, which had been baked a day or two before. When fresh, though, it's the best in town, with a crust so flaky it dissolves on the lips, and an eggy filling so light it could be called a soufflé.
A slew of San Francisco restaurateurs have given their sleek eateries monosyllabic names like Spoon, Dish, Blue, Chow, and Home to make them sound down-home. Sweetie Pie and Poppy's has one-upped them all by inviting you over for family dinner.
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