Eugenics has long been discredited, but there’s an appeal to the idea that heavy beer consumption could help boost overall brain performance the way predators improve the gene pool of a herd of buffalo by periodically culling the weakest members. Especially when you’re clinking a glass with a friend, that bit of pseudoscience — which comes from the insufferable know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin, from Cheers — is the animating philosophy behind Buffalo Theory, a new craft-beer-and-Filipino-food restaurant in Polk Gulch. It’s important to know that straight off, because the name otherwise sounds like it comes from the hipster business name generator (“Thimble & Oxen,” “Spigot and Daughters,” “Cold-Pressed Celiac Succulent Mixtape”), and also because it’s important to know what you’re getting into. The Polk is like a colony of the Marina, except with fewer strollers and more Kolsches.
Buffalo Theory is loud, it’s full of TVs, and it’s already commanding lengthy wait times on weeknights. The crowning objet d’art is a sculpture of a bison automaton that looks like it could roam some steampunk diorama of the High Plains. Based on nothing more than my own anecdotal observations, the people who get seated in the very front, facing the street, are the type of people likeliest to woo 20-something straight dudes off the sidewalk. Depending on your demographic profile and your mood, this is going to strike you as oppressive or convivial, but Buffalo Theory has a lot going for it beyond its Allagash-heavy beer list.
Chef Tim Luym’s menu isn’t only Filipino food, it should be noted; it’s pan-global pub food and assorted small plates, but you might call it “plurality-Filipino.” And there are plenty of good reasons to do it that way: not pigeonholing yourself, not scaring off people with limited appetites for culinary adventure, demonstrating a knack for cooking in more than one style, and because-you-felt-like-it-that’s-why. Certainly there are impressive dishes that stray far from silog territory, like the three crudos, salt-and-pepper calamari, and mushroom “fettucine.” (There are clear Asian influences all down the line, though, from five-spice in the calamari to yuzu in the fettucine.”) But by and large, the Filipino dishes are the best — and as bar bites, they mesh. Take the pica pica beef salpicao ($12), which on the first bite might feel like it’s missing something crucial — until the garlic hits you. The cubes of filet mignon, generously doused with Worcestershire, are cooked to slightly different points on the rare-medium-well spectrum, and the result is a nice melange of sears. Subtle? Not especially. But it’s honest, simple, and good.
Then there’s the sisig and grits ($12), a cure for a severe hangover (if applicable) that reminded me of the Chef’s Mess at St. Francis Fountain. It’s a pork medley with various chilies and onions over cheesy grits with the egg typically found in sisig already mixed in, and it’s a great way for an offal dish to assimilate into an American sports bar. I really wanted a vinegary hot sauce like Cholula to go with it, but a wedge of lemon did the Lord’s work all the same.
There are adobo wings (in a glaze) and adobo peanuts (shell on), but the rest of the menu roams afar. A dish of fava fabada, a stew from Asturias, Spain, that mixes beans with braised longanisa sausage ($9) was Neanderthal-meaty and enriched by the gigante beans, but it needed salt and I couldn’t detect any of the saffron, which feels like a real shame. It also suffered from a grievous crostini-stew mismatch, with only three small pieces of bread to mop the whole thing up. That’s partly because Buffalo Theory is parsimonious with the serving utensils. Sometimes you get compostable, two-pronged picks, and other times you get nothing at all. (Don’t be the type who gets too bent out of shape if you’ve ordered a number of sauce-heavy dishes to share, either, because you might have to make do for the entire meal without the plates getting swapped out.)
I associate shepherd’s pie with lame Irish bars that basically shrug their shoulders, as if to say, “Well, we have a kitchen, so this is what we’re going to make, I guess.” And I ordered it on the logical premise — which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t — that it wouldn’t be on the menu if it weren’t well thought-out. While Buffalo Theory’s version ($14) uses Japanese curry and short rib rather than flavorless lamb and ground beef, it felt like the components were prepared separately and then assembled and topped with some peas instead of being baked as one.
But the interstitial plates are almost entirely winners: kaffir-heavy meatballs with pecorino (three for $8), aranchino with panko-crusted sticky rice and Chinese sausage (two for $6.50), a hot-and-dirty lardcore grilled oysters with bacon scallion oil (two for $5.50). Even if you’re gradually backing away from pork belly, this Cebu-style inihaw ($11) comes cafeteria-style, separated from the peaches by a thatch of greens. It’s as stripped-down as pork belly comes. And if you want some crudo to give your palate a rest from all this richness, I suggest the yellowtail ($10), one of the few times in life when milder is usually better.
The other funny thing about Buffalo Theory is the pricing structure. The beer’s expensive yet the food is not; only a few dollars separates the average price between the two categories, and if you knock back a couple Allagash Curieux for $11 each you might even spend more on boozing than noshing. (Like a discriminating mimosa drinker who opts for mediocre bubbles and fresh-squeezed OJ, something about that feels very San Francisco foodie to me.) At prices this affordable, minor points about missing serving-ware and hot sauce can and should be overlooked. Or at least think about them only with the erratically blinking neurons you’re about to flush out of your brain, anyway.
Buffalo Theory 1735 Polk St.415-829-8226 or buffalotheorysf.com Hours: Sun-Thu, 5-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5 p.m. – midnight.