Rhea’s Café, which opened last year, brings a lot of the same elements from the deli — gourmet sandwiches, handcrafted ingredients, touches of Korean flair — to a full-service, sit-down restaurant.
But this is much more than just a sandwich spot. There’s real cooking going on here and thoughtful care going into every big, flavorful dish.
While Rhea’s famous sandwiches are a draw here, the burger turned out to be a jaw-dropper. This beautifully crafted creation strays just enough from classic to keep things interesting, while not losing sight of the basic elements that make or break a burger.
The soft, golden bun is perfect (as Acme bread products generally are), and the grass-fed beef patty is pleasantly seasoned and juicy. Cheese and bacon are included, rather than being optional additions, and are joined by tomatoes and arugula, a welcome upgrade from the usual lettuce. Housemade pickles and pickled onions zing through every bite with racy acidity. Tabasco aioli adds just enough moisture and a kick of heat.
After wolfing the burger down and taking a moment to recover and reflect, my friend, who’s something of a burger expert, agreed with me that there was not a flaw to be found.
Rhea’s other area of expertise seems to be all things fried. Tackling the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich is an exercise in overcoming intimidation, but well-worthwhile.
This towering, slaw-covered sandwich with its pile of crispy, crackly hunks of chicken seems impossible to eat at first glance, but once smashed down to reasonable size, it becomes a satisfying handful. Red and green jalapeño slices scattered throughout play nicely with the richly seasoned chicken. The accompanying herbaceous, bacon-studded, skin-on potato salad is addictively good.
I can’t resist fried oysters, and Rhea’s makes a solid po’boy — no twists here, just straight-up Louisiana style, with creamy remoulade, shredded iceberg, tomatoes and that lovely combo of pickles and pickled onions to brighten every bite.
The golden, batter-fried oysters show up again on the lemon Caesar: romaine wedges drizzled with briney Meyer lemon dressing and shredded grana padano. It’s a fun, clever take on a Caesar, although the flavors never completely came together for me.
Of the Asian-inspired dishes, I preferred the Korean steak sandwich, with its fiery chili-and-garlic punch, to the pork katsu. The pork got lost somewhere along the way, while the thinly sliced rib-eye stood up to every strong flavor and sang its own savory notes.
Weekend brunch brings morning dishes to the menu, including a mountainous plate of fried chicken and waffles, sweetened with a dollop of melting peach butter and maple syrup spiked with black pepper and bacon.
The chicken, as usual, is fried beautifully, and the meat is aggressively spiced to balance the sweetness of the other elements. This dish actually had me wishing for a hangover, because it struck me as the ultimate cure.
I’m sure someday I’ll make it to the original Rhea’s, but the cafe will be a hard act to follow.
Location: 2200 Bryant St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 875-9481
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays; brunch menu available 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Price range: $4 to $13
Recommended dishes: Buttermilk fried chicken sandwich ($12), fried oyster po’boy sandwich ($12), burger ($13)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted