By Virginia Miller
Charles Phan’s South at SFJAZZ just did a major gear shift — from Cajun cuisine to Mexican food — complete with new chef Rymee Trobaugh. The cocktail list has also made the appropriate shift to rum-, tequila- and mezcal-centric drinks. The space doesn’t look dramatically different but the approach certainly is. We’re already lucky to have the one-of-a-kind SFJAZZ concert hall in our backyard. It’s even better now with a pre- or post-show drink of this quality. Trobaugh worked for years at Zuni Cafe and he pours his partial Mexican heritage into all of the dishes, priced between $5 and $19. We tasted through the entire cocktail menu and a good portion of the food menu to bring you these early recommendations.
Eat This: While we enjoyed flores de calabaza rellenas (squash blossoms stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta and accented with salsa de aguacate) and found the pickled pasilla relleno stuffed with sardines and potatoes an interesting and different take on a stuffed pepper, we were most impressed by the small-portioned, unique clam ceviche. The clams (pictured top) are bright and cool, laced with sour orange, habanero, yellow beets, onion and oregano. It’s original, though a small portion, and served with round tortilla chips.
Our favorite initial entree is the puerco (pork from a pot-bellied pig). It’s juicy and gratifying in salsa verde, mixed with turnips, piquinto beans and pickled onions. As mole fans, we couldn’t resist the rabbit in a red, tomato-based mole, dotted with masa dumplings, Swiss chard and carrots. It’s savory, sweet and subtly spiced. Another pleasing dish is fideo seco, a delicate, comforting noodle dish akin to fideo dishes in Spain. This version is fresh and light, subtly cooked with moronga (blood sausage) and marked by mint, fava beans and cotija cheese. For dessert, pastel de tres leches is a fluffy yet moist cake with a winning layer of horchata rice pudding, marked by summer berries.
Drink This: There’s a thoughtful selection of wines and beers, but let’s talk cocktails. Phan’s longtime bar director Erik Adkins has lined up another winning collection of rare and delightful cocktail classics or twists on classics ($11 each) — many of them from Charles H. Baker books, a key cocktail guru of the 1930s and beyond. The list is heavy on rum, tequila and mezcal. As pictured above, there are a few cocktails on crushed ice that go beautifully with these recent warm evenings, including a Chi Chi, a blend of local Hangar 1 Vodka, fresh-pressed pineapple juice and lime, taken to the next level with the house coconut cream. On crushed ice, we particularly enjoy the juicy smoke of Oaxacan Firing Squad, a twist on Baker’s classic Mexican Firing Squad, combining Herencia Blanco Tequila, mezcal, lime, grenadine and Angostura bitters.
On the booze-forward side, South American Anejo Candido, a 1939 Baker recipe, is lush with Pampero Aniversario Rum, made even more silky with lime oil and sugar over hand-cut ice. Perhaps our favorite drink is the most straightforward: Tequila Special. Mixing Herencia Blanco Tequila, lime, orange bitters and sugar with a splash of soda, it’s a combination modeled after a 1937 Baker recipe, but in those days was likely mixed with a lot more soda for a watered-down effect. Adkins keeps the soda in tight balance, adding just enough to equal the dilution that might come from having a margarita on the rocks. This way, you get all the bright, boozy effects of a gorgeous margarita, with a touch of sparkle from the soda, without feeling as if the drink is diluted. Thank you, sir, we’ll have another.