Since I’ve basically ceased to eat according to the precepts of of humans’ scientifically determined nutritional needs altogether, there’s no shame in admitting how much I love fried things. Fried things from the American South, in particular. There’s a lot to grapple with there, from the racially charged history of barbecue to the exact conditions under which a dish is or is not authentic, but with the possible exceptions of Lebanese and Vietnamese food — either of which is considerably more healthful — there’s no other cuisine I could choose from exclusively and still live in contentment for the rest of my (possibly drastically shortened) days.
Fried things tend to go better with alcohol than almost anything from the Eastern Mediterranean or Southeast Asia, too. So their abundance on the menu at Hazel Southern Bar & Kitchen, a communal-table filled spot that’s been open for a few months now in the Mid-Market space that was formerly Cadence, is probably a shrewd calculation.
Not everything at Hazel is terrific: The buttermilk cornbread biscuits were forgettable, the warm beet and arugula salad was flavorless and needed acid, and the desserts apart from the key-lime pie were middling. But the many dishes that are good are very good — and also better than those at almost all other sports bars. (The TV-filled Hazel is, at bottom, a sports bar, albeit one that plays more funk than most.) In a city where $200 doesn’t necessarily get one person a full chef’s tasting menu, five people can eat well there for that same amount.
Probably my favorite appetizer was a hybrid of two venerable crowd pleasers: tater tot nachos ($11). They’re more moist than crusty, almost like a potato phyllo with thicker layers — and I haven’t been so impressed with tots since I last ate at The Saratoga. I’ve never understood why people say alligator tastes like chicken, when it’s really more of a chickenfish, and Hazel’s $16 basket of gator bites was most addictive. (I like fried things, but the fried part has to be secondary to the thing part.)
Chicken wings rock my world when they’re tangy and spicy in equal measure, but without being a huge mess. That’s what you get here — and during happy hour, they’re only $8 for an order or six. Similarly, the chicken and waffles ($15) offered a nice contrast between its component halves.
Some of the heavy hitters were even better. Braised oxtail ($18) slid right off the bone in an expert fashion — and again, this is primarily a bar — and the “beef stock reduction” was closer to a gravy smothering the grits. We ordered dirty rice as a side, and it arrived as the bottom layer, imparting a tantalizing smokiness to the whole thing that I really wouldn’t want to do without. The blackened catfish ($18) was buttery and delicate, and although I wish whatever maque choux substitute was under it had more acid, it also had enough generous bits of bacon to be firmly in the “win” column.
In terms of cocktails, there’s a sweet-ish Vieux Carré and a cilantro-forward margarita and novelties like a Hurricane with a float of dark rum. There are a few things that go down even easier, like a watermelon smash made with bourbon and a couple of autumnal punches. The Sazerac, with its hint of absinthe, is the only thing that could challenge the palate. That all these are as competent as they are, with a dash of genuine creativity and a price ceiling of $11, feels like a gesture of good faith.
I have to say that I liked Cadence very much, even though its aggressively avant-garde interior was a turn-off to a lot of people — and a menu with headings such as “In the Ground or From a Stem” and “Above Ground or From the Water” was maybe a little fanciful. But with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear Mid-Market wasn’t the right fit for ambitious jumbo restaurants. The square footage is likely too vast for the space to go fast-casual, and Hazel is almost certainly the smartest possible use of the space, which remains attached to (and sharing restrooms with) the jazz bar Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio.
One caveat: It’s bro-y in there. As in, directly-across-the-street-from-Uber bro-y. I brought a small group last Saturday before we saw Goldfrapp at the Warfield, and there were drunk power-bros in jackets and loosened ties shooting pool. You almost never see neckties in San Francisco — ever — so why anybody would wear one on Saturday evening is beyond me. It’s especially off-putting when they’re shouting and chest-bumping and spilling each other’s beers and making wild gestures with their cues after they sink each ball. Even if you show up right when the doors open at 5 p.m. on a Monday, it fills up very quickly.
Operating at top volume, Hazel’s a little nuts. Even in the lounge, beneath a neon sign that says, “There’s Gonna Be Some Sad Singin’ and Some Slow Walkin’ Up in Here,” our group of five could scarcely hear one another. So I would go under at least one of the following conditions: You’re kinda drunk, you’re with friends and you want to eat well and get drunk, you’re with co-workers so you need to get drunk, you’re loud and boorish and you don’t care what anybody thinks, or you love fried food so much that you’ll do whatever it takes to get some. But unlike other game-centric bars that serve comfort food and which seem to exist solely for buy-outs and private events — SPiN, for example — Hazel is very decently priced. Is it going to run Brenda’s out of business? Not likely. But are you ever going to find a loud sports bar this fun to eat at? Nah, bro.
Hazel Southern Bar & Kitchen, 1446 Market St., 415-647-7941 or hazelsf.com