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Disappointing brunch at Brenda's

I'd heard a lot of hype about Brenda's French Soul, reading about it in the Chronicle as well as in a few guidebooks. Being a New Orleans-ophile and having a serious culinary hard-on for beignets, creole food and great chicory coffee, I gladly waited the 75 minutes outside while the waitresses flipped the handful of tables inside this miniscule restaurant. When our name was finally called from the waiting list clipboard, I practically skipped to our table.

We started with the beignet flight and cafe au lait. The flight is one each of the crayfish, chocolate, apple and plain beignets. Each was delicious, but the beignets were tough, as if they had been prepped in advanced and the outside of the beignets were allowed to dry in the heat of the kitchen. Indeed, when I went to the back to use the restroom I could see trays of beignets cut and stuffed, ready to be fried. My other complaint was the liberal dusting of creole seasoning used to coat the crayfish beignet got all over the sweet beignets, making an odd combination of apple, chocolate and paprika. The cafe au lait was delicious.

My main was the special of the day, shrimp and cheddar grits. When it came out, the aroma was mouth watering, but when I started to tuck in I realized I had a problem. The entire dish was sitting in a huge puddle of red oil/grease. I don't know if it was fat from the broiled cheese grits or from the sauteed shrimp, but there was about 1/2 a cup of oil coating every shrimp and the surface of the grits. I tried scooting the grits out of the way and tipping the bowl to let the fat collect, but it was too late, every bite was oily and stomach-turning. I can't eat a lot of fat without getting sick to my stomach, and with 3-4 bites of the admittedly creamy and delicious grits and snappy, fresh shrimp I was nauseated and had to stop eating, spending the rest of my meal sipping water while my friend dug into his breakfast (egg tartin with tomato chutney and home frieds, which he enjoyed).

Our meal came to $46 for two, splitting the beignet flight, the grits (10,50), the egg tartin and a single pancake (also tough, but delicious). Both of us walked away with a tummy ache and disappointment for waiting so long for a mediocre meal.

Brenda's French Soul Food
652 Polk St, San Francisco, CA 94102

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  1. Too bad about the oily dish you got. I have to agree that Brenda's is overhyped by others. I find it to be a charming little place, but I try to go during off times (never on the weekends any more) because I don't think it's worth the long wait. The food is more homey than stellar.

    1. I liked Brenda's shrimp and grits the one time I had it, but yeah, it's a pretty heavy (and extremely cheesy) version of the dish and definitely not traditional, to the best of my knowledge.

      Their biscuits rock, though.

      1 Reply
      1. re: abstractpoet

        abstractpoet, You're right, their version is not traditional; I've never had the shrimp be in such a dark spiced sauce. But it was tasty, just too heavy.

      2. Shockingly, I recommend the Shrimp & Grits at 1300 Fillmore (I say shockingly because it is practically the ONLY dish I recommend from that otherwise mediocre restaurant). Fortunately, the S&G is often sold at the Fillmore Farmer's Market on Saturday morning for $5.00 so I don't have to bother with the restaurant. But you can get the S&G at the bar and it is worth a trip for that alone!

        1. That is really too bad! I was there on Jan 4 and my friend's shrimp and grits were perfect, and were not swimming in oil.

          I went with two friends, one of whom had never been to Brenda's before. She wanted to order the beignets, and was met with two less than enthusiastic responses. The beignets are heavy and dry, according to two opinions.

          However, there are a number of items there that are superb. 1) Shrimp poboy 2) biscuit 3) an amazing bread pudding special. And also excellent are the hangtown fry, catfish poboy, and red beans and rice. You may not want to return after your experience, but there are a number of great dishes there.

          2 Replies
          1. re: felice

            Hangtown fry here is awesome. I left most of the potato hash (grits next time) and waited for almost an hour at peak brunchtime today, but would happily return for that most harmonious combination of fried oysters, bacon, and egg. Oh and the biscuits, as previously reported, are fantastic. Super-crumbly and buttery, delicious.

            1. re: beerandpork

              I agree, just had a hangtown fry this morning. Awesome. And the biscuit too. Awesome. Everytime I have it, I am surprised by how good it is, moist, buttery crumbly. Eaten with a dab of butter and the peach reserve they have on the table. Amazing. Also had the catfish benedict, so good!!! To the OP, I think less is more in Brenda's? Though I can be a big eater, I have a hard time finishing or eating more than one dish. Very hearty.

          2. There was a (very short) discussion about whether Brenda's beignets or Just For You (22nd St near 3rd Street) is better. JFY is more American food with NO beignets rather than all creole all the time, but they work hard with locavore and non-greasy, so might be an interesting next stop. And, I expect, less hyped.

            (JFY does have a few NO items besides beignets, like po-boys and grits, but it's clearly not the featured menu items. They've always been known for the Hangtown Fry.)

            1. I agree regarding the oil in the shrimp and grits! I was there on Dec 31st. The oil was all over the top and all I could do was try to eat around it. I believe that it was chili oil, and supposed to be somewhat liberal, but it appeared to be several tablespoons worth....WAY too much for my taste. (plus, too spicy for my taste also) I would definitely NOT order that dish again. On the other hand, the biscuits and jam were heavenly, and worth a trip back for alone!

              1 Reply
              1. re: sfcitygal

                sfcitygal, I ate at Brenda's on 31 Dec also. When I snuck back to the bathroom and took a peek at the cooking process, I saw them sauteeing the shrimp in tonnes of grease. I don't know if they put chili oil on top as a condiment, but it was all just way overboard in terms of fat.

              2. I do wish they went a little easier on the spice with the crawfigh beignets. It's hard to eat that kind of raw powdered spice, and even when you try brushing it off, it's overpowering. I know people who eat hot sauce raw, but chili powder?

                1. Brenda's is a ridiculously popular greasy-spoon breakfast spot that uses high amounts of oil and fat because that's what the people who come there want. They've usually had a lot to drink the night before and have a huge hangover. It's an entirely different crowd than the one that goes to Foreign Cinema for brunch.

                  If you were to watch the preparations at any of the other big-name greasy-spoon brunch spot, I'm sure what you'd find isn't that different.

                  Just because the chef at Brenda's is more famous than the others, I'm not sure why we expect something else.

                  1. The grits have more butter than should be legal, and the biscuits are not low-fat either. Don't know about "real" shrimp and grits, but I'll take the ones at Brenda's (cheese laden as they are) anytime!

                    1. Ate at Brenda's Sunday 1-24 at 0810. No line. We've had shrimp and grits in "Charleston, so why bother in SF. As frequent eaters in NO for 25 years before Katrina this place could make it there. We had the crayfish B's to start, they are cooked in canola. We like spicy and they were just right, fresh from the kitchen and not dry on the outside. Different than the best NO has to offer, but unique enough to enjoy, I had the Hangtown frys for the first time and they were very good. I don't have a frame of reference for other places. The shrimp and goat cheese omelette with carmelized red onions was the best. The coffee didnt have too much chickory thank goodness. We did plan to be early based upon other posts on this thread, and maybe that made a difference. The line started about 9. At 8 they dont have time to get an assembly line going. We are going to try the shrimp and goat cheese omelette at home, it was that good.