The renaissance that is edging San Francisco closer to the microbrewery mecca that is Portland is reshaping the drinking culture in outlying, industrial neighborhoods like The Bayview, The Dogpatch, and the eastern edge of Bernal Heights. Dave McLean’s Magnolia Gastropub has been on the corner of Haight and Masonic since the late ’90s, but it’s the 2-year-old Smokestack at Magnolia Brewery in the Dogpatch that feels closer to the scene’s ferment (if you will).
Similar to the slightly fancier Brasserie St. James, which I reviewed five months or so ago, there’s something ineffable about Smokestack’s vibe that makes me very happy to be there, and eager to linger after I’m done eating. (Biking home uphill into the fog is always a deterrent against leaving, but Smokestack is also just an attractive space, a machine engineered to optimize contentment.) I’ve been four times and like it more after each visit.
That’s not to say that everything is perfect; rather, it’s a roundabout confession of my biases. I like meat and beer in a well-designed interior, period, and that combination can make me overlook a number of little dents and dings. Opening chef Dennis Lee exited in February, and after Brandon Korf took over last month, he made a few additions to Smokestack’s barbecued core — namely sandwiches, salads, and a small happy hour menu, the most significant bullet point on which is the near-mandatory barbecued oysters at $1.50 each.
But it’s the barbecue that will likely always be the main draw, especially as the sandwiches are, for the most part, permutations of the meats and sides. (There are extras, here and there: The sausage sandwich has pimento cheese, for instance.) Beer is a close second, naturally, but if that’s all you’re really after, the Haight is probably easier to get to — plus there’s a new menu at the mothership, too, put together by Freedom Rains of Belga and David Bazirgan (formerly of Dirty Habit, and now a Bostonian).
At Smokestack, a combo platter with two sides is $14 for one meat, $19 for two, and $24 for three, a scheme which represents a good deal if your main criterion is variety and less of a good deal if you’re looking to stuff yourself. Particularly if you’re sharing with a hungry buddy, a bit of daintiness that’s unbecoming of barbecue is required lest you scoop up the entire portion of brisket in one go.
Speaking of brisket, it and the Thai chili-cheddar pork sausage are the meats to beat. Ribs are a close second, as is the chicken — available by the quarter, half, and full bird — but in my opinion, pastrami is a meat best kept between two slices of bread. Chopped pork, too, can feel odd in isolation, but on two occasions, it was the tri-trip that was most lacking: Dry and crackly on one visit, the smoke was awful thin on another. But of the three sauces on the table — vinegar, barbecue, and mustard — the first two will help clear that up.
And the sides can be magical. Like the heel of a baguette or the edges of a pan of brownies, the burnt ends of a brisket can be the best part, and Smokestack’s burnt ends baked beans are flavorful as hell and stew-like in their thickness. I’m a fan of summer succotash and German potato salad with bacon, but the tangy-bitter collard greens were better than either, and the Texas caviar (a vinegary salad of black-eyed peas, corn kernels, onions, and peppers) complemented the meat best of all. Mac ‘n’ cheese, here crusted with panko, ties the brisket for fatty goodness.
The sins the kitchen commits are mostly sins of omission. It’s hard to argue with a side of pickles, especially when it sets you back two bucks, but I wish the pickles that accompanied the combo plate were actual pickled cucumbers and not crescents of red onion with stingy sections of celery. And the bourbon-pickled Fresno chilis, however beautiful, were disappointingly mild. Dessert, too, needs some love. There are only two choices: a perfectly fine $6 banana cream pudding and a $4 salted chocolate chip cookie that I ordered out of morbid curiosity over its size. (It’s not big, although it’s good.) Dessert is a load-bearing wall in the South, and pecan pie or blackberry cobbler would really spackle up that hole.
Then there’s the booze. Smokestack’s cocktails are ambitious, if a little overblown. Savor an Annie’s Palm ($12) with enough focus and you can tease out the lemongrass and the ginger from the cardamom and the tarragon, but the Dutchman’s Flat (rye, beef bouillon-infused ginger syrup, honey, lemon, JT bitters, and toasted nori $12) was basically a cold, foamy version of a hot toddy with ginger and a fleck of seaweed. You have to appreciate that a brewery went to such lengths, but with such a broad-tasting menu it’s hard not to gravitate back to the joint’s raison d’etre: beer. Smokestack has well over a dozen taps, and some of Magnolia’s newer offerings — Kalifornia Kolsch, say, or the Workingman’s Ale, a proper English ale — have the makings of classics in the vein of the Proving Ground IPA. I had at least six or eight beers, including every IPA, and for what it’s worth, they all pair well with the barbecued oysters. One thing I neglected to sample but which is nonetheless well-worth noting is the Special Whiskey Flight ($24), a trifecta of Four Roses, Henry McKenna, and Smooth Amber that makes the existence of an Old Fashioned mixed with bottom-shelf Evan Williams slightly mystifying.
The Dogpatch is full of brand-new condos, but it’s also got some of the oldest extant houses in the city, wood-frame construction that predates the 1906 earthquake. Smokestack’s interior is meant to feel that old, and pulls of a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland look, with aged patinas, a missing ceiling and a suicide door marked “Dictating.” It looks like a warped saloon, without looking like a movie-set version of a warped saloon. It’s pleasant when sparsely populated, but better when full.
Beyond aesthetics, the adjusted layout is smoother — you can order a drink at the food station and it will show up at your table via the bar, which wasn’t always the case — and the house protocol declares some helpful hints about where you can ensconce yourself, like “More room on our brewery dock (sometimes)” as well as more general axioms for daily living like “Work together with friends & neighbors and you will survive.” But survival is for the fittest; we prefer barbecue and beer.
Smokestack at Magnolia Brewery 2505 Third St. 415-864-7468 or magnoliasmokestack.com Hours: Sun-Thu, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.