Superlative, flavorful barroom dining at Bruno’s 

In this economic climate, when banks aren’t lending and investors aren’t investing, driven young chefs who want to be their own bosses have to get creative — and not just about their food.

These days they look to street carts, farmers market booths, counters at the corner grocery, borrowed kitchens, private homes and restaurants on days they otherwise would be closed. Ryan Ostler and Katharine Zacher, two of the best cooks in this independent-minded lot, have landed at Bruno’s, a bar, club and cocktail lounge in the Mission district.

The couple met in Boulevard’s pastry department and subsequently cooked around town at Range, Firefly and Quince, among others.

Drawn to the food of the American South, they researched their own recipes through travel to south Texas, New Orleans and the Low Country of the Carolinas, for their short, if complete bar menu.

Eaters at Bruno’s sign in on a clipboard when they enter, but on my visits, seats at the bar and at a long communal table with backless stools have been available. The key is to snag one of the little tables at a leather banquette along one wood paneled wall. The food here deserves a real table.

Start with hush puppies ($5), crisp little beignets of chile-flecked cornmeal that are ethereal and excitingly gritty. They come in a basket with a ramekin of apple-chile butter. A buttered doughnut? Only here.

Return to your senses with a pretty frisée salad ($6) — an oval plate of lacy greens dotted with jewels of grapefruit, orange and avocado. A mustardy vinaigrette and pistachios finish the pastiche.

Bruno’s pork and beans ($13.50), a dish prepared all over town, is the best rendition I’ve ever tasted. Served in a deep bowl, big creamy limas and defatted pork belly with a caramelized crust are united by a voluptuous sweet and sour sauce with overtones of cinnamon. A few leaves of wilted chicory add a frisson of bitterness as counterpoint.

Veggie pot pie ($12.50) also wins San Francisco’s best of show. Flaky, crisp puff pastry tops a ramekin of moist coconut rice and a full-bodied green curry of tofu and peppers. Chewy and savory, the tofu, for once, actually could be mistaken for meat, and the improbable carb combination of rice and pastry, annealed with fragrant coconut milk and green curry, becomes some higher form of food, a transcendent multicultural invention.

Exceptional house-baked buns embrace juicy, spice-rubbed, sweet-and-sour pulled pork with a hint of smokiness, dressed with cole slaw ($8.50).

You might want a side of mac ’n’ cheese ($6) — a gratin with crunchy bread-crumb topping and cheese-flecked elbows that isn’t too rich.

The star of the pork rib plate ($16) — featuring gently smoked, long, meaty bones with ideal house-made barbecue sauce on the side (these guys really have sweet and sour down) — is a rich but delicate buttermilk biscuit.

Though you have eaten well, consider a wedge of rocky-road icebox cake ($6), a thrilling and somehow light rendition of the beloved chocolate, marshmallow and walnut combo.

By the way, the bar’s Partida margarita ($13), riffs on sweet and sour with the mastery of the kitchen.

But for me, the food is the thing at Bruno’s. The handsome wood paneling on walls and ceiling keep the noise level tolerable, so I am not distracted from my beautiful dinner.

Bruno’s

Location: 2389 Mission St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 643-5200;
www.brunossf.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
Price range: $3 to $16
Recommended dishes: Pork and beans, veggie pot pie, hush puppies, pulled pork sandwich, rocky-road icebox cake
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Reservations: Accepted for parties of six or more only

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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